In response to all of my Abita Mystery House posts, over on the Boing Boing boards, a user named generic_name kindly introduced me to an interesting and disturbing two-minute clip—featuring a dancing chicken along with some other animals performing in enclosures—from Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek. William McAloon provides this great synopsis of the film:
In Werner Herzog's enigmatic 1977 film Stroszek, the recently deinstitutionalised Bruno S, his prostitute girlfriend and eccentric elderly neighbour flee West Berlin in search of a better life in the United States. Their American dream slowly unravels and the film concludes with Bruno's suicide in a fairground. Pursued by the police following a dismal attempt at armed robbery, Bruno rigs his truck, feeds a stack of coins into an arcade machine and mounts a ski-lift with his shotgun. The policeman radios in the film's final line: 'We've got a truck on fire, can't find the switch to turn the ski-lift off, and can't stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician.'
According to Curtis Runstedler, writing for The Bubble, Stroszek was the last film that Joy Division's Ian Curtis saw before he died by suicide in 1980. The protagonist in Stroszek also dies by suicide at the end of the film—after viewing the performing animals—as he realizes his quest for the American Dream was a fool's errand. Runstedler explains:
At the end of the film, after taking part in a botched robbery and driving through the mountains, he encounters a series of tourist traps featuring animals who are conditioned to perform certain tricks for money. The rabbit in its pen reacts to the siren by mounting a toy fire engine for food . . . The rabbit is a metaphor for societal drive for money and how we are conditioned to repeat the same materialistic cycle over and over again. This uncanny realisation, however, is best exemplified by the dancing chicken.
Herzog once argued that looking into a chicken's eyes was horrific because it is like looking into an empty void . . . The performance of the mindless chicken is very nihilistic. The chicken is bound to its performance with a material reward with no spiritual or social consolation. It simply exists as we exist within society, working our 9–5 day jobs and receiving a big, fat paycheque at the end of the week. In Stroszek's world, there is no God or Saviour to save him from his fate. The dancing chicken simply continues to dance.
The clip captured my attention and I'm definitely going to watch the film, which I've never seen. I had to find out more about these poor animals performing on demand, first, though. I did a little research about the clip and discovered that it was filmed in Cherokee, North Carolina, at a tourist site containing some of the performing animal displays created by the company Animal Behavior Enterprises, Inc (ABE), which was headquartered in Hot Springs, Arkansas. ABE, Inc was created by Keller and Marian Breland, two graduate students who studied with behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (of "operant conditioning" fame) at the University of Minnesota. They first began working on Skinner's Project Pigeon, which was funded by General Mills, Inc. and sought to train pigeons to help guide bombs for the U.S. Navy. When that project failed, they created Animal Behavior Enterprises, Inc in 1943 and continued training animals, for two purposes: entertainment and scientific research. Andrew Amelinckx explains:
By the 1950s, the Brelands were living in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and had opened the IQ Zoo, a tourist destination that showcased their training techniques. They'd also created fully-automated, coin-operated animal shows (the kind I saw at the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center) and trained a variety of animals for television and film. But it wasn't just about cashing in. The Brelands were scientists, and they published a number of papers about their work, including the groundbreaking and influential The Misbehavior of Organisms (1961), which described some of the problems with instinctual behavior they encountered when training animals.
Over the decades they were in business, Animal Behavior Enterprises, Inc. trained thousands of animals from more than 150 different species.
Here are some fascinating advertisements and newspaper articles from 1970 highlighting some of the animal displays on offer, which are described in one ad as "The Newest Thing in Advertising and Promotion: Live Animal Displays for conventions, fairs, dealers, stores, television." In the first ad you can see some of the exact machines that are featured in Herzog's Stroszek – The Fire Chief Rabbit, The Drumming Duck (or Chicken), The Dancing Chicken, and The Piano Playing Duck (or Chicken).
Read more about Animal Behavior Enterprises, Inc. here and more about Herzog's Stroszek here. And here's a slightly longer clip from the film where you can get a better look at the performing animal displays.