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Stories of Captivity: Knut’s Death and Flipper’s Suicide

March 19, 2011
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knut from

I didn’t know most of the names mentioned in “Fear of the Animal Planet“, but Knut stuck out. I remembered the massive news coverage, the controversial statement by an animal rights activist, a local barrista even asked me at the time what I thought about the situation, wanting the perspective of the only vegan he knows.

That was when Knut was just a baby, when all of the world heard in disbelief that an animal rights activist in Germany thought that he should be left to die; at least one zookeeper agreed with the activist’s statement (which was taken out of context, and thus shouldn’t be taken to mean that the activist actually thought Knut should be neglected), but the Berlin Zoo disagreed, and did everything they could to save Knut. He was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the Berlin Zoo in 30 years. (wiki)

As an animal rights activist, it was hard to know how to feel. On one hand, saving his life means condemning him to a life of captivity. On the other hand, the situation was created by and for humans, being born into a dependent situation seemed to make intervention required. In any case, he was raised by hand by the zoo keepers, and he survived his infancy.

Perhaps you will remember Knut, the famed polar bear cub. In 2007, a kind of hysteria revolved around him, as visitors by the thousands flocked to Germany to catch a a glimpse. Knut’s owner, the Berlin Zoo, licensed his image and placed it everywhere. The zoo made $8.6 million off of the Knut craze. Nevertheless, by December of 2008, Berlin wanted to dump the bear. Knut had grown up, and he was no longer cute or marketable. It was only through a public uprising that the zoo relented and agreed to keep the polar bear – at least, until the fervor dies down.” (p. 28 of “Fear of the Animal Planet”)

It was with disbelief that I read the news today.

“He was by himself in his compound, he was in the water, and then he was dead,” said Kloes. “He was not sick, we don’t know why he died.”

A post mortem will be conducted on Monday to try pinpoint his cause of death, he said.

Between 600 and 700 people were at Knut’s compound and saw the four-year-old bear die, German news agency DAPD reported.

It’s not hard come up with speculative reasons for Knut’s death at a mere 4 years old. Health issues, of course, either from confinement itself, or perhaps from something that a visitor threw into his enclosure (a type of death that is more common than we likely realize). There could have been something unsafe in his enclosure. Maybe he was electrocuted, or maybe the water in his pool was toxic. Maybe his food was contaminated. Or maybe he committed suicide.

Suicide in animals?

It happens. After I wrote the review of “Fear of the Animal Planet”, VeganMudBlood mentioned on Twitter that it reminded her of reading about Flipper’s suicide.

I’ll never forget the story of Flipper, & how she ended her own miserable life. I have great respect for Ric O’Barry’s activism.

Flipper, pic from Wikipedia

Wait, what? Flipper committed suicide?

Granted as an adult and looking at the show through the lens of an animal rights activist, and one who knows about the hell that is animals in entertainment, I knew that nothing was happy where Flipper the dolphin was concerned, but suicide?

I read up on it, and found the details in an interview with Ric O’Barry.

But you probably know that dolphins and whales are not automatic air breathers. Every breath they take is a conscious effort. So they can end their life whenever they want to and that’s what Cathy did. She chose to not take that next breath and you have to call that suicide, self-induced asphyxiation in a steel tank at the … Aquarium.


I remember going out there that day and it was a very hot day. There was no shade at all and I hadn’t seen her – well – so I approached the tank which was about this level here and she was on the other side. She had blisters this size from the sun. She was black from sunburn because she spent most of her time on the surface of the water. Her fin was bent just like Keiko’s. That’s why they’re bent, gravity. That’s nature saying there’s something wrong here. Try going under water when there’s no gravity.

And so she swam over and looked me right in the eye, took a breath, and just held it. Just held it. Well so I grabbed her like this and she sank to the bottom of the tank. I let her go and she sank. I jumped in and pulled her to the surface. She committed suicide. The tank – the tank is a bad thing. It’s the killing tanks.

