Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2012 > In Review

In Review

Mutiny Against Man

Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance
By Jason Hribal
AK Press, 2011, 280 Pages

In 2010, Sea World’s star attraction, an orca named Tilikum, shocked a group of onlookers when he seized his trainer and pinned her underwater for five minutes. Staff and security had to pry the woman’s body from his mouth. An autopsy later showed that her spinal cord had been severed and her ribs, jawbone, and cervical vertebra fractured. It was not the first time Tilikum had been involved in the death of a trainer. In 1991, along with two other orcas at Sealand in Vancouver, he killed a part-time trainer who slipped and fell into the tank. Eight years later he savaged a 27-year-old man who apparently entered his tank at Sea World after the park had closed. Authorities said the cause of death was hypothermia although the man’s body was covered with abrasions, his testicles had been ripped open, and pieces of his body were found on the bottom of the pool.

book cover thumbnail

In the case of animal attacks and escapes from zoos, circuses, and marine parks, official explanations are almost always at odds with the historical record. This is hardly surprising. The corporations that run these theme parks – the private equity firm Blackstone purchased Sea World for 2.3 billion in 2009 – have a vested interest in promoting an image of harmony among the animals and their handlers. But as Jason Hribal argues in his illuminating book, Fear of the Animal Planet, acts of resistance, from “work” stoppages and sabotage to escape and violent attacks, are far more common than we are led to believe.

Beginning with Jumbo the elephant – captured in 1865 and the centerpiece of P.T. Barnum’s circus – Hribal catalogues a long history of abuse, exploitation, and resistance. These animals are often treated poorly, made to live in an environment entirely alien to them (elephants and whales need large amounts of space in which to thrive), and forced to work and perform without end. Jumbo did two shows a day, six days a week and was confined to a small compartment with a concrete floor. This was the only world he knew. Tilikum, shipped around the world from one marine park to another since being captured off the coast of Iceland at the age of two, has performed nearly his entire life. Not surprisingly, the life expectancy and health of these animals is poor compared to their cousins in the wild.

But Hribal’s book is less an account of animal abuse than it is an attempt to understand how these animals respond to years of captivity, sensory deprivation, and stress. What is it that pushes a whale like Tilikum over the edge? In the aftermath of the 2010 attack a number of theories were proposed. Many said it was nothing more than instinct; they are, after all, “killer whales.” Others believe that Tilikum had some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sea World claimed the whole episode was just an unfortunate accident. Hribal has a different answer:

“As to his [Tilikum’s] ultimate purpose, this was a clear, pronounced demonstration of his dislike of captivity and all that it entails: from the absence of autonomy to the exploitative relations to the ever-increasing workload.”

In the context of a single case Hribal’s claim might sound over the top. But it seems entirely plausible when placed alongside the hundreds of other cases he documents.

That history has largely been hidden from the public. Even other trainers are shielded from the dangers of working with captive animals. Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer, told CBS that there had been roughly 30 violent incidents between killer whales and trainers before she was hired. She didn’t know about any of them until after she left.

Circuses and aqua parks will do everything they can to keep their prized animals working. The animals are the ones who draw the crowds and bring in the money. Hribal quotes a theme park consultant: “Sea World operations are built around Shamu stadium and the orca. So quantitatively they mean literally hundreds of millions of dollars to the company.” It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a year after Tilikum killed his trainer, Sea World announced that the whale would return to center stage. According to Sea World, the decision had been made on Tilikum’s behalf because performing “is an important component of his physical, social, and mental enrichment.” Company officials would be wise to read Hribal’s book and consider how things look from inside the cage or the bottom of the tank.


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



My guess is that someone has ftgaooe of what happened. And, it’s probably the family that has released the ftgaooe of what happened moments before the attack. At the very end of this video which was taken in a restaurant right by the water where the attack started, EVERYONE in the place gets up at exactly the same time and you can tell that something is wrong. I don’t think it’s morbid at all to see what happened, and quite frankly as a member of Joe Q. Public who might someday want to take her future children to Sea World, I want to see what I could be getting myself into. The whale that attacked and killed her trainer, Tilly is the father of some of the whales who do in fact swim in the shows. I have no problem with people who want to go live with wild bears, and say that they love them and the feeling is mutual, until one of them gets too old and hungry to eat salmon and turns on the man-bear to eat him for dinner. I wasn’t there to see it, and neither were any children. It’s quite a different story when this violence occurs in front of children and adults who paid a hefty price for admission. It’s just a matter of time before it happens it again. It might take 30 years, but it will happen again. Someone has the ftgaooe, and if they do, they probably just won a small fortune because there is absolutely NO WAY Sea World is going to allow the public to watch it. By the way, I have just re-watched the video minutes before her death and they all mysteriously end before you see the horrified people in the restaurant who look like the place has just been set on fire. As of yesterday, the final seconds of the video showed the whale with Dawn in its mouth, swimming away, not underwater yet, but you can kind of tell that Dawn knows something is wrong yet doesn’t want to alarm anyone. It then shows the scene of the restaurant and everyone is rushing as if something has gone terribly wrong. And, at this moment these people just shut off their video camera? I’m having a hard time buying that. If anyone has video, it is the public’s right to see it. Sea World should release their video too. The PUBLIC has a right to see it. And, in those first seconds after the attack why was the thing not stunned or shot? Why is their safety protocol a net? It reminds me of the Titanic, where the lifeboats aren’t needed so why have them? Something went wrong with the safety protocols of Sea World that it took over 20 minutes to get her out of its mouth. How does that happen? Why was Tilly not stunned/ tranquilized at from the very beginning? Maybe, Dawn would be here today if it weren’t for lax safety protocols. I would like to see this investigated

By Darmaji on Tue, May 01, 2012 at 1:28 am

Rather like “Water for Elephants,” don’t you think.  I can’t imagine any animal—including man and excepting only dogs—which would trade away their freedom for the secrity of permanent employment.  I have, thankfully, survived my working life.  Did fairly well, but never did like having to wait until five o’clock to “live” for a few hours every evening.  The money was never worth it; and animals don’t even get paid!

By Tom Ellsworth on Sun, March 18, 2012 at 10:51 am

Thank you, Mr. Hribal, for writing this important and timely book! Man’s dominion over animals is sanctioned in the Bible, but apparently God forgot to tell the animals they were supposed to like it.

By Malcolm Brenner on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 1:14 am

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!