What is Modernity for Animals and Us?

By Dr. Susan Nance

When did animals become modern? When did humanness, defined in relationship to animals, become equally modern?

Here is perhaps one moment in the transition. While people in the Western world were living through the transformation to modernity—through integration into globalized industrial and trade networks, mature nationhood, a cultural emphasis on consumption and personality, the birth of cinema, streamlined architecture or what-have-you—for many, being a modern individual included an ethos of caring about the experiences of captive wild animals (Burt 2002: 35-36; Kean 1998: 31; Lippit 2002). To be fully modern and human was to be humane toward species that many people had long perceived as enemies. It was to see wild animals as sentient and subject to the advancements of modernity—just as people were.

Enter the “scientific” wild animal trainer. Emerging in circuses, animal parks, and carnival shows beginning in the 1880s, he was an outspoken reformer and also showman, self-promoter,and brash exploiter of exotic animals. Especially in Europe and Britain, trainers like Frank Bostock, Carl Hagenbeck, and August Kober would insist that “we have no need of any society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, because the circus or menagerie animal is just as much a comrade as the human performer” (Kober 1931: 18). So would Carl Hagenbeck claim he could “educate” lions, bears, cougars, tigers, and elephants because he employed patient repetition and positive reinforcement in training. He also claimed—and Scientific American magazine praised him for it—not to require his trainees to perform any movement that was not “natural” to them (Shiestone 1902).

These men had limited understandings of the breadth or function of species-typical behaviors for their animals because, at the time, most wild animals had yet to be systematically observed in the wild. Nonetheless, they had a point in that the “old” mode of animal training (still widely practiced then and today with large exotics) was a stick-then-carrot approach that involved harsh physical punishment of animals followed by food rewards for successfully following direction. As the argument went, 19th century animal wranglers who boasted of thus using “brutality” in dominance training with elephants, tigers, or bears were subjective, inefficient, and unmanly relics of the dark past. Their animal trainees became belligerent and maddened not because inherently imperfect (as many argued about exotic wild animals at the time), but because imperfectly educated.

The animal trainer who relied on “science” and “kindness” was a superior human and man: rational, systematically observant, and patient in his manipulations of animal behavior. He was, in short, modern. Still, many traditional animal trainers complained that “kindness” trainers admitted  nonetheless to using force “in cases of gross disobedience,” striking and tying down animal “pupils” as a demonstration to them of “trainer’s firmness” (Bostock 1913: 233; Joys 1983: 19). In fact, the change to the “new” training was a matter of degree not kind in the use of physical coercion of captive animals, and its and our modernity is still hotly debated.


Dr. Susan Nance is Associate Professor of History and affiliated faculty with the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph.


Image 1: “Bostock’s Trained Animals—An Affectionate Bear,” 1903. LC-USZ62-15899, Photographs and Prints Division, Library of Congress.

Image 2: “Bostock’s Trained Lions,” Hall photographer, 1903. LC-USZ62-15898, Photographs and Prints Division, Library of Congress.


Bostock, Frank Chares. The Training of Wild Animals. New York: Century Company, 1913.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Joys, Joanne Carol. The Wild Animal Trainer in America. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1983.

Kean, Hilda. Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800. London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

Kober, August Heinrich. Circus Nights and Circus Days: Extracts from the Diary of a Circus Man. New York: W. Morrow Co., 1931.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. “The Death of an Animal.” Film Quarterly 56, no. 1 (December 2002): 9-22.

Shiestone, Harold J. “The Scientific Training of Wild Animals” Scientific American. (October 1902): 260.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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