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

Domesticated Animals & Us

Note: This article first appeared in the current issue of Fifth Estate (#391 Fall/Winter 2014)

creatures of empire

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp., $19.95 paperback



Civilization is a lie. Its images mask violence and its logic is that of genocide. Even the most banal scene of grazing cattle, while seemingly serene, portrays a weapon a war.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire is an important work for many reasons. It restores agency to domesticated animals and recognizes their vital role in a key period of American history; by recognizing the role of livestock Anderson’s work contributes to a more complete understanding of the European invasion of North America. It also provides a compelling case study of how civilization has been spread and genocide carried out; while tactics may have shifted according to convenience and circumstance, the goal was always to eliminate Indians as such either by transforming individuals into pseudo-English Christians or simply through physical removal and extermination.

Anderson focuses on seventeenth-century releations between English colonists and two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians: Indians of southern New England and Indians of the Chesapeake region of colonial America. Animals—both wild and domestic—often served as the intermediaries between colonists and Indians prompting both short-term cooperative efforts to minimize disputes as well as intense violence. Animals became tertiary targets of violence often being killed simply to send a message from one group to another. Anderson argues that toward the end of the seventeenth-century the fact “that animals could help incite a war between human combatants was eminently clear” (p. 232).

Even before direct contact between colonists and Indians, the two groups often encountered animals that would challenge their conventional understandings of human-animal relations. Indians would encounter domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs brought by colonists from Europe; animals that were deemed property. For people with a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the landscape, encounters with unfamiliar animals must have been incredibly shocking. Furthermore, virtually all animals in the Indians’ experience were wild and no living animal was considered an individual’s property. Likewise, colonists would encounter wild animals who would prey on their livestock, destroy their crops, and generally make highly-controlled, English-style agriculture close to impossible.

Both groups—colonists and Indians—would regularly encounter feral animals that blurred conceptual categories. For Indians, feral livestock most closely resembled wild animals that could legitimately be hunted. And yet to the English, “livestock could no more become [wild] than colonists could become Indians” (p. 138). For the English, any animal that was deemed property would necessarily always be property regardless of how far the animal wandered or uncared for the animal was; any resemblance to a wild animal was superficial and for another to kill that animal would invite harsh sanction.

Initially, when Indians were in a dominant position and colonists were simply struggling to survive, the colonists’ civilizing agenda took a superficially cooperative or ideological approach. It was not only prudent to preserve peaceful relations with valuable trading partners but the English believed that they could distinguish themselves from Spain by adoption of “an ideological approach [to colonization] that advertised their nation’s moral superiority (p. 78). It would be a way to make up for the fact that Spain was farther ahead of England in the race to secure colonies.

Furthermore, “[c]olonists took it for granted that Indians would recognize the superiority of an English agrarian regime once they saw how it worked,” and so violence may not even be necessary (p. 171). The effort was not only to turn Indians into sedentary agrarians but into Christians as well. For the English, owning livestock was strongly invested with a normative component; indeed, it was deemed a hallmark of civilization. The fact that native populations had failed to domesticate animals was considered clear evidence of a serious deficiency on their part. To English eyes, the landscape was made for livestock and awaiting improvement. But in fact, as Anderson points out, there was little benefit to be gained from domestication and the species on the North American continent were not of the sort that would readily submit to domestication.

This “ideological approach” was evident when in 1656 the Virginia colony adopted a policy of rewarding Indians who killed a sufficient number of wolves by giving them a cow. The heads of eight wolves could be exchanged for one cow. It was a plan intended to eliminate wolves which threatened English livestock while simultaneously introducing the concept of livestock ownership to native peoples. Similarly, an effort in Rhode Island involved taxing colonists’ cattle to raise funds to assist Indians in building fences around their cornfields. This was to minimize disputes involving animal intrusions while shifting the burden onto Indians rather than animal owners. Once fences were built, Indians would be required to maintain them if they were to have their grievances heard and be considered for compensation.

