"If you fail to provide your animals with the excitement they need, you may be certain they will create the excitement themselves."
July 2, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

The Killer in the Pool. Outside Magazine's in-depth feature on the Sea World trainer death earlier this year, and the history of the business of killer whales. A Whale of a Business is a Frontline resource page on orcas and captivity, and includes a section on Sea World, and one on the debate over capturing/releasing orcas and other whales and dolphins...which includes an excerpt on the danger to trainers--and inhumane captivity conditions--published shortly after Tilikum's first fatal incident in 1991. Previously.
posted by availablelight (34 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is horrific. Poor Tilikum and poor Brancheau.
posted by millipede at 6:48 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


This pretty much says it all: "SeaWorld's intensive regime helped its trainers interact with killer whales more than two million times without a death. But when a killer whale breaks from its training, all bets are off."

When a 12,000lb creature makes up its mind to do something, there's not a lot a human can do about that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:58 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting reverse of gender dominance (females are the dominant sex in orca society):
If you're a killer whale in a marine park, there's probably no better place than SeaWorld. Yet no matter how nice the facility, there's stress associated with being a big mammal in a relatively small pool. Starting at Sealand, Tilikum had developed the habit of grinding his teeth against metal pool gates. Many of his teeth were so worn and broken that SeaWorld vets decided to drill some of them so they could be regularly irrigated with antiseptic solution. And once again, he had to deal with the stress of hostile females, particularly a dominant orca called Katina. "Tili was a good guy that got beat down by the women," says Ventre, now a doctor in New Orleans. "So there are a lot of reasons he might be unhappy."

John Jett, who was a team leader for Tilikum, says he sometimes would suffer a beatdown bad enough to rake up his skin and bloody him and would have to be held out of shows until he healed. Jett had a term for the blood left streaming in the water: "sky writing." After a good thrashing from the other orcas, Jett says, Tili kum might be "off" for days, "splitting" from his trainer to swim at high speed around the pool, acting agitated around the females, or opening his eyes wide and emitting distress vocals if asked to get into a vulnerable position (like rolling over on his back). "It's extremely sad if you think about being in Tili's situation," says Jett. "The poor guy just has no place to run."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:02 AM on July 2, 2010


The gender dominance issue was fascinating...and details of Tilikum's captivity (and that of other orcas) was heartbreaking. He and his mates were so stressed out at their initial placement they developed stomach ulcers.

The story of the orca hunter--and allegations of "whale laundering"--is something straight from Hollywood that makes me half-wish for a Jaws-like ending for the guy.

"We showed the world that killer whales were good animals and all of a sudden people said, 'Hey, leave these animals alone,'" he says, sipping a mug of vodka and ice. "I had to make a living."
posted by availablelight at 7:08 AM on July 2, 2010


4chan was on this like white on rice, of course. They managed find a decent picture of what I assumed was Tilikum, rearing out of a tank, mouth open, in order to 'shoop up a fairly good set of WORDS ORCA-IMAGE WORDS squares, three of which managed to neatly sum up how I feel about the unexpected consequences of stuffing large, reasonably intelligent carnivores into areas which are a miniscule fraction of their normal territory:

Put me in a tank, Put you in a casket
Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?
For my next trick ... I shall kill you

I'm surprised that there aren't more deaths from bored captive cetaceans. Maybe that's why they aren't like people: they would have killed more if they were.
posted by adipocere at 7:08 AM on July 2, 2010


> "When a 12,000lb creature makes up its mind to do something, there's not a lot a human can do about that."

... unless the 12,000lb creature decides to escape captivity and return to the wild. Humans have that one covered.
posted by de at 7:14 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a very difficult story to read. Poor Tilikum.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:16 AM on July 2, 2010


Was it human error, or can a killer whale choose to kill?

Human error. Had that orca been left alone in the wild and not forced to perform in a tiny pool for the entertainment of people (and more importantly for SeaWorld's profits) this would never have happened.

