P.T. Barnum, “Wild Beasts of the World” and images of the exotic “other”

The depiction of animals in P.T. Barnum’s The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World and the Story of Their Capture is mixed and for the most part involves astute scientific observations and understandings of animal behavior and lore, but is handicapped by a number of non-empirical assumptions and rationales that stem from the perspective of a Western hunter. There is some appreciation for animals present in the text, but only in their physical skills and beauty. They are very much objects; “curiosities that are interesting, entertaining and instructive” (25): things to be watched for entertainment, skinned or mounted as trophies, or collected for study. It is interesting that the text is very conscious of notions of savagery that we have discussed all semester now, and applies savagery and all its assumed characteristics to animals like leopards, all the while personifying them and attempting to explain their behavior via human comparisons, and these comparisons change under varying contexts. For example, in an instant when the main hunter is met by a female leopard, she is initially presumed to be less aggressive than her male mate, but in fact “she was clear grit” (21), because, despite a natural inclination to avoid conflict with humans, her mate had been killed, which assumes some level of humanized emotional reaction. However, when her cubs are captured, it is thought that they haven’t the emotional capacity to realize or care that they no longer have parents. I detected striking similarities between the depiction of animals, playing the role of the exotic “other”, in this text and the general beliefs about “other” peoples during this particular historical period. Native Americans and, in this case, Africans were often spoken of as “savage”, yet acting in somewhat “civilized” ways, in addition to being treated as something of exotic novelties. On page 26, the way in which leopards carry their young is critiqued in a way that reminded me of the critique of Native Americans carrying young children in wrappings or packs, and infants on boards. The critique suggested a fundamental misunderstanding of the leopard and reveals the West-centric perspective of hunters and collectors, such as the ones working for Barnum’s circus company. Also, the way in which young animals are taken from their parents is eerily reminiscent of the manner in which the same has been done to people of cultures thought to be less civilized than the West. In a way, it is suggested that human caretakers are better for these animals than their own natural parents: “The young leopards ought to have been grateful for the change…” (26). In this way, the text establishes a clear binary between civilized and natural ways / the “hunter and the beast” (15) / the safe and domestic (back home) and the exotic wild (brought back home to put on display), in such that though they may be alike, but one is suggested as the superior.

Barnum, P.T. “The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World and the Story of Their Capture”. R.S. Peale, 1889.

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