Exploitation and Resistance: The Story of Tilikum

Last Wednesday, Tilikum, a free-born orca who's been held captive for over 26 years by the zoo and aquarium industry, killed Dawn Brancheau, one of his human overseers at a SeaWorld Amusement Park where he is currently being exploited for human amusement and commercial profit.

While commonly referred to as a "trainer," "overseer" more accurately describes the role Brancheau played in watching over and directing Tilikum's and other orcas' forced labor at the park. That is, overseer puts the training orcas like Tilikum experience, as well as their performances, into the proper context.

SeaWorld is an amusement park whose business depends on selling the performances of marine animals to visitors, and orcas like Tilikum are the park's trademarked commodity. Any extended gap in production on the part of the forced labor of the park's orcas would result in a significant loss of revenue. Thus in spite of Brancheau's death, SeaWorld resumed orca performances on Saturday with more than 2000 attending a tribute to Brancheau.

It is through this context of Tilikum's position as an exploited performer and Brancheau's position as an overseer that we can best understand how Tilikum came to kill Brancheau.

Denying Other Animals' Agency

The consensus among both critics and apologists concerning SeaWorld's exploitation of Tilikum seem to agree that his actions are reducible to being a "wild" animal. This suggests that Tilikum's actions were both unpredictable and involuntary. Yet, as we'll see, neither could be further from the truth.

Ironically, both "trained" and "wild" while appearing to be opposites are both adjectives used for the same purpose – that is, to deny that nonhuman animals like Tilikum are anything more than automatons. A "trained" nonhuman animal is thought to be more or less under the complete control of a human "trainer," such as Brancheau. While a "wild" nonhuman animal is thought of as out of control, or at most responding to pure instinct, which is the favored explanation for Tilikum's attack. In either case, nonhuman animals are thought to lack voluntary self-control over their actions.

The belief that other animals are incapable of self-determination is rooted in speciesism. It is an ideologically driven belief used to support the system of human supremacy, under which nonhuman animals become little more than raw resources whereby "wild" animals are turned into "trained" animals for human gains. After all, if other animals have no agency then they are incapable of resisting their exploitation.

The Will to Resist

Jason Hribal, in an article he wrote four years ago on when animals resist their exploitation after another orca, Kasatka, attacked her overseer at a different SeaWorld park, makes clear nonhuman animals exhibit voluntary resistance before, during, and after training. He says:

Zoological institutions have always acknowledged this resistance. Indeed, if a keeper or trainer desires to obtain an adequate, timely, and profitable amount of labor from such creatures, there always has to be some degree of negotiation involved. After the latest Kasatka attack, one whale-researcher admitted that "sometimes they're [the orcas] not happy with their situation." "Some mornings they wake up not as willing to do the show as others." "If the trainer doesn't recognize it's not a good day, this will happen." Resistance could mean a lessening of duties and a day off. For Kasatka, she was sent right back to work the following day, but all routines directly involving trainers were cut out. Or this resistance could result in something worse.

So it's not surprising that visitors and park staff at SeaWorld on the day Tilikum killed Brancheau had reported already witnessing Tilikum resisting his exploitation during previous performances by refusing to obey commends from his overseers. This should cast immediate doubt on any who would claim that Tilikum's actions where "wild" or other wise unpredictable.

In fact, Tilikum's actions where both deliberate and predictable. As Hribal pointed out regarding a similar orca attack:

In order to see the world from Kasatka's perspective, three facts need to be considered. First, there are no recorded incidences of orcas "in the wild" attacking humans unprovoked. This is an institutional problem. Second, Kasatka and other performers have a long history of attacking trainers. Resistance in zoos and aquariums, in truth, is anything but unusual. Third, the zoological institutions themselves have to negotiate with their entertainers to extract labor and profit. Indeed, animal performers have agency, and zoos have always (privately, at least) acknowledged this. Therefore, the next time you hear about an orca attack, don't dismiss it from above: "Animals will be animals." But instead, look from below: "These creatures resist work, and can occasionally land a counterpunch or two of their own."

Tilikum is not an automaton, and Dawn Brancheau's death was no accident. After previous attempts at resisting his exploitation by means of passive resistance in refusing to comply with commands, Tilikum resorted to deadly force and killed Brancheau in an overt act of resistance.

I believe it's essential that advocates for nonhuman animals recognize, understand, and support nonhuman animals' resistance to their exploitation by humans. This would mean seeking to amplify their voice as it is expressed through resistance, rather than furthering the denial of their agency as is the case when we claim to be their voice.