But by the middle of the seventeeth century, the civilizing agenda shifted from a strategy of assimilation to outright aggression and “depredations against livestock came to be seen as…acts of war” (p. 178). The fences that Indians were pressured into building were on several occassions burnt down by colonists who then proceeded to let their cattle roam through Indian cornfields; “roaming livestock acted as the advance guard of English settlement.” (p. 243) It was thought that such routine harassment could compel Indians to simply leave and cede the land to colonists. Disputes that would have previously been treated as delicate diplomatic issues to be navigated with caution—when the colonists were weak—were now simply regarded as a matters of law enforcement and handled with force.

Anderson’s concludes by saying that “livestock enabled the English to extend their dominion over the New World with remarkable speed and thoroughness” (p. 242). Livestock would advance, Indians would retreat, colonists would move in, and then the process would repeat itself as many times as necessary.

For anyone looking to better understand the specific mechanisms by which civilization encroaches and genocide is carried out, Anderson’s Creatures of Empire should be treated as required reading.

Veganism’s Industrial Infrastructure

“I feel that the technology problem is the source of Animal and Earth degradation. If there was no industry and computer tech, even if everyone hunted and ate Animals, 99% of the Animal abuse and murder that exists today would be gone!”
-ALF prisoner Walter Bond, May 2014*

What if the very infrastructure necessary for widespread veganism is itself a threat to the well-being of nonhuman animals? Might the best of all possible worlds be a less-than-vegan world?

Industrial infrastructure may make veganism possible for a wider range of people than it would otherwise be and yet it almost necessarily will claim the lives of a great number animals. The factories producing tofurky jerky and soy ice cream will be located on land that was once habitat; parking lots will replace forests. Refrigerated trucks transporting fresh produce will require a massive interstate system and will foul the air that all life—human and nonhuman—depends on.

If we think of veganism as more than a diet—as many will quite fairly insist upon—the problem grows more severe. Synthetic materials for vegan clothing often rely on fossil fuels and we thus have a need for drilling, refinement, global shipping, and the whole climate changing operation that we currently live (and die) with.  Every step of the way is going to degrade and cut short the lives of animals.

Many, including Peter Singer and PETA, have put their hopes of widespread veganism in the prospect of in vitro meat and yet to accept this is to accept vivisection. There are also hopes for lab grown leather and lab grown cow’s milk which on the surface eliminate animal suffering but are deeply intertwined with the industrial system that is antithetical to animal flourishing.

The mainstream animal rights movement—like mainstream society generally—anticipates technology solving the problems that concern them rather than amplifying problems. This expectation is an article of faith and therefore unthreatened by existing evidence. A much younger Wayne Pacelle is quoted in Ted Kerasote’s book Bloodties as saying:

“I…believe in interstate transfer of food items. I believe in providing that food to people in other regions where it cannot be locally produced. My ethic is not a local food production ethic. It’s an interlocal, interstate, and perhaps an international system of food distribution to allow people to tread lightly on the planet, and it should be a food production system that is as energy efficient as possible, and hopefully one day it will be an energy-based system that’s not based on fossil fuels.” (255)

Pacelle is endorsing a global food system and with it mass society; he can only hope that “one day” the problems associated with such a system will be overcome in some currently inconceivable way. Transitioning from fossil fuels, to say wind or solar, is still going require intense environmental degradation including the mining of rare earth metals.

Closer to the present, vegan author James McWilliams has written and article titled “The Future is in Plastics, Son: Technology and Veganism” in which he argues:

 “should vegans want a future in which the world’s population has a steady access to wide diversity of plant-based foods, it will require…an expansion of food miles and advanced plant biotechnology”

I would agree with this point but where I see domestication and industrialization as the most basic threats to animals, McWilliams evidently sees them as exciting paths forward.

Does this mean the veganism is a mistake?

