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When Animals Resist Their Exploitation

Kasatka, the Sea World Orca

by JASON HRIBAL

Two weeks ago, an orca named Kasatka intentionally grabbed and pulled her trainer underwater twice-nearly killing him in the process. Kasatka is a performer for Sea World Adventure Park, San Diego. She is one of seven orca entertainers at the Southern California park. With operations in five other US locations, Sea World and Busch Gardens are owned by the Anheuser-Busch corporation. Indeed, as Susan Davis demonstrated in her Spectacular Nature (1997), these flagship zoological parks are corporate enterprises: for-profit businesses.

According to a park official, the Sea World orcas perform as many as 8 times per a day, 365 days a year. The Kasatka attack happened during the final daily show. As for the performances themselves, they are finely choreographed and composed of several acts. Each is highly complex in its routines and challenging in its stunts. These shows require skill, patience, labor, and hours of weekly practice. The orcas are, in every sense, performers and entertainers.

A considerable amount of money is invested in such flagship zoological ventures. These parks are vacation destinations. There are hotels, restaurants, amusement rides, merchandise, and special events. There are adventure camps for students. There are animal exhibitions and performances. There are extensive breeding and academic-related research operations. In truth, the global trade in exotic-animals is a multi-million dollar a year industry. The Russian government, for example, just resumed its trade in captive orcas. This is not surprising, as a single orca can be worth up to 1 million dollars. Conservation is big business.

Yet much more is happening at these zoos and aquariums than just production and profit, more than just performers, spectacle, and captive audiences. For Kasatka’s action on that day was not a unique incident. It was the third such public act of violence involving herself. In 1999, she attempted to bite this same trainer during a show. He only escaped with all his limbs fully intact by quickly jumping out of the pool. After this event, Kasatka was sent, as stated by a park spokesman, "back for some additional training and behavior modification"-for in 1993, there was a similar bite-attempt. In fact, two years earlier, her father, a performer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, killed his trainer during a show. Resistance at zoological institutions occurs far more often than most people know.

The acts of resistance that often attract the most attention are violent forms. Arms are bitten off. Flesh is torn. Bones are crushed. Humans are killed. The most famous recent event occurred in 2002 in Las Vegas during a Siegfried and Roy show. Montecore, a 6 year veteran of stage, refused to lie down during a routine, and, when his trainer bristled, the white tiger clamped down on his arm. After being repeatedly hit on the head with a microphone, Montecore then grabbed him by the neck. His trainer would survive but only barely. Others have not been so lucky.

In 1876, for example, Babe the elephant was born in India. He began his working life as a performer in an American circus. But, after stomping a trainer to death, he was sold to a zoo in Toledo, Ohio. There, three years later, he killed another trainer with his tusks. So resistant did this elephant become, his final obituary read: "Animal which became a Killer and Outlaw, executed following a Paralytic Stroke." In fact, according to a 1991 report of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 18 trainers were killed by elephants over a 20-year period in North America-thereby achieving the unique distinction of having the highest per capita morality rate of any employment profession.

Another attention-grabbing act of resistance is escape. In 1922, an unidentified ape attempted to flee from the Toledo Zoo. Apparently, the ape was once an adroit bicycle-rider in a vaudeville show but was later sold to the zoo. During the escape itself, the ape was confronted by the head keeper and his armed men. After beating and stabbing the ape with clubs and pitchforks, the keeper decided to shoot the animal in the head, as this was the ape’s third breakout. Escapes were so common in the early days of the zoo that the Toledo Blade printed a series of cartoon editorials: each depicting various animals running through the streets and causing havoc in the local Walbridge neighborhood. Contrary to what some readers might be thinking, time and progress have not slowed such actions.

In 2003, Little Joe, a gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, escaped his exhibition twice in a two-month period. Noting the 12-ft-wide, 12-ft-deep moat and electrified wires, officials had no idea how he accomplished it. At the Dallas Zoo a year later, Jabari-the gorilla-broke out of a containment that was, according to the zoo director, "among the best in the country." As he said afterwards, "this blows our minds." Over a one month period at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, twelve animals-a gorilla, snow leopard, howler monkey, four spider monkeys, and five colobus monkeys-escaped their exhibitions and made it onto zoo grounds. Sometimes, these animals can get even further. In 1960, a seal lion named Cyril fled the London Zoo in London, Ontario. Swimming fourteen days and traveling a distance of over four-hundred miles, he traversed the Thames river, St. Clair lake, Lake Erie, and the Maumee river. He was eventually captured in Ohio.

