Tag Archives: animals

Updates at the New Performing Humanity

Screen Shot 2012-06-07 at 6.42.09 PMHaven’t had a chance to swing by Performing Humanity’s new location? Here’s a peek into what we’ve been up to:

History Carnival 141: A New Year in History (January 2015)

Staging Animal Bodies (December 2014)

Animal Studies, Blockbuster Edition II: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (November 2014)

Animal Studies, Blockbuster Edition I: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (October 2014)


Reason, Compassion, and Humanness in the Animal World

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

During the Renaissance, debates raged about the necessary properties that defined humanness and human superiority.  For some, including Jean Bodin, “the real essence of a human being…was not physical form, but the rational faculty.”  While such a position sat in line with humanism, which privileged human interiority and cogita, Bodin’s assertions did not sit well with all.  Contemporaries such as Reginald Scot claimed that the separation of humanness from human physicality might too broadly construe humanness, allowing us to locate examples of animal reason that would suggest “euerie asse, woolfe, or cat that we see, were a man, a woman, or a child” (in Fudge 53).

More recently, philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued that there is, in fact, no essential property that elevates humans above non-human animals.  Indeed, humanness is merely a species condition the same as an animal’s being labeled as feline or canine.  Drawing on utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s ethical assertion that a being’s ethical value emerges from its ability to suffer, animal rights philosophers and activists suggest that the choice to rescue a child or a chicken from drowning should not rest on the creature’s species, but on the level at which it would experience distress and suffering.

Not confined to the halls of academe, these philosophical discussions persist in daily life as well.  “Compassion,” so often considered synonymous with “humanity,” has been called to question each time a news story emerges in which witnesses to a crime video or tweet updates during its commission, failing in the process to stop and render aid to a human victim.  Only one of many examples was a recent convenience store stabbing in Wichita, Kansas: as 27 year old stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway laid dying of internal bleeding, 5 shoppers stood by. According to the local police chief, “she lay on the floor while people continued to do their shopping […] They’re taking photographs.”  Another account stated that a witness  “step[ped] over the body to reach the snack food display near the counter” (Todd).

How are our assumptions about human superiority and human compassion troubled or broadened when we find greater reason or sympathy among non-human animals?  In a recent video released on YouTube, for example, a young goat falls into a petting-zoo pond and begins to drown. Behind the camera, a man consistently comments, “Goat in the water, goat in the water” while continuing to film.  At no point do any zoo staff or visitors attempt to aid the struggling kid.  Yet the kid does not ultimately drown: from the right corner of the screen, a pig appears and purposefully swims into the water and nudges the goat to shore and safety.  The same unhelpful cameraman from early in the video acknowledges the amazing thing that he’s witnessed, dubbing the rescuer a “hero pig.” 

Such a moment of cross-species aid draws attentions to the failures of the humans observing a creature in pain—a creature different from themselves and potentially less deserving of their own efforts or inconveniences.  How does such an example of compassion, of problem-solving—of so-called “humane” or “human” qualities—function for us?  How does it differ from other moments when animals rescue animals within their own species or families, inspiring our awe because they are “like us” in their affections or biologically instinctual drives?  It seems that an instance like that of the petting zoo brings an interesting contrast and blurs boundaries in crucial ways.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of early modern literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book manuscript examines Renaissance drama and women’s silent authorial performances in England.


 Images: Jean Francois Largot, “Lioness Saves Cub” (Mail Online, 26 September, 2011).  Screenshot from “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.”

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals (University of Illinois Press, 2002).

‪jebdogrpm. “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.” (YouTube, 19 September, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7WjrvG1GMk&feature=autoplay&list=ULg7WjrvG1GMk&playnext=1.

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Classics, 2009).

David Todd, “People Snapped Pictures But did not Assist a Dying Woman. Could they be Charged with Failing to Render Aid?” David Todd Law Letter (davidtoddlaw.com/library).

Defining Animals through the Law

By Sarah N.

In order to better understand the significance of animal trials, we must grapple with what it means to be an “animal” versus a “human.” Does the word animal refer to an entity that is controlled by its human owner? Is an animal a creature without a voice or free will? Is an animal merely a pawn in a relentless struggle for power and dominance?


Despite Christian doctrine that suggested animals lack free will and souls, the law would still convict animals under the assumption that they possessed human characteristics. Religious beliefs complicated the motivations behind animal trials. When animals of the Renaissance were convicted of crimes, it was “both in a moral and a juridical sense—thus implying their free will” (Dinzelbacher 405). In addition to suggesting that animals have free will, the conviction of animals supposed that they were capable of understanding human speech; this was a complete contradiction to the typical Renaissance human’s perception of animal capabilities (Dinzelbacher 405).

The people of the Renaissance also conducted animal trials to assert dominance over animals, while using them as a pawn for power and control (Elvin 531). The main purpose of trials during the Renaissance was to condemn “deviance” or “wrong-doing,” while simultaneously giving animals a voice, implying that animals do indeed have the freewill needed to commit a crime, recognize their action as a crime, and understand the punishment for their discretions (Elvin 535).

Even today, humans are still concerned with defining what it means to be an animal. Modern day laws pertaining to animals suggest that humans are still deeply concerned with asserting superiority over animals, while at the same time attempting to define animals via the use of what would typically be considered “human” characteristics. One specific animal rights law even suggests that animals should have the right to own property because “To be living property is also to have the legal capacity to own other property” (Favre 1068). Within this statement, humans are once again asserting their power by defining animals as “owned property” (Favre 1068).

Throughout my research of animal trials of the Renaissance and modern laws, it is clear that a power struggle between humans and animals exists. The need for humans to assert their dominance over animals has resulted in the instigation of trials and laws pertaining to the definition of an “animal” and what this means for their status within the legal system. As humans of the past and present struggle, to define what the word “animal” truly means, they have and continue to inadvertently give a voice and power to the creatures that they wish to control.


Image: Alciato, Andrea. “Bear, and Forbear.”  Alciato’s Book of Emblems: The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English (1531). Web. 24 April 2012.

Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials: A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.3 (2012): 405-421.

Elvin, Jesse. “Responsibility, ‘Bad Luck’, and Delinquent Animals: Law as a Means of Explaining Tragedy.” Journal of Criminal Law 73.6 (2009): 530-558.

Favre, David. “Living Property: A New Status for Animals within the Legal System.” Marquette LawReview 93.3 (2010): 1021-1171.

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