A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Whale Who Took Down SeaWorld

A footnote to my earlier post about the quandary now facing SeaWorld. Much credit for what’s happening in the marine circus world goes to the movie Blackfish, which took millions of people behind the scenes at these facilities. Credit also goes to the former killer whale trainers who now campaign vigorously against keeping these animals in captivity, and to the animal protection world just generally.

But there’s one key figure in what’s been happening who isn’t acknowledged for starting the whole process. That would be Tilikum, the killer whale who set all of this in motion when he killed his trainer in 2010.

That’s because while hundreds of people are now driving the movement to bring an end to killer whale shows, it was one whale who, by his actions, galvanized the movement and has driven it forward for the last five years.

Yet the animal protection world tends to portray Tilikum as a victim – a depressed, traumatized whale who just snapped. It wasn’t his fault, we say. He couldn’t help it.

fear-of-the-animal-planetJournalist Jason Hribal, author of the book Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance, vigorously opposes that view. Hribal has documented hundreds of cases of animals in zoos, circuses and other kinds of captivity who make a calculated decision to resist their captors and fight back.

He argues in Counterpunch that Tilikum’s attack on his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, is a clear case in point. Far from being a tragic accident where “the trainer made a mistake and the orca went crazy,” this was a clear case of deliberation and agency:

Tilikum knew his job. He had done [the show] routine hundreds of times, probably more. He knew the rewards and punishments. But he and the other orcas, on that day five years ago, were not cooperating.

They were skipping parts of the shows and refusing to acknowledge commands. Sometime later, Tilikum grabbed his trainer and drowned her. This was a purposeful act.

Nor has he been alone in carrying out such violent actions. Call the orcas criminals. Call them heroes. Call them assholes. But don’t say they are victims who didn’t understand what they were doing. This was, on Tilikum’s part, a knowing act of opposition versus his trainers and imposed captivity at Sea World. It was an act of resistance, and one that has shifted the trajectory of history.

Tilikum deserves recognition for this. He is the main character in the story about the downfall of Sea World.

Hribal says that seeing Tilikum as a victim, while well-meant on the part of animal protection groups, plays right into the general perception of nonhuman animals as “passive objects” who lack intentionality. And in his book, he shows unarguably just how wrong this perception is.

Take the story of Tatiana, a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, who, on December 26th, 2007, decided she was fed up with being harassed by a group of ill-mannered visitors:

Tatiana managed to scale the twelve-foot high wall of her enclosure and escape. There had been these teenagers. They were yelling obscenities, waving their arms, and possibly throwing stuff at her. One visitor described how these young men had been doing the same exact thing with the nearby lions, and that the lions were pissed off. The woman gathered up her family and promptly left the area. Angry lions are scary, even when they are tucked behind bars. Tigers can be even more frightening.

Tatiana_San_Francisco_Zoo-101515Tatiana went directly after the men who had been taunting her and ripped one of them to pieces. The other two ran. For twenty minutes, Tatiana roamed the zoo grounds. She was presented with many opportunities to attack park employees and emergency responders. She could easily have gone after other visitors. But Tatiana was singular in her purpose. She wanted to find those two remaining teenagers, and she would do just that at the Terrace Cafe.

With a dismembering taking place, police encircled the spot and shined their lights onto the tiger. Tatiana turned and approached. They shot her dead.

Tatiana’s story is by no means unique. Nor was Tilikum’s revenge-killing of his trainer. Just for starters, he’d already killed two other people. In 1991, when he was at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, he and his fellow captives, Nootka and Haida, grabbed their trainer and took turns in dragging her around the pool. Other trainers tried to catch her on a pole with a hook, but the orcas would not let them get near her. Even after they’d drowned her, they wouldn’t let anyone near her for another two hours. It was chillingly deliberate behavior.

Nor is Tilikum the only killer whale to have taught his captors a lesson. Only two months before he killed Dawn Brancheau, another trainer was killed by a 14-year-old orca called Keto during a training session at Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Even after they’d drowned her, they wouldn’t let anyone near her for another two hours. It was chillingly deliberate behavior.Two years before that, another trainer at the same park was hit by an orca who broke her arm, injured her lung, and dragged her down to the bottom of the pool. She was rescued and survived.

A year before that, at SeaWorld San Diego, 28-year-old Kasatka grabbed her trainer by the foot and dragged him to the bottom of the pool, then let him surface, and then dragged him back down again for another minute before releasing him, alive but injured. (You can read dozens more such reports of orca resistance here.)

Hribal’s book describes numerous other cases of animals of all kinds going on strike, going on rampages, going on the lam. There is a long history, stretching back centuries, he says, to the struggle between the captives and their captors. “Zoos and circuses live in fear of it and the historical changes that it can bring.”

Although he now languishes in a tank, mostly in solitary confinement, Tilikum’s act of resistance has borne fruit. He may not know the details of what he set in motion that day five years ago. But we do.

So, rather than saying that he was depressed and suffering from PTSD or whatever, we need to honor the fact that he knew exactly what he was doing and wanted us all to know that he simply wasn’t going to take it anymore.