Some people are opposed to making money from exhibiting orcas. However, they do not object - or object much less - if bonafide science, education and conservation form part of the programme. But philosphers Dale Jamieson and Tom Regan argue that, although scientific study may have many benefits which will accrue to cetacea themselves, the morality of these benefits depends "on the means used to secure them. And no benefits are morally to be allowed if they are obtained at the price of violating individual rights."
posted by three blind mice at 7:25 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I went to SeaWorld when we had a family holiday to the US. I was pretty young (8 or so) and I came away feeling really upset. It just didn't seem right, even as a child. Nowadays it seems completely reprehensible.

availablelight, ulcers aren't caused by stress, but by bacteria. They can certainly be made worse by stress, though.
posted by littleredspiders at 7:37 AM on July 2, 2010


It seems to me that the smarter the whale, the more it would want to kill as many humans as possible.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:01 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fantastic post, thank you.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:03 AM on July 2, 2010


Every time a commercial comes on joyfully proclaiming, Everyone loves Marineland!--which is, by my estimate, approximately every five minutes--I find myself vocally nuh-uhing at the television.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:03 AM on July 2, 2010


When a 12,000lb creature makes up its mind to do something, there's not a lot a human can do about that.

Captivity seems to be the key thing here, because as near as I can tell, no killer whale has ever fatally attacked a human in the wild.

Which, when you think about how long we've been hunting them and interacting them, is actually kind of amazing.
posted by quin at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2010


Goldsberry...appears unmoved by the controversy of his hunting days. "We showed the world that killer whales were good animals and all of a sudden people said, 'Hey, leave these animals alone,'" he says, sipping a mug of vodka and ice. "I had to make a living."

Uh, you know you had other options for making a living, right, guy?
posted by corey flood at 8:23 AM on July 2, 2010


The tl;dr for anyone that ever held delusions of miraculous escape from a violent, giant marine mammal…
Eyewitness accounts and the sheriff's investigative report make it clear that Brancheau fought hard. She was a strong swimmer, a dedicated workout enthusiast who ran marathons. But she weighed just 123 pounds and was no match for a 12,000-pound killer whale. She managed to break free and swim toward the surface, but Tilikum slammed into her. She tried again. This time he grabbed her. Her water shoes came off and floated to the surface. "He started pushing her with his nose like she was a toy," said Paula Gillespie, one of the visitors at the underwater window. SeaWorld employees urgently ushered guests away. "Will she be OK?" one asked.

Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau's colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who'd been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:15 AM on July 2, 2010


The article gives two different reasons for the attack. One was that Brancheau's longish hair was free and drifted into Tilikum's mouth. When she tried to pull it out and way, Tilikum viewed it as a game, so started pulling and of course won. Others say he purposefully grabbed her by the arm or shoulder and just started "playing".

Part of the problem is training an orca to not view humans as toys, but the only way to do that is use a live human to gradually interact with them in the pool, which of course presents problems. The second person Tilkum killed was a some guy who snuck into the park after hours and went swimming in the pool, which investigators were never able to figure why someone would do that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:28 AM on July 2, 2010


Fantastic article, thanks for the post.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 9:43 AM on July 2, 2010


Shamu (the original) attacking a trainer. Unfortunately that's the only clip I can find, so you'll have to endure the heavy metal soundtrack and the bad commentary (when trainer is riding Shamu, "the whale probably enjoys it too!").

I think using the word "killing" is anthropomorphizing the creatures way too much, otherwise the article was a great read.
posted by geoff. at 10:10 AM on July 2, 2010


How is "killing" anthropomorphizing the creatures way too much? They're predators. Isn't killing what they do? "Murdering" might be anthropomorphizing, but "killing" seems pretty accurate to me.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:37 AM on July 2, 2010


They're not killing, they're just making other creatures not be alive any more. Totally different!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:50 AM on July 2, 2010


It's not a huge stretch to deem whales capable of something akin to second degree murder.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:55 AM on July 2, 2010


Killing is accurate. In the wild, orcas play with their food before they eat it. That's why we* call them the Jerks of the Sea.

*Just me and my husband, to my knowledge.
posted by giraffe at 10:56 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, of course "killing" is accurate no matter what. That's the result. I think geoff. was talking about implied intent, which is another thing, of course.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:01 AM on July 2, 2010


It's not a huge stretch to deem whales capable of something akin to second degree murder.

