Gentle women and wild animals are linked in myth and fable, fashion photography and pornography, pulp art and fine art; men hunt wild animals, and women cuddle them
The centerpiece of Blackfish, a new documentary film about killer whales in captivity, is the gruesome death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. In 2010, Dawn was killed by Tilikum, a six-ton bull orca. The film does not include footage from what has been termed the “death tape,” but it does scan Dawn’s autopsy report, which dryly states that the 40-year-old female suffered numerous abrasions, dislocations, a broken back and jaw, hemorrhaging at multiple sites, and eventual death by suffocation. Her right arm was missing, and she was scalped. The time of death was some 30 minutes before Tilikum relinquished Dawn’s mutilated body.
Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s most experienced and respected trainers, and she had a reputation for strictly following safety protocols. Working with whales was a childhood dream; her family remembers the day she joined SeaWorld, at age twenty-three, as the happiest day of her life. A former student body president and homecoming queen with a gleaming smile, Dawn was also SeaWorld’s public face, appearing as a game show contestant, and on commercials, billboards, and murals. “She was beautiful, blonde, athletic, friendly,” one colleague remembers. “She captured what it means to be a SeaWorld trainer.”
Blackfish is spellbinding. Accounts of this orca attack and others, alongside tearful testimony from half a dozen former trainers—SeaWorld enthusiasts turned apostates—seems to indisputably prove that the whales are stressed, sickly, and agitated and that SeaWorld cares not a whit. Of course, none of this is much of a surprise. The film’s central argument would seem self-evident: A business that profits from suffering prefers to conceal it. Animals in captivity are not their normal selves. Killer whales are capable of killing.
No, the precise horror of Blackfish is not that Tilikum killed, but that Tilikum killed his trainer, and killed her in such a single-minded, grisly fashion. Dawn fed and cared for Tilikum, touched and spoke with him constantly, understood better than anyone his moods and rhythms. Blackfish is about animal captivity and orca sentience, but the story of Dawn is also a tragic chapter in an ongoing history of wild animals and their female muses. Dawn’s fate is a variation on a well-established pattern: women—attractive, single, childless women—have long been coupled with exotic animals. Gentle women and wild animals are linked in myth and fable, fashion photography and pornography, pulp art and fine art. Crudely stated, men hunt wild animals, and women cuddle them.
A matrilineage of media-friendly animal shamans emerged in the 1930s. Nearly all of the wild animals with which Westerners are most fascinated made their public debut beside a young woman. The first photos of a live panda, for instance, were images of baby panda Su-Lin nestled in the arms of the 1930s socialite-cum-explorer Ruth Harkness. The first close-up images of chimpanzees in the wild were those of chimp David Greybeard reaching his hands to touch long-legged Jane Goodall. There was Margaret Howe hugging dolphin Peter, the zoologist Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist fame, coyly lending her pen to gorilla Peanuts, and Joy Adamson nuzzling the lion Elsa, whom she raised as a cub and rehabilitated to the wild. Such anecdotes are usually read as examples of self-destructive fanaticism—it is abnormal to love an animal too much, or so the thinking goes. But a more generous interpretation finds in these women evidence of a radical form of interspecies love.
In Dawn’s case, intimacy did not protect her from Tilikum; it provoked him. Tilikum grabbed hold of Dawn’s body during a part of the performance known as the “relationship session,” a designated time at the end of the show for whale and trainer to decompress and reconnect. The pair was lying side-by-side in shallow water, bodies parallel. Immediately before the attack, Dawn was tenderly stroking Tilikum and gazing into his eyes.
What went wrong? Dawn’s hair, or so SeaWorld absurdly claimed. In SeaWorld’s version, Tilikum was a naïve oaf who wanted to play and couldn’t resist Dawn’s long, bouncy ponytail. Blackfish more plausibly suggests that Tilikum’s capture and confinement left the whale with a hair-trigger temperament that snapped at the end of a bad show. Interviewees in the film point out that Dawn asked more tricks of Tilikum during the show than she had fish to reward. (Tilikum would have known exactly when the fish supply was getting low—a full bucket rattles differently than an empty bucket.) An earlier show was cancelled that day because the whales were uncooperative, suggesting that Dawn probably felt pressure to perform especially well. Moreover, there was a rumor that SeaWorld donors were in the audience.
Dawn’s priorities were split. Through years of interaction, she had become preternaturally attuned to Tilikum, but as a company woman, she was equally cognizant of SeaWorld’s demands. Her divided allegiance proved a fatal error. “Never capture what you can’t control” is the tagline to Blackfish. Another maxim might be: Never put yourself between a killer whale and a corporation.
Dawn’s dilemma was the product of a seemingly insatiable public appetite for images of women and their animals. Animal-woman encounters are the subject of TV specials, Hollywood films, and best-selling books. Photos of women and primates are some of the most popular in the vast archives of National Geographic, and SeaWorld’s 2.5 billion-dollar business is built on visitors’ eagerness to see these encounters live. The animals vary, but the tropes remain consistent: the creature is either powerful and large or cute and vulnerable, and the woman always young and pretty. When the animal-woman encounter is not rehashing Beauty and the Beast, it’s mimicking the poses of euphoric mothers and infants, the baby replaced by a cuddly bundle of fur.