So that’s why I’m an abolitionist.

Thanks but no tanks, that’s the message.

Animals die in captivity all the time. They die during capture, they die due to inadequate care after capture, mothers refuse to care for their young, and they die of captivity related health issues. Tuberculosis in elephants, congestive heart failure in gorillas. How many die of suicide?

Captivity is no place for animals.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. Olivia permalink
    March 19, 2011 7:54 pm

    To me, they die because there is nothing in their lives worth living for. Love, I think, is the main motivator for Life and energizer of Life. Without Love, Life has no purpose, no joy, no freedom, no peace. The diseases are simply physical manifestations of the misery they feel, not the actual cause of death.

    I pray that each animal ever imprisoned in an unnatural, sterile, lonely, loveless habitat, from zoos to research labs, from puppy mills to circus cars, encounters just the opposite experience on their journey into the next stage of life.

    Thank you for informing us of this book, Deb, and for telling us of two of its tragic tales. I mentioned the book in my comments on an article about a husband-wife team who have published a poetry/photography book about elephants. You can find my comment here:

    Little note: if you want to correct the spelling of Flipper’s name under that lovely photo of Cathy, Ric O’Barry might appreciate it! :-)

  2. March 19, 2011 8:21 pm

    Thanks Olivia, that’s why we make our own worst editors, right? I am not sure I’d ever have noticed misspelling Flipper’s name there!

    Great comment on the article. Hopefully you have inspired people to look a bit deeper into the issue of animal in captivity.

  3. March 21, 2011 2:30 pm

    I was very sad to hear of Knut’s death, but I didn’t know that Flipper/Cathy had committed suicide. Poor things, both of them–to think of how we mistreat them and don’t think about their needs or desires. Having been at Poplar Spring yesterday, where what the animals need and want is always a priority, this makes me even sadder.

  4. Camille permalink
    March 21, 2011 5:09 pm

    Sweet baby Knut. May his beautiful soul rest in peace.

    Just a quick comment about Flipper. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Ric O’Barry and his great work to help dolphins (YES!). However, he was not the trainer of the original Flipper/Mitzi. Milton Santini of Grassy Key was the trainer of Mitzi (one of many female dolphins to play Flipper). My grandfather (Rosina Santini was his mother) has told us the stories of Santini and his love of Mitzi and how she died in his arms only after waiting for him. It is sad and sweet, but Flipper was dearly loved.

    Think of the beauty that these creatures have shared with us, the “simple” humans. Flippers death changed many people’s lives in a positive way. Perhaps people are more inclined to take action for animal welfare when they connect with these amazing beings on a human level. I hope that Knuts death will provide the same change that is needed for the conservation of Polar Bears and their habitat. People need to join together and take action to advocate for animals that cannot speak for themselves. We are the lucky ones to be graced by the lives of such majestic animals. To truly love them means that we need to commit to protect them.

  5. March 21, 2011 7:08 pm

    @Shannon – I hadn’t heard of Flipper’s suicide either, before VeganMudBlood mentioned it. It was shocking, but from what Ric says, it’s not unusual.

    @Camille – I didn’t include the full cast of the five or so Flipper dolphins because the point was Ric’s description of Cathy committing suicide. The post was already too long to get off-topic with details of Flipper’s history.

    Apologies if you or anyone thought that by mentioning only Cathy meant I was saying Cathy was the first or the only Flipper dolphin. I thought it was clear that I was not giving a history of the show or even of Cathy herself. Following either Flipper-related link would have given a more complete history. I think the interview with Ric is especially worth following and reading because it describes in his own words how he went from being one of the most highly paid animal trainers to advocating against animals in captivity.

    You’ll want to request that Wikipedia update the Flipper page, by the way. According to their information, Suzy was the first, and there was no Mitzi listed at all.

  6. Camille permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:07 pm

    Hi Deb,

    I wasn’t trying to negate your wonderful article and didn’t intend to get off topic, just wanted to share the Flipper legacy. :) Also, just a thought that perhaps these beautiful creatures offered their lives to bring awareness to the human race.