My belief is that for myself, and people who are similarly situated, veganism remains morally obligatory. I feel it is the most defensible option in my particular time and place. The mistake would be extrapolating from one’s own particular time and place to the universal claim that veganism is obligatory to all people and at all times. Ethical vegans, that is vegans motivated by concern for animals as opposed to simply health concerns or celebrity endorsements, tend to extrapolate in this fashion—possibly making exceptions for those notorious desert-island castaways that are so frequently posited in discussions of veganism.

Exceptions are also sometimes made for indigenous communities with food cultures that are not vegan but this is less often a principled exception than it is a strategic, face-saving concession granted for the purpose of avoiding an even more difficult conversation.

But in any case, it does not seem that veganism will be possible for all people in all bioregions given a minimally disruptive level of technological development. To push for greater levels of development may be to spread veganism but simultaneously harm animals.


To safeguard animals from the systematic aggression and encroachment of humanity we need to dismantle existing industrial infrastructure, sabotage ongoing projects, and prevent future development.  Paradoxically, these vitally important actions may make veganism less feasible than it currently is for many people. But veganism is a means to an end; the end is animal liberation. As is so often the case, the means sometimes get confused for the end.  The means may vary even while the goal remains unchanged.

Veganism is potentially appealing because it is an intellectually easy answer; it forgoes nuance in favor of clearly defined lines. Clearly defined lines are helpful especially when nuance is apt to generate confusion or mask self-interest but occasionally those lines need to be reassessed. Veganism is not always possible, not always necessary, and never sufficient.


*Private communication via email. May 13, 2014. Shared with permission.



A World Without Domesticated Animals: Veganism’s Endpoint

“There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild; and humans were few.” –Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

After my recent post on Rod Coronado, it occurred to me that part of the reason that Coronado is not universally embraced by the animal rights movement is that his efforts have largely been on behalf of wild animals and that the interests of wild animals are not given a significant amount of attention by those in the AR movement. Consequently, efforts on behalf of wild animals do not count for as much within the movement.

The fate of domesticated animals clearly dominates within the movement with anti-hunting campaigns probably being the most notable exception. Yet I would suspect that hunting is generally not the greatest threat to wild animals; I would suspect that parking lots, shopping malls, subdivisions, and agriculture represent significantly greater threats.

At first glance, this emphasis on domesticated animals (and animals raised for food even moreso) may appear to make sense.  Domesticated animals certainly appear to be the primary victims of human exploitation.  Every aspect of their lives from birth to death is dictated by human interests.  The very fact that they are domesticated means that they have been manipulated in profound ways; ways that are generally to their detriment such as by being bred to gain weight at an incredible pace or to have aesthetic features that score well in dog shows but may inhibit natural functions such as breathing. In contrast, wild animals clearly do not face the same degree of confinement, do not have their food so severely adulterated, and can seemingly live in the social arrangements natural for their species.  Furthermore, much of the harm suffered by wild animals—such as predation—does not appear to be at the hands of humans and therefore may not motivate human intervention.

But the over-emphasis on domesticated animals is problematic in part because, at least from my perspective, one goal of the animals rights movement needs to be a world without domesticated animals…that is a world with no cats, no dogs, no cows, no chickens, no mail order catalogs full of genetically manipulated mice available for purchase.  This is part of the vision that should not be shyed away from even if it is counterintuitive or unpalatable to the general population. Despite the slogans printed on t-shirts, the lives of animals are not saved by your decision to go vegan.  When somone adopts a vegan diet, there is no truck that transports a fixed number of animals from factory farm to idyllic sanctuary. The decision to go vegan, at best, saves animals from the fate of ever being born (which is no small thing given that, at present, domesticated animals are born into an “eternal Treblinka”).