The iconic status of these encounters flattens the intensity of the relationships they represent. A woman cuddling a wild animal suggests many things to many people—utopianism, unconditional love, bodily transcendence—but behind all that is a real woman and a real animal who have developed an exquisite and unorthodox bond. The texture of the relationship is difficult for outsiders to comprehend; it’s a bond with none of the physical likeness of an intimate human relationship, but all of the nuance and depth. This is especially apparent in reading the women’s letters, biographies, and journals. Though the women encountered their animals as scientists or trainers or caretakers, they eventually built powerful, all-consuming relationships that far transcended these categories. These are relationships in which the animal made demands and the human partner recognized those demands as being equally legitimate as their own.
In 1963, Margaret Howe was an adventurous twenty-something working at a resort hotel in the Virgin Islands. Hearing wind of dolphin experiments happening nearby, she showed up at the Saint Thomas Communication Research Institute and volunteered to help. She eventually became the manager of the facility, which was owned and operated by Dr. John C. Lilly. Lilly was an acid-era Renaissance man, a physician, scientist, inventor, psychoanalyst, and World War II vet who experimented on the payroll of the US government before veering into fringe studies in sensory deprivation and animal communication. A friend of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg, Lilly had become at the time of Margaret’s acquaintance a devotee of LSD, injecting himself and his dolphins with the drug, sometimes at the same time.
The purpose of Lilly’s Saint Thomas compound was to teach dolphins to speak in English. By Margaret’s account, she suggested that the dolphins would learn better in the context of everyday life, rather than designated lessons. She volunteered to test the method by cohabitating with dolphin Peter for a trial period of ten weeks. She and Lilly set up a series of concrete rooms and corridors and flooded them with a depth of water tolerable to both woman and dolphin. Both partners rarely left the house. Margaret slept in a damp bed and subsisted on canned food. She wore bright lipstick so that Peter could better see her enunciation. Lilly and Margaret termed the method “chronic contact,” a name that proved apt, as Peter never stopped touching Margaret, never left her side, and barely allowed her to sleep.
Physical contact was integral to all of the women-animal relationships, whether kisses, piggyback rides, snuggling, roughhousing, or games of handsies/footsies. It’s likely that many of the women grappled with the frisson of bestiality—Dawn collected Tilikum’s sperm, for instance—but only Margaret tackled the topic as a problem shared by both partners and demanding resolution within the context of the relationship. Margaret was already in the habit of indulging her roommate in “long, loving” lotion massages when Peter began encouraging her to masturbate him, first by nipping her ankles and butting into her shins, and then, more effectively, by caressing her legs. Margaret did not immediately cooperate but she was receptive: “I am delighted to be so obviously ‘wooed’,” she wrote. After an abandoned attempt to let Peter mate outside the home, she began lending a hand or a foot to bring Peter to climax. She was not disgusted or ashamed of this in the slightest; in her journal, later published in Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin (1967), Margaret describes the masturbation as “a very precious sort of thing.” The cover of this book, and the centerfold image, depict Margaret embracing Peter, her cheek against his body, smiling ecstatically.
Margaret has been the butt of many jokes since then, as though masturbation crossed a line that wasn’t already crossed when she moved in with a dolphin. In truth, Peter’s constant arousal was a problem about which Margaret thought carefully. She empathized with his discomfort and found herself obligated to relieve it. Margaret’s reasoning had integrity; her matrix of decision-making simply excluded the traditional hierarchy between man and animal, which was, after all, consistent with the beliefs informing her work. In the context of a human sexual relationship, Margaret’s calculations would seem ordinary, the sort of banal compromise that knits couples together: Peter will be more agreeable when he’s not so horny, I enjoy giving him pleasure, the act comes at no cost to me.
Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda is accorded far more respect than Margaret’s counterculture dolphin experiments. Yet, like Margaret, Dian acted in ways that indicate she did not assume a categorical difference between human and animal. Having flunked veterinary school, Dian was working with disabled children in 1963 when she set her mind on a trip to Africa. She took out a usurious loan to pay for a safari that was everything she’d hoped. When Dian spied the “patent leather faces and deep brown eyes” of adult gorillas in the wild, her fate was sealed. With the support of Dr. Louis Leakey and the National Geographic Foundation, she permanently moved in 1966 to Central Africa, to the bush of Congo and then Rwanda, and devoted her life to the study and survival of mountain gorillas.
There are dozens of examples of Dian’s bond to her gorilla community, but none is more poignant than her attempts to cauterize her grief over the death of Digit, her favorite gorilla. Digit and Dian had known each other over a decade and their visits were one of Dian’s chief pleasures. She claimed Digit knew her thoughts. In 1977, Digit’s body was found laying in a pool of diarrhea, decapitated and riddled with spear holes, missing his feet and hands. He’d been brutally murdered and spent his last moments in terror. Dian was heartbroken. A page of her diary written years after his death contains nothing but his name, repeated ad infinitum: “Digit. Digit. Digit. Digit.”