Orcas aren't whales; they're dolphins. NOT GUILTY, YOUR HONOR!
posted by Sys Rq at 11:22 AM on July 2, 2010


Took my son to SeaWorld this past weekend for his 4th birthday. I had never been and never knew anything much about the Shamu show. Not 5 minutes into it, my son says, "Daddy, they sure don't have much room to swim," and as I sort of cringed a "yes", and asked if he was ready to go, and he said yes. We swam the rest of the day at Lost Lagoon.
posted by Senator at 4:17 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]



Killing is accurate. In the wild, orcas play with their food before they eat it. That's why we* call them the Jerks of the Sea.

To paraphrase Chris Rock (on another fatality at a wildlife park): that orca didn't go crazy; that orca went orca.
posted by availablelight at 4:53 PM on July 2, 2010


(actually, that Rock quote is from 3 years before the attack, but it got plenty of replay in 2007.)
posted by availablelight at 4:59 PM on July 2, 2010


I first began to realize how awful keeping orcas captive is when, as a kid, I read about Keiko and his collapsed dorsal fin, and how most captive orcas have collapsed fins for reasons unknown (or not known at the time; there are a few possible causes cited on Wikipedia, but there doesn't seem to be a consensus). If captivity makes most orcas' dorsal fins collapse and no one knows why, it's probably bad for orcas. How could my eight-year-old self figure this out, but not SeaWorld?

Beacuse I like animals better than money, right.
posted by bettafish at 6:14 PM on July 2, 2010


*Because. Insert pun about Bea Arthur here.
posted by bettafish at 6:14 PM on July 2, 2010


"Early in the morning, the animal-care crew would take hot-water-filled cow vaginas and masturbate the males in the back tanks," says John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld. "It was pretty interesting to walk by."
posted by Brainy at 8:26 PM on July 2, 2010


(sigh)

I went to Sealand in Victoria as a child, and remember all the news reports later in my teens about the trainer being killed. However, I never knew it took "several hours" to retrieve the body.

Are they letting the "Killer Whales" go yet?

I couldn't read all those articles because of the unbearable rage I feel when I read about things like this. They need to let all the marine park captives go free. Especially the orcas. And all the arguments* over whether captive animals can adapt to the wild are red herrings. Just let them the fuck out!

I can't even fathom the idea that Sealand kept full grown orcas in tanks not much bigger than my living room for 14 hours a day. WTF?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!!!!!!


*At least let them swim free in the ocean and offer them food offshore or at a dock far off from the boats and industry in a protected bay, if the worry is they won't know where to go or how to hunt. There are definitely ways to do it.
posted by smartypantz at 2:03 AM on July 3, 2010


One of the happiest days of my entire childhood was going to Sea World; feeding Wanda Walrus, singing "Baby Beluga" with my brother by the beluga whales, and the pearl divers (which led to terrifying my parents by practicing holding my breath underwater in the bathroom sink until I found out that it wasn't a viable career option).

I usually try to forget seeing Shamu at the end of the day and realizing how teeny tiny the pool was for him... and I was seven.
posted by variella at 10:01 AM on July 3, 2010


In July 1990 [...] the Bellerive Symposium on Whales and Dolphins in Captivity, met in Geneva. [...] The Chairman's conclusions: "Whales and dolphins are self-aware beings that routinely make decisions and choices about the details of their lives. They are entitled to freedom of choice. Thus, they are entitled to freedom. Imprisoning them in captivity is, quite simply, wrong."

> Are they letting the "Killer Whales" go yet?

No. Not yet.

> One of the happiest days of my entire childhood was going to Sea World [...] I usually try to forget seeing Shamu [...] and I was seven.

> Took my [4 year old] son to SeaWorld this past weekend [...] Not 5 minutes into it, my son says, "Daddy, they sure don't have much room to swim," [...] asked if he was ready to go, and he said yes.

We could be waiting another 20 years.

Scheffer [chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission] confessed an "inability to deal adequately with the problem of how one learns what the general public wants from, and for, the whales, seals and other marine mammals," adding: "I myself believe that what men and women are saying today about them is, 'Let them be.' A useful marine mammal, they say, is one out there somewhere in the wild - free, alive, hidden, breathing, perpetuating its ancient bloodline.

Have we stopped visiting SeaWorld yet?
No. Not yet. Soon.

Lest we forget.
posted by de at 7:20 PM on July 3, 2010


smartypantz, read the article, there is evidence there for why they can't be let go.

It's a great article that looks at this issue from unusual angles.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 1:06 PM on July 4, 2010


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