Ignoring wild animals creates a situation where people participate in the movement with no long term goal other than perhaps universal veganism or an end to a particular variety of exploitation.  And the tactics adopted may be counterproductive.  Tactics need to be consistent with or at least not contrary to a world without domesticated animals.  Furthermore, an explicitly anti-domestication position also creates the possibility for much-needed alliances with radical environmentalists, green anarchists, and those engaged in indigenous struggles.

“[T]he driving back of the human species to pre-invasion boundaries,” as Ronnie Lee says, needs to be a priority.  This means that as a defensive measure, habitat preservation needs to be a priority and, as an offensive measure, human claimed terrain needs to be returned to the animals who once occupied it.  Too often, matters of habitat preservation are left  for environmentalists to address on their own as if an animal could be severed from her environment without being harmed in the process.  The current activist division of labor that puts individual animals (primarily domesticated animals) within the sphere of the animal rights movement and habitat preservation (and species level interests) within the sphere of environmentalists is dysfunctional.

As a final point, I would extend the idea of no domesticated animals even further–probably leaving the AR movement at this point–and suggest that the vision to pursue is one where even humans are no longer domesticated animals but are once again themselves wild.




Animals Made to Order

Jackson Laboratory entranceThere is a scale of violence that can only be achieved by a civilized society.

Free people with simple tools are just not adequate for the realization of some tasks.  Warriors can only do so much without the support of bureaucrats and the tip of a spear cannot reach as far as a predator drone.

Most helpful to achieve certain levels of violence is rigid hierarchy, wage or slave labor, complex technology, standardization, mass society, and a cool distance (physical or psychological) between assailant and victim.  In short: people need to show up for work and the trains need to run on time.  To the extent that these things are missing, the scale of violence will almost necessarily be diminished.

Enter Jackson Laboratory.  They have achieved a scale of ongoing violence that is difficult to conceive.  They provide a key part of the infrastructure of the animal experimentation industry.

A staggering number of the mice who fill the cages in animal laboratories around the world originate from JAX Mice & Services, a division of Jackson Laboratory based in Bar Harbor, Maine (with additional locations in Sacramento, California and Farmington, Connecticut).  Approximately two-thirds of Jackson Laboratory’s $214 million 2011 operating budget was dedicated to JAX Mice & Services.  From June 2010 through May 2011, JAX Mice distributed over 3 million mice to more than 900 institutions in 56 different countries. And more than 1 million live mice are held at the Bar Harbor headquarters.

But as The Connecticut Mirror has explained:

“[t]hese aren’t just any mice. These are the product of a sophisticated, highly controlled and protected mouse-breeding operation.  They live in rooms designed to be impenetrable to the smallest unwelcome microbes, in cages stacked floor-to-ceiling and supplied with filtered air that changes once a minute. They’re cared for by handlers wearing protective suits, who know their inbred charges so well they can spot a potential genetic mutation that even a biologist might not notice.”

JAX Mice has over 7000 different genetic strains of mouse available for purchase by animal experimenters around the world.  Many of the varieties have been bred specifically to exhibit particular pathologies or to develop various diseases.  The “features”—or more accurately, ailments—of each genetic strain can be found by using the extensive JAX Mice online database.  Using their advanced search, one can search for mice by “phenotype of interest” or “human disease of interest.”  Their database can also be searched by “disease term


Stock Number: 000646
“It is highly susceptible to cortisone-induced congenital cleft palate. It has a high incidence of spontaneous lung adenomas, and lung tumors readily develop in response to carcinogens.”

