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What If Boxer Is a Horse?

The Top Paddock
Rowena Lennox

Adjunct in the Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney

28 July 2021

Sydney writer Rowena Lennox re-reads one of the great animal stories in English literature. She finds that Orwell’s classic raises troubling questions about humans and the things we do to animals.


Horse-drawn potato digger on the farm of an FSA (Farm Security Administration) client near Caribou, Maine, 1940. Photograph by Jack Delano. Courtesy of Library of Congress (Control Number 2017792098).

Both my teenage children have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm recently for school. I studied it too when I was about their age. My most vivid memory was that something terrible happened to the horses. My teenagers and I talked about which animals did what in the story, and what they represented in the allegory. ‘Were there any dogs?’ I wanted to know. They explained how the pigs trained the dogs to be their bodyguards. After our conversation I re-read Animal Farm. It was, as I remembered, short and easy to read. The first time I thought the allegory was so clever I tried to write my own satire about sheep/people watching TV, which were the only screens we had back then. But this time I could only read it stupidly, literally. As far as ideas go, I couldn’t really get past the first chapter, in which an old pig called Major speaks to the assembled animals about their lives: ‘We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty…Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilizes it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin …’


‘Kits of soldiers who are proceeding overseas, Parkhouse’, near Tidworth, England, 1918. From the First World War photo album of E. M. Nield (grandfather of the author). Private collection.

In the story, the animals surprise themselves by overthrowing Farmer Jones and the pigs take over managing the farm. The book describes how, just like the humans they have replaced, the pigs use and oppress the other animals. The fate of Boxer, the male horse, remains the most resonant moment for me–emotionally and also as proof of the cruelty and duplicity of the ‘new’ regime. At school we learnt that Boxer represented the proletariat. But this time, I can’t help thinking, what if Boxer is a horse? A horse like any number of working horses whose names have been forgotten or other, more high-profile horses such as Verema, Admire Rakti, Araldo, Red Cadeaux, The Cliffsofmoher, Anthony Van Dyck—those athletes who, since 2013, have died in the Melbourne Cup. In Animal Farm, Boxer’s fate is memorable and emblematic of the corruption of the ideals of ‘Animalism’. But, outside the frame of the novella, what happens to Boxer is quite ordinary. Perhaps this is why we all know how stories about animals are going to end. Or do we write and read animals as allegories because what humans really do to them is unbearable to witness and to think about?

My teenagers were meant to go back to school this week but we are in a COVID lockdown. The teachers send students emails about their schoolwork, which I receive too. I learn from the English teacher’s email that Animal Farm is part of the study of ‘Protest’. Perhaps it’s the lockdown blues, but it’s a dispiriting book to read about ‘Protest’, I think.


‘Marbo’, about 33 years old, at Day Dream Mine, north-west of Broken Hill, NSW, where in the 1880s horses worked in the silver mine. Photograph by the author.

In these COVID years, as humans are getting sick and dying, and human activity is curtailed, one might think that we humans would reappraise our relationships with other animals. Like MERS, SARS, 2009 H1N1 and HIV, COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus—a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people. We know how industrialised agriculture and the destruction of wild animals’ habitats are related to the spread of diseases like COVID-19 and to other catastrophes such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet, as Paula Acari points out in a recent article, our responses to COVID-19, like so much human behaviour, remain anthropocentric. COVID-19 has not disrupted the normalisation of animal use and the continuing commodification of the natural world. Dominant discourses—in the mainstream media, from important organisations like WHO, FAO and the UN, and in scholarly work concerned with social justice and the environment—exclude the perspectives and interests of animals who are not humans.

Humans’ failure to see, to regard, to value animals as anything other than commodities to serve human needs or allegories of human political categories is not the biggest loss, but it leads to many other losses. In her book H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald relates the loss of humans’ ability to know and appreciate the complicated, visceral lives of real animals to extinctions. As animals become rarer and are ‘replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen’, she writes, they become mere shadows, figures of loss and hope. But, Macdonald maintains, real animals can resist the meanings humans give them.

Animals resisting. I want to write it many times.


Bold, an inquisitive free-ranging dingo, and me meeting on K’gari (Fraser Island), May 2015. Photograph by Jennifer Parkhurst. Courtesy of the photographer.

Animal resistance brings me to the dingoes of K’gari (Fraser Island), who do not conform to human ideas about how they should behave and are punished for it. It brings me to dingoes all across Australia, who are killed en masse partly, I think, because their ability to challenge dichotomies (some of which could also be regarded as settler Australian allegories)—such as native/introduced; domesticated/wild; pastoral demon/ecological saviour—enrages people. Through their relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their presence in Aboriginal Story, these dingoes remind me that I live in a country that has been inhabited, known, loved, cared for, sung to, danced on and storied by First Nations people for millennia before my own kin arrived here. When Barry Lopez wrote, ‘It is hard to conceive of an animal—I don’t think there is one—that has suffered such prejudice as an object of our scientific curiosity’, he was writing about wolves in North America. But he could have been writing about dingoes in Australia. Dingo science that has, until recently, been dominated by anthropocentrism and agricultural interests limits rather than expands knowledge and shows how far we have to go to make animals’ interests, preferences, perceptions, sociality and points of view part of our narratives.


Further Reading

Acari, Paula, ‘The Covid Pandemic, ‘Pivotal’ Moments, and Persistent Anthropocentrism: Interrogating the (Il)legitimacy of Critical Animal Perspectives’, Animal Studies Journal, 10(1), 2021, pp.186-239.

Lopez, Barry, Of Wolves and Men, Scribner, New York, 2004.

Lennox, Rowena, Dingo Bold: the Life and Death of K’gari Dingoes, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 2021.

Macdonald, Helen, H Is for Hawk, Jonathan Cape, London, 2014.

Orwell, George, Animal Farm, Secker and Warburg, London, 1945.

About the Author

Rowena Lennox lives on Gweagal country and is an adjunct in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. She is the author of Dingo Bold: The life and death of K’gari dingoes (2021) and Fighting Spirit of East Timor: The life of Martinho da Costa Lopes (2000), which won a NSW Premier’s History Award. Her prize-winning essays and stories have been widely published.

In this story

Rowena Lennox

Rowena Lennox

Adjunct in the Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney

The Top Paddock

The Top Paddock is the online magazine of the Menzies Australia Institute. Leading writers bear witness to society, history, culture, and politics. Insights and perspectives from Australia…

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