Captive wild animals who kill their trainers

The Killer in the Pool

Last February, when a 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum dragged his SeaWorld trainer into the pool and drowned her, it was the third time the big killer whale had been involved in a death. Many observers wondered why the animal was still working. But some experts, knowing the psychological toll of a life spent in captivity, have posed a darker question: Was it human error, or can a killer whale choose to kill?”

More to the point: do we make captive whales literally psychotic through deprivation, create unnatural and stressful environments and expectations, then act surprised when they act naturally, or fight back?

The Outside Online article is long, and sad, but very much worth reading in its entirety.

Some excerpts below the fold.

In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited the taking of marine mammals in U.S. waters, but SeaWorld continued to receive killer whale capture permits under an educational-display exclusion. In March 1976, Goldsberry pushed his luck and the limits of public opinion. He sighted a group of killer whales in the waters just off Olympia, Washington’s state capital. In full view of boaters—and just as the state legislature was meeting to consider creating a Puget Sound killer whale sanctuary—he used seal bombs and boats to chase six orcas into his nets at Budd Inlet. Ralph Munro, an aide to Governor Dan Evans, was out on a small sailboat that day and remembers the sight. “It was gruesome as they closed the net. You could hear the whales screaming,” Munro recalls. “Goldsberry kept dropping explosives to drive the whales back into the net.”

The State of Washington filed a lawsuit, contending that Goldsberry and SeaWorld had violated permits that required humane capture, and as the heat and publicity built, SeaWorld agreed to release the Budd Inlet killer whales and to stop taking orcas from Washington waters. With the Puget Sound hunting grounds closing, Goldsberry flew around the world looking for other good capture sites. He settled on Iceland, where killer whales were plentiful. By October 1976, SeaWorld’s first Icelandic orca had been captured.

Over the next few years, Goldsberry spent freely to help create the infrastructure to net and transport whales out of Iceland. In November 1983, in the cold, rough waters off Berufjördur, Icelander Helgi Jonasson drew a large purse-seine net around a group of killer whales. Three young animals—two males and a female—were captured and transported to the Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík.

There they were placed in a concrete holding tank. The smaller male, who was about two years old and just shy of 11.5 feet, would remain there for almost a year, awaiting transfer to a marine park. In the pool, he could either cruise slowly in circles or lie still on the surface. He could hear no ocean sounds, only the mechanical rush of filtration. Finally, in late 1984, the young orca was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific, a marine park just outside Victoria, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. He was given a name to go with his new life: Tilikum, which means “friend” in Chinook.

SEALAND, SITUATED at Oak Bay Marina, was a wholly alien world for a wild orca. Its performance pool—about 100 feet by 50 feet, and 35 feet deep—was created by suspending mesh netting from the floating docks. The pool was open to the marina water, and thus to any bilge oil or sewage pumped into it by boaters. Marina traffic and motors created a cacophony of artificial underwater background noise, obscuring the natural sounds Tilikum had known in the wild. In the 14 years before his arrival, seven orcas had died under Sealand’s care. Their average survival time was just shy of three and a half years.

At Sealand, Tilikum joined two female killer whales, Haida and Nootka, who were sorting out the social pecking order. (Orca society is dominated by females.) That meant conflict and tooth raking for all three orcas, and even after Haida established herself as dominant, both females continued to push the young Tilikum around. The stress was worse at night. Sealand’s owner, a local entrepreneur named Robert Wright who’d captured his share of Pacific Northwest killer whales in the early 1970s, worried that someone might cut the net to free his orcas, or that they might chew through it themselves. So at 5:30 P.M., after the shows were over, the orcas were moved into a small metal-sided pool that was 26 feet in diameter and less than 20 feet deep. The trainers referred to it as “the module,” and the orcas were left in it for the next 14 and a half hours.

According to Eric Walters, who was a trainer at Sealand from 1987 to 1989 while working toward a bachelor’s degree in marine biology at the University of Victoria, the module was so tight that the orcas had difficulty avoiding conflict, and their skin would get scratches and cuts from rubbing against the sides. About once a week, Walters says, one or more of the orcas would simply refuse to swim into the module and would have to be left in the performance pool overnight.

The orca show was performed every hour on the hour, eight times a day, seven days a week. Both Nootka and Tilikum had stomach ulcers, which had to be treated with medication. Sometimes Nootka’s ulcers were so bad she had blood in her stool.

…Frustrated, Walters quit in May 1989. A year later, he wrote a letter to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, to share with participants at a conference on whales in captivity. In it, he detailed Sealand’s treatment of its marine mammals and the safety concerns he had. In closing, he wrote, “I feel that sooner or later someone is going to get seriously hurt.”

On February 20, 1991, Sealand had just wrapped up an afternoon killer whale show. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine-biology student and part-time trainer, was starting to tidy up when she misstepped and fell halfway into the pool. As she struggled to get out, one of the killer whales grabbed her and pulled her into the water. A competitive swimmer, Byrne was no match for three orcas used to treating any unusual object as a toy. “They never had a plaything in the pool that was so interactive,” says Huxter. “They just got incredibly excited and stimulated.” Huxter and the other trainers issued recall commands and threw food in the water. They tried maneuvering a life ring close enough for Byrne to grab, but the orcas kept her away from it. In the chaos and dark water, it was hard to see which killer whale had her at any one time. Twice, she surfaced and screamed. After about ten minutes, she popped up a third time for an instant but made no noise. She had drowned.

Bryne was the first trainer ever killed by orcas at a marine park. It took Sealand employees two hours to recover her body from Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum. They had stripped off all of her clothes save one boot, and she had bruises from bites across her skin. “It was just a tragic accident,” Al Bolz, Sealand’s manager, told reporters at the time. “I just can’t explain it.”

