By Juliana Adelman
I doubt the recent killing at SeaWorld can have escaped your notice. On February 24th Tilikum, a killer whale, pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into a pool by her pony tail and batted her around ‘like a doll’ as one spectator recalled. By the time she was retreived from the whale’s jaws she was dead. Captive animals killing their keepers is nothing new. Elephants were, and are, among the most common perpetrators. One of the elephants in Dublin zoo killed her keeper in 1903; the subsequent press coverage was widespread and hit many similar notes to recent coverage of Tilikum. However, the consequences for the animals were completely opposite. Well into the twentieth century, the animal’s death was almost certain. Tilikum will be spared despite having been responsible for at least one other death in the past. This is no doubt supposed to be evidence that we are currently running a better kind of captivity than a Victorian menagerie. Instead, I think, it reveals a greater level of hubris. Now we think we understand animals. Various explanations have been offered for Tilikum’s behavior, including that Brancheau’s swinging pony tail was provacative. By coincidence the attack occurred while scientists are debating whether dolphins’ intelligence justifies their being defined as ‘nonhuman persons’ and legislation in Switzerland was mooted which would have allowed animals to have lawyers. These attitudes are in sharp contrast to those held barely a century before.
When Sita the elephant killed her keeper in the Dublin Zoological Gardens she had been suffering from a wounded foot. James McNally asked her to kneel so that he could apply lotion to the wound. She refused and then knocked him down with her trunk and stamped on his head. Punishment for Sita came swiftly. Two days later, an experienced elephant hunter in the Royal Irish Constabulary shot Sita with an elephant rifle. He was accompanied by a firing squad to ensure her immediate death. The Irish Times expressed regret at the elephant’s sentence saying that ‘it had always conducted itself admirably’ and wondering if nearly 30 years of good behavior might tip the scales against killing it. It was believed that the animal’s wound had incited her unusual behavior. ‘A lover of animals’ wrote to the paper explaining that ‘To expect the elephant, or any animal, under the circumstances, to be able to control its actions is ridiculous, and to kill it is both cruel and useless.’ McNally’s son, witness to his death, even remarked that his father would not have wanted the animal killed. A similar argument of diminished responsibility has been claimed for Tilikum, but I think these superficial similarities mask deep differences in attitude. Sita was killed because experience demonstrated that animals who killed once were likely to do so again. She was also killed because despite the progress of the anti-cruelty movement and the growth in pet-owning, animals were definitely second-class citizens in fin de siecle Europe and America. To sum it up as ‘us versus them’ would be too simplistic, but not far from the mark. Sita had killed one of ‘us’, she was not allowed to plead manslaughter. Victorians made profound bonds with animals and believed animals, particularly elephants, horses and dogs, to have significant intelligence. But I don’t think they pretended to fully understand them and you can always have a healthy dose of fear of something you don’t understand.