The most common forms of resistance, however, are those particularly unspectacular in their methods. Cheetahs who refuse to do anything. Tigers who ignore commands. Elephants who fake ignorance. Orcas who rebuff new tasks. Gorillas who break equipment. Chimpanzees who throw their shit ("scatological humor," as zoo officials call it) at visitors. One researcher marveled at how skillful the monkeys at the Los Angeles Zoo were at hitting visitors with "clods of earth" from great distances. Then there was Stuffie, the first chimp ever produced from artificial insemination. Shot to death in 1987 while attempting to escape, she was infamous at the Toledo Zoo for holding milk in her mouth for hours on end: waiting patiently until her trainers came close enough so that she could spit it out in their faces.

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.

For Babe, it brought further beatings and the sawing off of her tusks. It brought armed-guards, more chains, and a new stronger pen. For Little Joe, his escapes brought about a new cell with triple-layered glass walls, a woven-steel cap, and 24-hour video surveillance. For Jabari, it meant being shot to death by the police. Many parks have now created specialized response teams: armored and armed. In fact, for both Babe and Little Joe, their acts of resistance initiated serious discussions among zoo officials concerning the use of the death penalty.

By 1826, the London Exeter Exchange Menagerie had enough of Chunee the elephant. He had broken his last enclosure, ignored his last command, killed his last keeper. Depicted by a famous engraining, Chunee was executed via firing squad. Parallel was the fate of Topsy, the Coney Island elephant. Fed up with his continued "temper," including killing a visitor who fed him a lit cigarette, he was sold to the Thomas Edison Laboratory in 1903. Recorded by motion-pictures, Topsy was electrocuted to death.

For the elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, their resistance negotiated a different outcome. In 1993, responding to increasing injuries and deaths among trainers, the park (following the lead of several others) decided to completely change its training methods. Instead of applying the use of physical force and punishment, only positive methods of reinforcement were now to be used. Moreover, they switched to a "protected-contact" system. Either the keepers would be protected at all times by a permanent barrier, or the elephants themselves would be placed in restraining devices.

As for those creatures who just refuse to do anything, they pose a most particular and serious problem for zoos. Remember, these institutions make a considerable profit from entertaining visitors, and the sight of a monkey sitting quietly behind a bush is not entertaining. There is, in fact, a sizable amount of contemporary research done by zoos seeking to discover why animals become anti-social or act lethargic when confronted by visitors. The ultimate purpose of these "behavioral enrichment" studies is to lessen resistance and increase production. Animals need to perform. They need to play the part of the beast. They need to act voraciously. They need to run rapidly, fly swiftly, and swim excitedly. They need to roar and screech loudly. The methods used to obtain such reactions range from the construction of "naturalistic" exhibitions, to the utilization of toys and hidden treats, to experimentation with pharmaceutical drugs. None of these techniques, however, guarantees success. During the 1980s, for example, Busch Gardens designed and installed an expensive, long, narrow structure for their cheetahs. It was supposed that these creatures would readily use this structure to exhibit and highlight their speedy running abilities, consequently attracting vast audiences and their money. The cheetahs, though, refused to use it.

In response to the latest Sea World attack, the park and the AAZA went into a self-preservation mode. Two points were made repeatedly. First, animals are better off in zoos than living autonomously. Second, zoos educate the general public. Neither argument addressed the actual issue at-hand: what about Kasatka’s actions. When pressed, their response was careful and measured. Whether born in captivity or not, these creatures are still "wild," and thus subject to unprovoked and unusual acts of recalcitrant behavior. Ironically, this is the same reasoning used (although in a critical form) by the Humane Society of the United States. This is a top-down view.

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."

JASON HRIBAL is co-author of Cry of Nature. can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com