To begin to understand the full scope of what JAX Mice offers it is worth taking some time to explore their database.  Here are a few examples of what can be found with even minimal effort:

  • If you were looking for mice who would develop tumors with unusual frequency you would have over 200 strains from which to choose.  You could then decide that your preference is for muscular tumors, skeletal tumors, tumors that develop on the eye, tumors that develop in the urinary system, the respiratory system, or the reproductive system.
  • You can find mice with heads that are of an abnormal shape or size.
  • You can find mice who have been bred to be obese.
  • You can find mice who suffer from paralysis and can select a strain with either front or hindlimb paralysis.
  • There are mice who age and/or die prematurely.
  • There are mice who suffer from a very wide range of eye abnormalities.
  • There are mice with abnormally high or abnormally low pain thresholds

Every one of these conditions—and countless others—is a deliberately inflicted injury.  The people at Jackson Laboratory are literally selecting for illness; breeding for disease and pathology.   They may often speak of finding cures but their routine activity is the deliberate imposition of suffering on millions of individual animals.  Furthermore, this suffering is generally amplified once the mice arrive at their final destination and are used in experiments at other institutions which can be highly invasive and most often deadly.

So those are some of the mice…but what about the services referenced in JAX Mice & Services name?  If mice are the raw material, services may be said to provide the “value added” portion of their operation.

The JAX Mice site has a page titled “JAX Surgical & Preconditioning Services”.  Experimenters can order mice with diet induced obesity, mice of various ages, and/or pregnant mice timed to deliver pups after being sent through the mail.

There are also various surgical procedures that mice may be subjected to prior to being shipped out.  There is a lengthy list of “standard surgeries” they will perform for a set fee.  They are willing to remove various organs, insert microchips, or do a brain cannulation.  The brain cannulation procedure is described on their site as follows:

The cannula implanted in mice consists of a guide cannula and a dummy cannula. The guide cannula is placed into the brain at predetermined coordinates through a hole drilled in the skull. The dummy cannula consists of a cap that screws onto the guide cannula and has a stylet that inserts into the guide cannula to prevent materials from entering it when it’s not being used.

brain cannulation

Brain cannulation

JAX Mice & Services boasts that: “We can age JAX Mice to display one or more of a variety of disease phenotypes, such as Alzheimer’s, alopecia, cancer, diet-induced obesity (DIO), and diabetes.”

The possibility of inflicting debilitating injury on an individual prior even to birth—effectively imposing cradle-to-grave suffering—may initially seem odd when in fact it is has become commonplace.  Human children are increasingly poisoned in the womb, being born with a heavy body burden of industrial chemicals.  They are then nursed on breast milk that may contain “DDT (the banned but stubbornly persistent pesticide famous for nearly wiping out the bald eagle), PCB’s, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic…paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”  (This is not to question the prudence of breast feeding for both mother and child; in a toxic world, this rocket fuel laden diet seemingly remains the best option available.)

Stock Number: 000697"Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age."

Stock Number: 000697
“Mice homozygous for the diabetes spontaneous mutation (Leprdb) become identifiably obese around 3 to 4 weeks of age.”

In sum, the mice at Jackson Laboratory are simply further along the same trajectory of domestication that we ourselves are on.  If they are a paradigm example of what it means to be domesticated; we are nonetheless following the same path even if we have not received our Stock Numbers yet.  Not surprisingly, there is a wide gulf dividing so-called laboratory mice and their wild counterparts; for example, research results on laboratory mice cannot be reliably extrapolated to apply to field mice.  The former have been too thoroughly manipulated to shed light on the later.  But there is reason to be hopeful and to believe that the project of domestication is never complete, that fissures remain like cracks in concrete.

In 2003, Manuel Berdoy, an animal behaviorist from Oxford University, released 75 thoroughly domesticated and docile rats into an open field.  The rats who had never previously been outside very quickly began to engage in the wild behavior of their peers, behavior that was suppressed when they were confined to a laboratory.  They developed natural social hierarchies, mapped paths through their new terrain, and found food that was radically different from the pellets that were provided in the cages they left behind.  Berdoy has said that:

“This shows that while we can take the animal from the wild, we have not have taken the wild out of the animal,”

The wild remains in every one of us regardless of how long we have lived in a cage.


Stock Number: 002726
“exhibit a phenotype similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans; becoming paralyzed in one or more limbs with paralysis due to loss of motor neurons from the spinal cord.”

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