Image: The cover of the book is a vintage painting of an escape elephant running through village streets. The large grey elephant stands at the center with her mouth open and trunk raised into the air. All around her are people running or jumping out of her way. To the right, a woman carries on child while dragging the other by the hand. In front, a man in a navy blue coat is nearly falling over. People watch from the sidelines and there is a buggy in the background. To the left of the image (the elephant's right) is what appears to be a worker chasing after her. The bottom of the cover has a light mustard color band with the title of the book in white letters. Below that in black small letters on a white background is the author's name: Sarat Colling.
My attention is immediately drawn to any discussion of animal resistance against oppression. It seems to be a woefully neglected area of discussion, even within the varying human-organized movements that exist to act on behalf of and in solidarity with other animals. Even the furthest left, most radical animal activists often still refer to other species as voiceless, innocent, monolithic victims that need saving rather than participants in their own stories of liberation. Sarat Colling's "Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era" is a scholarly work that tackles the topic of animal agency and resistance head on and with style. Having read a lot of academic works on this subject, I can say that not only is Colling's work well researched, theorized, and informative, it is also entertaining and offers a glimpse of hope even among such dire circumstances. The fantastic use of images throughout the book of everything from memorial statues of escaped and liberated animals to paintings that have been done of them over the centuries exposed me to many things I never knew existed. They also complemented the text very well as part of making this book more than simply a hardback printing of someone's graduate thesis.
Critiquing the idea of "voiceless" animals right off the bat, Colling states, "...by recognizing animals' embodied and political voices, we acknowledge their subjectivity and remain open to the possibility of their participation in and impact on social and political realms." However, Colling goes much further than "remaining open" to the idea and uses a long history and a variety of analyses to drive these points home. There is also a decent amount of groundwork for these ideas in her critiques of other flaws in the ways humans think about other animals such as how people fetishize wildlife when it suits them, then turn on a dime and attack rewilded animals or wildlife in general when it does not. Many people support wildlife protection solely for the reason that they want to continue exploiting said species. Many of these people also see animals who have escaped imprisonment and exploitation with fear and annoyance, often expecting someone to kill/recapture them, or decry any sort of sanctuary for animals as "wasteful." They do not blame those who put the animals in the situation to begin with, only the animals for daring to escape said situation and being a nuisance. I am sure one can imagine how we use this line of thinking against other humans as well. Colling also discusses the divides between humans and domesticated animals humans often see as objects vs those they see as individuals. An example would be their love of a family dog or cheering for an escaped cow that makes the news before sitting down to eat the flesh of another cow killed at the same slaughterhouse.
I used to write regularly about animal agency and resistance among other topics in the very unprestigious form of an old personal blog that was not good enough to warrant archiving. As a result, I had a ton of google alerts set up to tell me every time animal escapes and other forms of resistance were reported on or written about online. Back then, the internet was not used as much as it is now for reporting, yet I still got multiple alerts every day- so many that I needed to get them in digest form so as not to be completely overwhelmed. On top of the general reports, any time I saw someone writing about animal resistance analytically, I devoured what they had written. Any time I found a book connecting the struggles of humans to that of other animals in ways that fostered solidarity, intersectionality, and/or collective liberation- depending on how you define and relate to those words- I did my best to get my hands on it. Colling does reference a lot of these books and authors (Jason Hribal, Jeffrey St Clair, Aph Ko, Pattrice Jones, Carol Adams, and many many others) in her work, which is not to say it was redundant. Much of it was a good refresher as well as an excellent organization of decades of information put into one space. What I had not realized though is just how far back extensive discussions of animal resistance had gone and how far reaching the implications were. So, while this book does tie everything together in relationship to the "global capitalist era," Colling also provides a lot of history outside this in quite a small space. That is to say, this book is well edited and efficient allowing one to gain a lot from its somewhat short length.
What Colling also brings to the table for me is a strengthening of the idea that resistance matters. The world can often feel defeating, especially when we stay around long enough to see how much oppression manages to change shape every time liberation makes an advancement. The author manages to acknowledge the growth of many industries that terrorize, exploit, and slaughter animals (due to everything from population growth to globalized capitalism) while also making the convincing case that the great many kinds of resistance and struggle that other animals enact against their own oppression are indeed effective and far reaching. The publicized escape of a circus elephant like Tyke manages to change the law, awaken many people to the plight of circus animals, cause people to see animal performers as individuals, and many other longer lasting impacts. Colling describes how one woman credited the escape of Emily the cow from a slaughterhouse
with her own decision to finally leave an abusive relationship. The self-liberation of a cow or chicken from a slaughterhouse truck or kill line can wake up an entire city or country to the idea that the animal is an individual with not only a desire to live and be free of suffering, but bravery, resistance, planning, thoughtfulness, and luck depending on the eventual outcome of their scenarios. (These range from happy endings like sanctuary living and the radicalization of many animal advocates or horrific ones like long fights legally and financially with animal exploiters that will do everything they can to secure animals' place as property and to take their lives even if they can't even profit from the individual anymore.) Even the animals unfortunately fall into the latter category, their action often inspires change for others in their plight. Colling's expansive analysis shows that every bit of resistance can put a dent in the armor of oppression and supremacy, especially if the news of that resistance is far reaching- much like any sort of activism or action taken on behalf of the liberation of self and/or others.
