Elephant Attacks and the Dead End of Domestication


Not all animals are equally vulnerable to the process of domestication by humans. Indeed, very few species have fallen victim to such a thorough and decisive degree of domination. To be domesticated is to have reached the point of no return. There is but little hope for any meaningful resistance emerging from the barnyard or the slaughterhouse. There are accidents and there are injuries but not necessarily much in the way of resistance.

Even if such resistance was possible and even if it proved to be successful there is often no place for domesticated animals to go after their liberation; in many cases, their best case scenario will often be a sanctuary where individual animals could hopefully live in relative comfort until their death. Indeed, until their extinction.

Long before assuming his current role as wealthy CEO for the animal welfare behemoth HSUS, Wayne Pacelle described the goal as “one generation and out” explaining that he had “no problem with the extinction of domestic animals.” [1] It is perhaps uninspiring rhetoric but it speaks clearly to the irreversible dead-end nature of domestication. Gary Francione, no fan of Pacelle, has made similar comments: “Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability”.

It should not be surprising that in Jason Hribal’s book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, references to domesticated species such cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats are scarce. In contrast two of the book’s four chapters are dedicated to resistance efforts carried out by elephants. One chapter focuses on circuses and the other on zoos; in both settings escapes are made and the animals’ tormentors are attacked.

Jared Diamond has pointed out that “Elephants have been tamed, but never domesticated.” [2]

It is a critical distinction because tame animals are often only tame until they’re not; the potential for violent resistance is ever present and quite often realized. These are animals who have been torn from the wild, having family ties severed, often beaten into submission, and then expected to slave away for the profit of their human captors. Sometimes they snap. They aren’t domesticated.

But even wild animals are not beyond the reach of civilization. They are well within striking distance and this makes both sides of the conflict vulnerable. Often portrayed as the embodiment of freedom, living in pristine landscape, wild animals routinely have their water supplies poisoned, their food adulterated, their habitat stolen or destroyed, and increasingly they suffer the effects of a changing climate. Industrial pollutants are found in the very bodies of even the most remote animals. And so it should not be surprising that wild animals—particularly wild elephants—are actively resisting a continually encroaching, continually threatening civilization.

Recent high profile incidents in West Bengal, India have shined a light on the frequency of deadly human-elephant conflicts. This past March, five people died in the course of two separate incidents. In one incident five wild elephants attacked two farmers killing one of them by effortlessly tossing him into the air and then trampling him to death. In the other incident three elephants attacked four people and quickly killed all four. These incidents gained a lot of attention in part because they happened within the span of two days and in part because one incident was captured on video. But such attacks are surprisingly frequent and routinely deadly.

In 2013, Harper’s Magazine reported that 400 people are killed every year by wild elephants in India (100 elephants also die or are killed). Deforestation and urbanization are routinely cited as the principal causes for these violent confrontations between humans and elephants meaning that humans are clearly the original aggressors in the dispute. That being the case, there is little reason to expect the death toll to slow down or the number of such incidents to wane. The economy of India is expanding at a rapid pace—in 2015 the economy expanded more rapidly than China’s—meaning the the forces provoking elephants are apt to get even more severe.

To conclude on an anthropocentric note, it may be worth asking: what might all this mean for us? To assess the prospects of civilized human beings, it may be worth considering whether we more closely resemble those beings who have already been domesticated and are thus without much hope for anything greater than a gentle escape from a world in which we don’t fit or, instead, those who are merely temporarily tamed, abused but still capable of hitting back. Like elephants, the forces impinging on us continue to get more intense. If there is any wildness left in us it will be made evident when we escape this cage.

[1] Animal People News May 1993

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1999), p 159


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