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History 19th Century

Entertaining Elephants

Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus

by (author) Susan Nance

Johns Hopkins University Press
Initial publish date
Mar 2013
19th Century, General, History, Economic History
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2013
    List Price

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How the lives and labors of nineteenth-century circus elephants shaped the entertainment industry.

Consider the career of an enduring if controversial icon of American entertainment: the genial circus elephant. In Entertaining Elephants Susan Nance examines elephant behavior—drawing on the scientific literature of animal cognition, learning, and communications—to offer a study of elephants as actors (rather than objects) in American circus entertainment between 1800 and 1940. By developing a deeper understanding of animal behavior, Nance asserts, we can more fully explain the common history of all species.

Entertaining Elephants is the first account that uses research on animal welfare, health, and cognition to interpret the historical record, examining how both circus people and elephants struggled behind the scenes to meet the profit necessities of the entertainment business. The book does not claim that elephants understood, endorsed, or resisted the world of show business as a human cultural or business practice, but it does speak of elephants rejecting the conditions of their experience. They lived in a kind of parallel reality in the circus, one that was defined by their interactions with people, other elephants, horses, bull hooks, hay, and the weather.

Nance’s study informs and complicates contemporary debates over human interactions with animals in entertainment and beyond, questioning the idea of human control over animals and people's claims to speak for them. As sentient beings, these elephants exercised agency, but they had no way of understanding the human cultures that created their captivity, and they obviously had no claim on (human) social and political power. They often lived lives of apparent desperation.

About the author

Susan Nance is an associate professor of U.S. history and an affiliated faculty member at the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935.

Susan Nance's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"This book explores aspects of nineteenth-century American society and culture from an original and fascinating perspective. It is a worthy contribtuion to the burgeoning scholarship on the history of human-animal relationships."

American Historical Review

"Susan Nance's new book will appeal to those interested in the circus business, general lovers of the circus itself and its history, and lovers of elephants themselves and how they are treated, for better or for worse."

History Wire - Where the Past Comes Alive

"Susan Nance’s study Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus is an example of how pleasing a mix of cultural history and animal studies is when an author combines them well."

H-Net Reviews

"Theoretically sophisticated, exhaustively researched, and elegantly composed, Entertaining Elephants will appeal to a broad range of readers, who will find themselves thinking in new ways about not only circuses, but also the myriad other human-animal relationships in American consumer culture, past and present, from rodeos, zoos, and aquariums to meat, pets, Disney characters, and other fictional animals."

American Studies

"Overall, Entertaining Elephants is an enjoyable work that should appeal to those who are interested in cultural or animal history. It will also fit well into any animal or American studies class. However, it will provide most use to scholars who are looking for insightful studies that give agency to those that the historical record too often forgets."

H-Net Reviews

"If you are a true lover of elephants... then you must add this book to your collection."

Portland Book Review

Other titles by Susan Nance