What Would An Animal Revolution Look Like?

Two black and white sea creatures jumping in blue ocean.

What does an animal revolution look like? During the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown, global news outlets published stories of “urban wild” animal sightings. Creatures of all kinds became curious about the human silences—coming into spaces they had not been to before. Stories of sea creatures happily congregating in major shipping routes, a herd of fallow deer grazing on lawns in east London, and wild boars foraging for food through the empty neighborhoods of Haifa enthralled the public.

Animal Revolution by Ron Broglio (University of Minnesota Press, 2022). Illustrations by Marina Zurkow.

We saw, some of us for the first time, dolphins and whales in our common spaces, seemingly playing in their newfound freedoms. This brought planetary attention to beings we usually don’t see—or worse, choose to ignore. Suddenly, we became aware that everywhere in our world are unseen lives being led by those who are not human. “Animals of the world unite,” Ron Broglio wrote in response. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Broglio’s newest book Animal Revolution (2022), written during the height of the global pandemic, redefines what constitutes “revolution” and who—or specifically what—might have reason to take part in one.

This is not your typical revolution, where masses take to the streets under a common political ideology. In Animal Revolution, Broglio urges us to think about how revolutions—with their movements, their visible resistance—might look when their participants are not human. As the animals of the COVID-19 lockdown have made clear to humans around the world, resistance takes many forms, and in languages we may not be familiar with.

While we welcomed and celebrated creaturely appearances in 2020, our welcoming spirit has waned over time, as some creatures continue to call these new spaces “home.” The recent string of orca/boating incidents (incidentally on the rise since 2020) in particular, have brought global attention to what an “animal revolution” might look like.

Sketch of tree branch with chains on it.
Illustration by Marina Zurkow, Ron Broglio, Animal Revolution (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

Over the summer, international headlines exploded with news of “rogue killer whales” that have “orchestrated” a string of attacks on yachts and sailing boats, sinking three and damaging dozens more. These encounters range from whales simply swimming alongside the boats to “actively interfering with them,” and they “are said to have begun in 2020 around the Strait of Gibraltar—also known as Orca Alley.” Authorities have noted a steep uptick in orcas encounters—up to twenty-nine reported orca attacks in the past six months—from the tip of Spain down to Portugal.

Orcas are highly intelligent, complex creatures, and despite sometimes being subjected to high stress or abusive captivity conditions, they are non-violent by nature toward humans. So why this turn toward human-focused attacks in the open ocean? Some experts hypothesize that the whales may actually be playing with the ships. The bubbles created by the rudders may feel pleasing on their faces, leading them to ram into still-motors to get them started. Convincingly, it has been pointed out that since orcas are one of the stealthiest sea hunters in the ocean, it is unlikely these obvious attacks are intended to be violent.

Yet, these rogue orcas represent some of Broglio’s key arguments about animal resistance. What if, Broglio argues, the body were the materials of resistance? What would it mean if we extended the possibility of revolution, however failingly “human” our conception of revolution may be, toward nonhuman beings that certainly seem to be getting at something when they break ship rudders en masse?

Creatures of all kinds became curious about the human silences— coming into spaces they had not been before.

Scientists have identified a particular orca leading the charge: White Gladis. A female orca around ten to twelve years old, White Gladis is the matriarch of a pod of juvenile orcas, and she appears to be teaching her pod how to ram into boats and dismantle rudders. Those who have reported her attack have cited terrifying boat-ramming sessions of up to forty-five minutes. In July 2020, one man suffered a dislocated shoulder from his boat rocking so violently that he fell onto the deck. Yet injuries aren’t human alone. Scientists speculate that White Gladis likely had a “critical moment of agony,” which has led to these attacks. They have identified a severe head injury—that looks to be a gash—likely caused by a boat or propeller as the catalyst for her revenge. After all, how many revolutions began with one too many abuses meted out against the oppressed? It takes just one, of one-too-many hurts, to lead to collective uprising against an oppressor.

Social media and newsstands have been quick to take a stance. Media outlets exploded with GIFs, jokes, and puns over the orca attacks, citing the “orcanization” of class-conscious orcas targeting and sinking the yachts of billionaires in what can only be described as animal anti-colonial organizing efforts to “take back the ocean.” Alternately, authors writing from the perspective of boat handlers have called the orcas “abusive jerks.” Critically, these rogue orcas have brought more than broken rudder pieces to the surface. Their actions, and the public’s perceptions of them, illustrate what it might mean when animals go rogue and act in ways we don’t expect. These are the stories that make up Broglio’s book: from radioactive boar invading towns in Eastern Germany to jellyfish disarming an American aircraft carrier. These incidents accumulate to reveal animals that jam the gears of our social machine and force us to reflect on more-than-human worlds. 

Group of people looking at two brown boars crossing street.
Wild boars crossing at the Chek Jawa Boardwalk, Singapore. Photo by Ria Tan on Flickr, 2011.

I have been a longtime student of Broglio’s. I’ve been a wide-eyed undergraduate in his literature class at Arizona State University, who watched and re-watched his YouTube video on the Animal Revolution, and eagerly followed his now-defunct blog on the animals of Chernobyl, research that later became an article in the Atlantic. Across his writings and lectures, his message has been resoundingly consistent: “Society moves in particular ways and we have systematic expectations about how non-humans function in the world. . . . When the animals don’t comply this is a mode of jamming our social gears and causes us to rethink our cultural expectation of the world around us.” In other words, animal bodies—in their sheer corporeality—create a blockage in how humans think about the world. They suggest a “wily maneuvering that threatens our systems of language, symbols, weights, and measures with a materiality and semiotics that human meaning did not welcome to the table but arrives as an uninvited guest” anyhow. 

For those interested in reading this book, I highly recommend it for its accessibility, variety of encounters and creaturely conceptions of revolution, and its incredible illustrations. Broglio distills the theories of Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jakob von Uxeküll, and Martin Heidegger on dwelling, being, and hum-animal perception into accessible modes of reading and seeing the non-human world. Broglio’s work will bring to mind the accessibility and playfulness of eco-author Tim Morton, whose well-known eclectic writing style blends postmodern theories with speculative realism, pop cultural reference, and ecological thought. 

Sketch of a boar with radioactivity symbol on forehead.
Illustration by Marina Zurkow, Ron Broglio, Animal Revolution (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

Further, eco-illustrator Marina Zurkow’s brilliant illustrations in Animal Revolution fully immerse the reader in these creaturely stories. From a giant jellyfish “mushroom cloud” representing the masses of jellyfish bodies that cause blockages in naval off-shore ships, to the playful ways other species deal with conflict—such as the frisky bonobos who fuck instead of fight.

Zurkow’s head-on portrait of a wild, hairy boar sporting the symbol for radioactivity carved onto its forehead, for example, demonstrates how nonhumans “[carry] our disaster in their bodies and [remind] us of it.”

Broglio’s work helps us rethink not only life and resistance from the nonhuman perspective but also those silences and sightings during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the particularly potent tropes during the pandemic—maybe because we all needed some happy news—was the notion that nature was rebounding in a suddenly human-less world. It is very likely that those rogue orcas, more present than before the pandemic, are just having a little fun with our ships. But, as Broglio wisely states, “If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we should pay attention to how we bump up against animal worlds and how animals will push back.” Maybe, just maybe, White Gladis has something important to say and knows what to do about it.

Featured image: Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photo by Wikimedia Commons, 2006.

Taylin Nelson (she/her) is an eighteenth-century literary and environmental humanities doctoral student at Rice University. She is also a copy-editor for the academic journal SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. But most importantly of all, she is a comrade to the animal revolution. Twitter. Contact.