By the same authors

Exhibiting Animals: Zoos, Menageries and Circuses

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter



Publication details

Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History
DatePublished - 1 Sep 2018
Number of pages23
EditorsHilda Kean, Philip Howell
Original languageEnglish
ISBN (Electronic)9780429468933
ISBN (Print) 9781138193260


Exotic animals have long fascinated human beings. For thousands of years they have been collected and exhibited in menageries and zoological gardens. They have been paraded, studied and trained for perform, functioning by turns as symbols of monarchical or imperial power, items of trade, subjects for scientific enquiry and sources of entertainment.
This chapter explores changing cultures of animal exhibition and assesses their broader significance within the history of human-animal relations. The chapter begins with an overview of the different contexts and places in which animals have been exhibited, charting the transition from medieval menagerie to modern zoological garden. It then goes on to examine the different methodologies for studying animal exhibition, highlighting the intersection between zoo history and a range of other historiographies - most notably the history of empire and imperial culture, the history of science and the history of leisure and popular culture. The chapter discusses the architecture of exhibition, the value of zoos/menageries in science and education, changing conceptions of animal welfare within a zoo environment and the gradual shift from imperial display to postcolonial conservation. It also introduces some of the sources we can use to learn about animal exhibition in the past, including zoo guides, logs and animal care books, newspaper reports and visual sources.
A growing concern in Animal Studies is the issue of animal agency. This is explored here through three case studies: the celebrity animal, the deviant animal and the performing animal. Because of their close proximity to members of the public, and their curiosity value, some zoo and menagerie inmates have attained an unusual degree of fame and been endowed with quasi-human emotions. The famous elephant Jumbo at London Zoo, for example, was believed to be deeply attached to British home, and was assumed to be actively resisting he relocation to America after he was sold in 1882 to circus entrepreneur PT Barnum; a group of ladies visiting the elephant house in the weeks leading up to the animal’s departure even believed they ‘detected grief upon [Jumbo’s] very countenance, and thought it wonderful that the animal should seem to have the gift of fore-knowledge as to its doom’. At the other end of the spectrum, exotic animals have been seen as exhibiting agency when they escape or attack their keepers, and are often punished accordingly. In nineteenth-century America there are cases of so-called ‘rogue’ elephants being shot, hung and electrocuted after going on the rampage, while more recently we have the case of Tilikum the killer whale, who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau at Sea World, Orlando in 2010. There has been a tendency to see these acts of defiance as conscious forms of resistance to human oppression, and thereby attribute a level of agency to the animals that perpetrated them. Finally, zoo, and particularly circus animals have often been trained to perform by their keepers, engendering new forms of human-animal interaction. Lions have been taught to sit on pedestals and have heads put in mouths, while elephants have been trained to do ballet or carry children. Taming often entails cruelty, but it can also foster an exceptional degree of intimacy between trainer and animal, complicating the species boundary. The chapter uses these case studies to raise broader questions about animal agency and examine human responses to it.

    Research areas

  • zoo, menagerie, circus, animal, cruelty, agency, power, knowledge, conservation

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