    Please visit the Dolphin Research Center website:

    I am a big fan of Ric O’Barry and his amazing efforts! Keep up the great work!

    Thanks :)

  7. Olivia permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:44 pm

    I just checked out your DRC website and I must admit it has me stymied.

    On the one hand it sounds like an idyllic environment for dolphins — IF they are rescued (not bred or captured in the wild and PAID FOR with blood money) and IF they actually enjoy interacting with people and using their intelligence (as opposed to being forced to do stupid tricks and deprived of food or exercise if they don’t OBEY — and circling mindlessly in cramped quarters, in which they go insane and become despondent enough to end their lives).

    On the other hand, if this research is valuable in teaching humans to respect marine mammals, then how long does it have to be perpetuated before mankind acknowledges that they ARE sentient and sapient and that they, like any other wild species, would PREFER being left to their own devices, in the wide-open ocean, forming their own families and friends?

    Are places like DRC pretending to be looking out for their interests when the underlying motivation is to make money (the lust for which Ric O’Barry describes in his interviews and books)? I mean, Sea World trainers say they love their dolphins, too, but that kind of love is worthless — actually, it’s wicked, and is really only self-love, in my view.

    The one statement of yours I have a real problem with, Camille, though I know you didn’t mean it in a condescending way, is the notion that any individual, who naturally loves his life and his freedom, would actually WANT to sacrifice himself to humans who are acting greedy, manipulative, power-hungry, depraved. That talk sounds like an appeasement of a guilty conscience and a distortion of these creatures’ natural zest for life.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to write to Ric O’Barry and ask him if he exempts DRC from his efforts to abolish aquariums and marine parks. I’ll ask him, too, if it’s okay to quote him on this blog.

    I am keeping my mind open here, because I don’t want to minimize any completely unselfish efforts to care for otherwise abandoned creatures, such as the kind of help rescues and sanctuaries provide (relying upon donations and grants and foundations to support themselves).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Camille.

  8. March 22, 2011 10:33 pm

    I appreciate Camille’s kind words. I’m sure she is a good person and means well. However I do not have any kind words for the Dolphin Research Center (DRC)AKA: Dolphin Riding Center.

    The record will show that in the past, DRC transported Florida dolphins to a disco in Zurich, Switzerland and several amusement parks in Europe such as the Canary Islands and Tampier, Finland. The only reason they stopped selling dolphins is because they had to stop due to public opinion.

    If DRC wanted to some real “research” they could start by doing research on birth control for captive dolphins.

    There is no reason for a dolphin to be born in captivity.

    Thanks, but no tanks,
    – ric

  9. Camille permalink
    March 23, 2011 1:02 pm

    Mr. O’Barry,

    Thank you for your kind response and information. I have nothing but respect for you and everything you stand for. I absolutely agree with you, that no dolphin should be born in captivity. I apologize for any misinterpretation of my message.

    I believe that humans are not as superior as we give ourselves credit for; animals do not exist for the sole purpose of exploitation. I simply feel in my heart that there are people who love these incredible beings because they have had an encounter that has led them to possess a deeper understanding of a particular species or perhaps all animals. Human beings have so much to learn from the beauty and intelligence of the animal kingdom and the very earth itself. It appears that we do not even possess the capacity to understand a fraction of what animals are capable of. When we can connect with the greater consciousness of this planet and leave our egos out of the equation, we will certainly have a better chance at finding peace.

    As someone who has grown up hearing the story of Flipper and her incredible bond with a human being, I have been inspired, not to exploit these superior creatures, but to protect them. I too feel remorse for every animal that is taken from its habitat and used either as fodder for experiments or the generating of despicable greed. I only wish that there were more people like you who are willing to sacrifice everything for the benefit of saving precious lives. I would volunteer for any crusade that you need people for. Your efforts are admirable, Mr. O’Barry, and in my eyes you are a hero.