The book also includes indepth discussions over the centuries of how different forms of liberation have intersected with one another either intentionally or not. It's a common line from animal industry PR executives that animals who resist or escape are simply confused or "psychotic," (an ableist intersection Colling also discusses in depth.) This becomes far more difficult for them to get away with when one is informed of a great many instances where animals not only broke themselves out of enclosures, but also traveled to other enclosures both within and outside their own species in order the liberate other animals. Though not mentioned in the book, it seems relevant to include that even in the oppressive and deadly realm of captive animal laboratories, rats will forego certain rewards and advantages in order to free another rat from imprisonment. These sort of things happen all over the place where animals are held captive. On the other side of the coin, sanctuaries show how many interspecies friendships come to be when animals are given a safer and more secure place to do something more than hang on to survive. It is not only humans who befriend other animals or cats and dogs that befriend one another, animals all over the spectrum have created relationships from friendship to organizational and arguably tactical relationships. Colling shows how often they show direct, well thought out, measured, and planned actions for their and others liberation rather than being limited to some sort of cartesian reaction that zoo, circus, animal agribusiness, and other industry reps would like you to believe. We also know that not only do humans help other animals, other animals both in the wild and of interdependent domesticated species have made the decision to help humans. This is especially intense to think about when we remember the power dynamic that often* has humans in the position of power, especially in domestication scenarios.
*I struggled to decide whether to say "often," "usually," or some other word here instead of "always" in order to leave room for scenarios such as that of colonization via conservation orgs who commit genocide of indigenous people in order to "conserve" some species of wildlife, usually who are endangered because of non-indigenous people and colonization. Also, to include how some (usually white) people will elevate a the ethical status of a dog on instagram who they have never met above a Black person in their own damned neighborhood. There are quite possible ways to care about everyone involved, but those in power choose to pin oppressed groups against one another or use one oppressed group as a smokescreen or token in order to oppress another group.
Overall, this book does a good job of weaving collective liberation throughout its stories and analyses of animal resistance. Colling discusses colonialism, ableism, gendered oppression, racialization, and other dynamics that occur when humans interact with each other and with other animals. She makes connections between how colonialist borders have an intertwined and damaging effect on both marginalized humans and other animals. She discusses the gendered ways humans exploit and assign value to other animals. She discusses the racialization of humans using the exploitation and oppression of other animals as a vehicle and excuse to harm humans pushed into the category of other, while also forcing racialized humans to do the dirty work of abusing and killing animals (such as the traumatic and dangerous work of slaughter and "processing.") Tying these together, the author discusses the myriad of ways that capitalism strengthens existing oppression of humans and other animals, breeds new insidious forms of said oppression, and continuously allows all ill effects to grow and worsen over time while creating the illusion that forced participation in such oppression is consent.
On a personal level, I have to be very careful with books like this. In short, I have a pretty significant trauma history that my brain has not adapted well to in regards to what I have experienced regarding the exploitation, abuse and suffering of other animals (and humans.) I no longer watch undercover videos or read books and see documentaries that are long portrayals or descriptions of animal suffering. This puts me in a tough situation at times because sometimes brilliant assessments and critiques are couched within those texts and videos. I did take my time reading this book, and Colling does indeed give details of harrowing scenarios regarding other animals' suffering. However, there is something about the way she put it all together which made the book not only bearable, but empowering, inspiring, and offering a feeling of hope grounded in reality. Colling manages to avoid both the trap of "trauma porn" as well as the trap of false hope and misinformation. She manages to be unapologetic and direct about the agency and deserved liberation of other animals while also providing a sound framework for these ideas that even those not on board will have a difficult time ignoring if they actually engage with them. I coated the entire book with page flags and will undoubtedly come back to it for quotes, images, citations, and refreshers. This book is an excellent edition to the field of animal studies as well as to more general knowledge and activist applications.
This was also posted to my goodreads.