Are Organized Animal Rebellions Really a Thing?

How the recent ‘orca uprisings’ discourse anthropomorphizes animals.

Group of orcas
Credit: Robin Gwen Agarwal / Flickr

Explainer Animal Behavior Science

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In May, several orcas sank a ship off the coast of Spain. That’s not the kind of thing that would usually make international news, except for the fact that it was the fifth time in four years that it happened. Since 2020, there’s been an unprecedented wave of orca-boat interactions, leading some to celebrate this “animal uprising” against humans. But are organized animal rebellions actually a thing? Or is something else going on?

Are Orcas Organizing an Animal Rebellion?

In the Strait of Gibraltar and off the coast of Spain, Iberian orcas have been ramming into boats. That may be a bit of an understatement: since the summer of 2020, there have been over 700 “interactions” between orcas and vessels, local researchers say. At least 250 of those incidents resulted in damage to the boat in question, and in five cases, the orcas successfully sank the boat. No humans have been killed or injured.

The incidents intrigued and confused marine biologists for a number of reasons. For one, they seemed to come out of nowhere; while orcas damaged and sank ships before 2020, those were generally isolated incidents that occurred once every couple of years. But in one five-month span in 2020, there were 52 documented attacks in the region, and they’ve steadily increased in frequency since then.

Another puzzling element is that the orcas seem to be using the same specific method of attack across the hundreds of interactions: they approach a moving boat from behind, ram its rudder repeatedly and lose interest if and when the boat stops moving. This has led some to speculate that the orcas are learning from one another, either through conscious education of young orcas by their parents, or by simply observing each other.

Lastly, and most significantly, scientists have no idea why this is happening in the first place. Several explanations have been proposed, but none have been proven, and there’s no consensus as to which is correct.

Why Do Biologists Think Orcas Are Attacking Boats?

Some have suggested that it’s just a “fad” among orcas. It may sound odd to apply the concept of a fad to animals, but there’s evidence that orcas are just as susceptible to social trends as humans: in the summer of 1987, orcas off the coast of Washington suddenly started wearing salmon as hats. It began with a single sighting, quickly spread to multiple orcas in multiple different pods in the region and then abruptly stopped as quickly as it started.

Another potential explanation, one that isn’t mutually exclusive with the fad theory, is that the attacks were born of trauma. Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal who’s been studying the incidents, speculated that a single orca had a traumatic collision with a ship, which flipped a switch in its brain and compelled her to begin attacking boats. Other orcas witnessed her doing so and began imitating the behavior, so the theory goes.

Lastly, some speculate that the orcas are just messing around, and engaging in a form of play with the boats. One orca expert suggested that they enjoy engaging with the push-and-pull of the rudder’s movement as the ship’s captain attempts to steer the ship. This explanation could account for the fact that the orcas tend to lose interest once the boat has stopped moving.

So, Are the Orca Attacks Organized Rebellions?

You may notice that all of these theories have something in common: none of them posit that the orcas are intentionally organizing a rebellion against humans. That’s because in all likelihood, they’re not.

To begin with, humans have been hunting and killing sea creatures for hundreds of thousands of years, and never have they launched an organized rebellion against us. But more to the point, the specific ways in which orcas have been interacting with boats isn’t indicative of a vengeful motive, experts say, despite how scary it might be for the people on the boat.

“Quite frankly, if they really wanted to take revenge, they would,” biophysicist and orca expert Dr. Lori Marino told ABC News. “ If these orcas wanted to kill humans on those boats, they would. Period.”

Still, it’s easy to see why the theory is so appealing. Humans catch, kill and eat fish by the billions every year, and the mistreatment of orcas in particular has been public knowledge for decades, thanks to movies like Free Willy and Blackfish. Everybody loves a good revenge story, and the idea that sea creatures have finally had enough, and are now banding together to take down their oppressors, is quite alluring from a social justice perspective.

“There’s something almost Robin Hood-like about thinking that we’ve pushed nature far enough that they’re finally going to fight back,” Orca Behavior Institute Director Monika Wieland-Shields told ABC News. “There just isn’t evidence that that’s what’s happening.”

Other Examples of Animal ‘Rebellions’

A few unrelated but superficially similar reports about odd animal behavior also made news in 2023 and 2024. In Santa Cruz, a rogue otter has been stealing people’s surfboards, while in the Netherlands, birds are taking anti-bird spikes and using them to make nests. The surface-level similarity between these instances and the orca attacks may have also contributed to the sense that 2023 was, in the words of one publication, “the year animals fought back.

Humans love to anthropomorphize animals. We project human traits onto them and interpret their behavior through a human lens, as if their desires, fears and psychological processes are the same as our own. But, as far as scientists know, the concept of an organized revolution against a ruling class is a distinctly human concept.

When Animals Fight Against Human Domination

None of this is to say, however, that animals don’t resist when they’re mistreated or held captive by humans. They most definitely do.

In factory farms and slaughterhouses, for example, animals will fight back in any way they can up until the moment they’re killed. Chickens furiously scratch, peck and bite line workers in a desperate attempt to forestall their deaths, cows jump and buck wildly during the painful process of artificial insemination, and pigs thrash violently and try to escape being gassed to death.

Occasionally, these attempts are successful. In several instances, cows have escaped from slaughterhouses by slipping through unlocked doors or open gates. In a notable 2017 incident, a cow at a St. Louis slaughterhouse kicked open an improperly-secured gate and fled, taking five of his friends with him. The “St. Louis Six,” as they were affectionately dubbed, were eventually relocated to an animal sanctuary.

Animal resistance is common in zoos as well. In the 1980s, an orangutan named Ken Allen escaped from the San Diego zoo on no fewer than three occasions, circumventing the zoo’s increasingly robust security measures each time and eventually inspiring his fellow apes to make a run for it as well. Four lions at an Australian zoo slipped out of their enclosure in 2022, sending the zoo into lockdown.

Just last year, an Andean bear at a St. Louis zoo escaped on two separate occasions, while earlier this year, a snow monkey fled the Scottish zoo he was being held in.

The Bottom Line

Some might look at the aforementioned examples and see organized rebellions. Others might see opportunistic and observant animals spotting opportunities, and taking them.

Others still might argue that the distinction isn’t important. Resistance is resistance, regardless of how organized or premeditated it was, and there’s no question that when animals are hurt or confined against their will, they can resist.

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