    From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.


  10. Camille permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:51 pm

    BTW, my purpose for posting the DRC website was for a historical reference of Flipper. I have no affiliation with DRC and never intended to disrespect anyone for any reason.

    • Olivia permalink
      March 23, 2011 4:04 pm

      Thank you for telling us that, Camille. That is very helpful to know. I appreciate your kind words to Ric.

      It sounds like we all want what is truly BEST for each individual dolphin. Ever-more unselfish motives and actions on the part of each individual is what improves us and our world, right?

      • Olivia permalink
        March 23, 2011 4:51 pm

        Restated to correct my grammar: “Ever-more unselfish motives and actions on the part of each individual are what improve us and our world, right?”

  11. Camille permalink
    March 23, 2011 5:04 pm

    Thank you Olivia!

    Yes, I only wanted to share a positive perspective concerning Flipper and Knut. The beauty of their lives and the lessons they have taught us can be a catalyst for change. Thank goodness for people like Ric O’Barry and all of the activists out there willing to bring awareness to humanity!

  12. Olivia permalink
    March 23, 2011 5:12 pm

    Camille, you might enjoy reading the thoughts from animal activists throughout the centuries on a new website that compiles thousands of quotes and hundreds of photos of animals:

    Ric and Helene O’Barry are featured in it (Chapter 15, pp 44-47, and Chapter 21, pp 27-29). There are three or four photos of dolphins having fun frolicking in the free! :-)

    • Camille permalink
      March 23, 2011 5:53 pm

      Thanks for sharing Olivia, that is a great website! :)

  13. Alex permalink
    March 27, 2011 10:45 am

    Dear Deb,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that captivity is no place for animals. That said, it is a good idea to steer away from dramatic exaggeration, as they weaken the strength of your otherwise compelling arguments. Knut did not commit suicide: he died from an epileptic seizure. He inherited epilepsy from his father, Lars, who also had epilepsy, but lived a much longer life than poor Knut. Epilepsy has been found in wild as well as captive animals. So, please do not get me wrong: if it was up to me, all captive animals should be freed. But if we want to make a strong argument in favor of this idea, and if we want people to rally behind this idea, we need to get out facts right and do not come up with suppositions that might look ludicrous to some.


    • March 27, 2011 11:26 am

      Thanks Alex, but if you go back and read the article, you’ll notice I did not say that Knut committed suicide.

      What I did explicitly say was that the list of “maybes” were speculative reasons for his death. It’s curious that you didn’t pick on electrocution or poison as exaggerations, even though those are listed just before suicide. In fact, I listed health as a speculative reason, so it’s ludicrous that you could have read that (short!) paragraph and conclude that I stated suicide was the reason for Knut’s death.

      You can’t even say that the title of the piece mis-lead you, as I make a clear distinction between Knut’s death (unspecified cause) and Flipper’s suicide (specified cause).

      Suicide does happen among animals in captivity, that’s no exaggeration. Hence the discussion of Cathy/Flipper.

      So, please do not get me wrong: I agree that we need to stick to the facts, but I also think that people should criticize what was actually said, rather than commenting on something they assumed was going to be said. You might look ludicrous to some otherwise.

      • March 28, 2011 7:52 pm

        Thanks Olivia! Always nice to be un-ludicrous to at least one person out there. :D

        And thanks also for contacting Ric so he had a chance to give his input earlier. Meant to thank you then, time just keeps getting away from me! (Must be all those alien abductions!)

