Mutiny Against Man

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

In Review

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.

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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.

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