As grief-stricken humans sometimes do, Dian mourned Digit by avenging his murder. She captured and hogtied Digit’s suspected killers, bound them with barbed wire, whipped them with nettles, injected them with gorilla dung, and cast evil spells she gleaned from African sorcery. Even after receiving an exigent message from her primary funder that she desist, she continued, bent on revenge. She crippled the cattle on which the local communities relied for food, kidnapped a four-year-old child, set a house on fire. Such tactics likely provoked her murder, after which she was finally reunited with Digit, buried beside him with a marker that bore her favorite nickname, “Nyiramachabelli,” which she understood to mean “the old woman who lives alone in the mountains without a man.” In death as in life, she was without a man and beside a gorilla—she couldn’t have made her allegiances more explicit.
Finally, there is Ruth Harkness, the least known of the group and the matriarch of them all. Ruth was the first woman to have an intimate relationship with a wild animal that also functioned as public spectacle, and the first to recognize that such spectacle would eventually endanger the species. Few people had ever seen a live panda when Ruth, a glamorous New York City fashion stylist, pluckily set out for the jungles of Szechuan in 1936 to capture one. To the astonishment of the era’s big game hunters and the press, she succeeded. She found an infant, eyes sealed shut, crying in a tree. The cub drank greedily from the baby bottle Ruth had thought to pack, and from then on, the two were inseparable.
Ruth named the animal Su-Lin but called it “Baby,” and treated it like her own. Refusing cages and leashes, she held Su-Lin in her arms. They co-slept. She fed on demand, at all hours of the night. She burped the panda on her shoulder, massaged its belly, and called a pediatrician to advise on the animal’s “colic”—it never occurred to her, she said, to call a vet. The panda soothed herself by sucking Ruth’s earlobes. A longtime chain smoker, Ruth forbade herself and anyone else from smoking in the same room as Su-Lin, and she weathered a winter in New York with the windows open, believing the cold air better for the furry animal. Even after the panda was deposited at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, she persisted in directing Su-Lin’s diet, nagging that Su-Lin needed less milk porridge and more bamboo. By all accounts, Su-Lin thrived under Ruth’s care.
The press never tired of Ruth and Su-Lin. Ruth had a dramatic wardrobe and wore colorful turbans, such that the exotic animal seemed perfectly matched to her exotic mother. Su-Lin’s popularity instantly sucked the bravado out of panda hunting—with Su-Lin sitting on his lap, Theodore Roosevelt declared that he would just as soon taxidermy Su-Lin as stuff his own child—and ushered in an era of the panda as symbol of animal conservation and Chinese pride. By the end of the 1930s Ruth was a household name and a brand icon for Quaker Oats.
Yet, Ruth’s career ended abruptly. In 1938, Ruth imported a second baby panda, Mei-Mei, and then returned to China for a third. An animal was captured and named Su-Sen. But unlike Su-Lin and Mei-Mei, Su-Sen bristled at Ruth’s touch and constantly tried to escape. Ruth found the animal’s unhappiness deeply unsettling. At the same time, she was grappling with an unforeseen consequence of Su-Lin’s popularity. The zoo mania for pandas led to ill-conceived and inhumane expeditions in which double or triple the number of commissioned animals was captured, to compensate for the deaths en route. In a span of less than five years, the panda population showed signs of decimation.
Confessing to a friend, “I think this sort of thing is over for me,” Ruth astonished her Chinese guide and dismayed her expedition backers by announcing she would return Su-Sen to the wild. The gesture was entirely at odds with her milieu’s attitudes toward wild animals. Zoo collecting would have ground to a halt if everyone who captured an animal were willing to admit that the prize was not theirs to take. Ruth returned to the US without the panda or the flashing cameras, and by her death in 1947, “the panda lady” was impoverished and forgotten.
Ruth Harkness, Dian Fossey, and Margaret Howe each prioritized their animal companion above their human community. They loved their animals as equals. Flouting convention at great personal sacrifice, Ruth gave up celebrity status and a lucrative career. Dian forsook professional credibility to punish the murder of her best friend. Margaret continues to be mocked for bestiality. Their animal relationship compelled these sacrifices. Theirs was a bond that had consequences. At some future point in time, these women won’t be remembered for their eccentricity, but for their intrepid sensitivity. Each of them heard and responded to the internal stirrings of a creature that was believed, by definition, to lack inwardness, and each of them came to understand that loving an animal obliged them to honor the creature’s autonomy.
Dawn cannot be blamed for the tortuous circumstances of Tilikum’s capture, for his years of cramped confinement, for his isolation from his social group, for his bullying from other captive orcas. But perhaps she can be blamed for trusting a business that didn’t love the whales as much as she did. “When you look into their eyes, you know someone is home. Someone is looking back,” says a SeaWorld trainer in Blackfish. Dawn knew someone was looking back, and she must have been forced sometimes to pretend she didn’t.