      • Alex permalink
        March 27, 2011 12:25 pm

        Dear Deb,

        I find this discussion and your polemical style rather counter-productive. While you never stated directly that Knut committed suicide, you indeed speculated on possible reasons that might have caused his death, among them suicide. Now, engaging in speculation about something that is public knowledge is ludicrous. Knut died from an epileptic seizure. This is what I meant when I suggested you get your facts right. If you get off promoting wild conspiracy theory-like conclusions, fine. As for the fact that I did not mention the other ludicrous possible causes of death advanced by you, like electrocution or poison, please see my comment above. It is well known why he died. Besides, that poor bear lead one of the most public lives imaginable. At the time he died, we was being watched by a sizable crowd: he could not possibly have been electrocuted or abused in any other way. Also, if you look at the enclosure in which he lived, you quickly realize that any visitor who wanted to throw something inside that Knut might have reached and eaten, needed to use a catapult, if you get my drift.
        I suggest you start reading the news before you reach the conclusion that Knut was abducted by malicious extraterrestrial forces. Otherwise, it has been a pleasure conversing with you.

      • March 27, 2011 12:40 pm

        Alex, I wrote this two days before the necropsy.

        Since I’m not claiming to be able to foretell the future, and since I will claim that last Saturday no one (not even the vets who would preform the necropsy two days later) knew what the cause of Knut’s death was, for you to claim that the cause of Knut’s death was public knowledge at that time is ludicrous.

        Did you read the quote from the Berlin Zoo employee, who explicitly stated that they did not know why Knut died? This quote was in every paper who wrote about his death last Saturday. Still believe that the cause of his death was public knowledge on the day he died?

        As for whether electrocution would have been possible in front of a large crowd – of course it would have been.

        You’re the one saying that something going wrong with the enclosure – either faulty wiring, food contamination, or someone throwing something deadly into the enclosure, all of which can and do happen in zoos – would be a “conspiracy theory”, equivalent to alien abduction.

      • Olivia permalink
        March 27, 2011 1:42 pm

        I must admit that I didn’t read your blog closely enough, Deb. I’m so glad this exchange prompted me to go back and re-read it, this time word for word.

        I must also admit that the idea of suicide stuck in my mind, even though you clearly used Knut’s passing from UNKNOWN reasons as a segue into the subject of OTHER animals’ suicides (i.e. Cathy/Flipper). None of the things you mentioned as possibilities seem far out to me, considering what was known at the time you wrote it: NADA.

        You are one of the activists who remains UN-LUDICROUS in my mind. That said, I understand that Alex seems to be trying to guard our credibility, since lots of people are crouching and waiting for the chance to pounce on us for the least little perceived/imagined offense. Each of us is drawing our own conclusions about things all the time, and we’re often left wondering just HOW someone else could have interpreted our motives or our words differently than we intended them.

        Wanting to learn my own lessons from this experience, I take it as a welcome, even humbling, reminder to me to not jump to conclusions about anything (whether you did, Deb, seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and I think you did NOT).

        What I might add to this discussion is that, while every disease appears to be strictly physical in nature, there is always an underlying mental cause, even when it is hereditary. It makes sense to me that the mental suffering associated with captivity would aggravate symptoms (which mirror thoughts and feelings).

        The contrary must also be true: that a life free of mental manipulation and oppression (no matter how “kind” the oppressors) naturally results in all manifestations of health, including the physical.

        That’s my two cents, or more…. and I don’t expect everyone to agree. Just wanted to add a perspective to the mix. :-)

  14. Carlie permalink
    October 9, 2013 6:05 am

    This proves that animal captivity is a bad thing. No matter the case, nothing compares to the wild, I mean, I get it if some animals can’t be released back into the wild, like winter the dolphin, but that doesn’t mean that it’s ok to do it for perfectly fine animals. I also read a different article about Mitzi, the dolphin who played flipper, and they said that she died of a heart attack! How could they tell such a lie? They totally covered her suicide up so that the publicity could keep going and so they could get more money! I just think that is wrong and I don’t think that any animals should be imprisioned, what did they so to deserve it?

  15. Julie permalink
    March 9, 2014 5:39 pm

    I heard that the 1960s horse, “Mr. Ed”, lived to only 19 years old. Palominos live to about 32 years of age, but, I hear, due to neglect and mistreatment, Mr. Ed died an early, tragic, sad death. If that’s the case, I hope his owners/handlers, rot in some hell.

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