Paul Spong, 71, director of OrcaLab, in British Columbia—which studies orcas in the wild—did part-time research at Sealand before Tilikum arrived. He is not so befuddled. “If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them,” he says. “Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.”

…IF YOU WANT TO TRY to get an inkling of what captivity means for a killer whale, you first have to understand what their lives are like in the wild….

Each pod might travel some 75 miles a day, following the salmon, and vocalizing almost constantly to keep the entire group updated on who’s where and whether there are fish around. Killer whales are highly intelligent. They coordinate in the hunt, share food freely, and will help an injured or ill member of the pod stay on the surface to breathe. Most striking is the sophistication of their dialect. Each family group within a pod uses the same vocalizations, or vocabulary, and there are also shared vocalizations between pods. Balcomb says he can usually tell which pod is about to turn up simply by the sounds he hears through a hydrophone.

The social and genetic connections that bind orcas in the wild are intense. There’s breeding between the Puget Sound pods. Sometimes they’ll all come together at once and go through a distinctive greeting ceremony before mixing. But they will have absolutely nothing to do with the genetically distinct, transient killer whales that sometimes pass through their waters. (Transients travel in much smaller groups over vast distances and mostly feed on marine mammals instead of fish.) “When you get born into the family, you are always in the family. You don’t have a house or a home that is your location,” says Balcomb. “The group is your home, and your whole identity is with your group.” Aggression between members of a pod almost never occurs in the wild, he adds.

…It’s hard to know exactly what triggers an incident. It could be boredom, a desire to play, the pent-up frustration of confinement, a rough night in the tank with the other orcas, the pain of an ulcer, or maybe even hormonal cycling.

…After Brancheau’s death, Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, made a videotaped statement in which he said, “Maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological,” he said. “Maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive.”

Cousteau raises a profound point. But regardless of how this incident affects orca captivity, Tilikum’s fate is likely sealed, despite calls for his release back into the wild. Free Willy‘s Keiko underwent extensive retraining before being released into the seas off Iceland, and appears to have foraged for food on his own. But he never reintegrated with a pod. A little over a year later, after swimming to Norway, he died, likely from pneumonia. Ken Balcomb still believes that most marine-park orcas can be taught what they need to know to be returned to the wild. (No real effort was made to find Keiko’s family, Balcomb says, which is a key to success.) But even he rules Tilikum out. “Tilikum is basically psychotic,” he told me as we looked out over Haro Strait in May. “He has been maintained in a situation where I think he is psychologically unrecoverable in terms of being a wild whale.”

There is one other option. “We have proposed to Blackstone Group a sea-pen retirement,” says Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist at the Humane Society International. “Tilikum needs more space, more stimulation to distract him. Living as he is, with minimum human contact in a small concrete tank, is untenable.”

SeaWorld’s Fred Jacobs dismisses the idea. In addition to citing worries about the impact of taking him out of the social environment he is now accustomed to, and potential threats to his health from pollution and disease…

…Three thousand miles away, Balcomb often sees a pod of killer whales easing their way through the wilderness of water that is his Haro Strait backyard. They swim with purpose and coordination, huffing spumes of mist into the salty, spruce-scented air. The group is known as L Pod, and one, a big male designated L78, was born just a few years after Tilikum. Balcomb has been tracking L78 for more than two decades. He knows that his mother—born around 1960—and his brother are always close by. He knows that L78 ranges as far south as California with his pod, in search of salmon.

L78’s dorsal fin stands proud and straight as a knife, with none of Tilikum’s marine-park flop. He hunts when he’s hungry, mates with the females who offer themselves, and whistles to the extended family that is always nearby. He cares nothing for humans and is all but oblivious to their presence when they paddle out in kayaks to marvel as he swims. He knows nothing of the life of Tilikum or the artificial world humans have manufactured for him. But Tilikum, before 26 years in marine parks, once knew L78’s life, once knew what it was like to swim the ocean alongside his mother and family. And perhaps, just perhaps, that also helps explain why Dawn Brancheau died.

5 responses to “Captive wild animals who kill their trainers

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Captive wild animals who kill their trainers « Gilgablog --

  2. That article made me weep. When will we ever learn? I don’t hold out much hope these days.

  3. I think it is justified to capture injured whales that are in need of rehabilitation, but there is no reason for capturing healthy whales unless they can be placed in an environment that more closely resembles their natural habitat.

    • I absolutely agree, Annie .

      I like the quote in the article about the increased knowledge we now have about rehab and veterinary aid for whales (which I didn’t include just because I excerpted pages of it already!) –

      There’s a lot of criticism that flies back and forth between SeaWorld and the hard marine-science community, but there’s no question that SeaWorld’s close contact with killer whales over the course of decades has contributed to the world’s knowledge of them. “The gestation of killer whales was never known to researchers in the wild. It was always assumed it was like a dolphin, 12 months,” Andrews says. “Then we found out it’s 17 to 18 months. We supplied an answer to a part of their puzzle.”

      The advances SeaWorld has made in veterinary care have also paid off when it comes to rescuing stranded or sick marine animals, and SeaWorld’s state-of-the-art breeding techniques could be useful in trying to preserve marine mammal populations on the brink of extinction, such as the vaquita porpoise in the Sea of Cortez. SeaWorld also nurtures multiple partnerships with leading conservation nonprofits, from the World Wildlife Fund to the Nature Conservancy. “Every year we spend $3 million to $4 million on research and conservation programs outside our park and another $1.5 million on rescuing stranded animals,” Andrews says.

      At this point, though, for me lleads right to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s quote: “Maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological,” he said. “Maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive.”

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