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The Orca Dilema: What To Do About Tilikum?

Some of you may have been watching the drama unfold since the death of long-time Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau. While that was certainly a tragedy, the incident begs the question, “What to do about Tilikum?” For those of you who may have missed all or part of the situation, we provide this recap:

The day of the attack, the orcas had been notedly uncooperative, as most orca experts not on the payroll of SeaWorld would attest. After the main show, Dawn was grabbed by Tilikum, an adult male orca (who had already killed two other people) while in captivity. Though as many as 85 people may have been involved in rescue efforts, Ms. Brancheau died from the attack. Initially, SeaWorld tried to play the incident off as an unfortunate accident in which the trainer slipped, fell into the pool and drowned. Only when one of the patrons who had witnessed the attack spoke up, did the truth of the matter surface.

The coroner’s report says that Dawn’s scalp was ripped from her head. Her arm was torn from her body, her neck was broken, her knee and elbow were dislocated, and her body suffered from blunt trauma, multiple internal injuries and torn flesh from the markedly brutal attack. Reports state that her body had to be pried from Tilikum’s mouth. This confirms that the attack was intentional, not simply the orca playing too rough, as SeaWorld and another professional captive cetacean protagonist had claimed. The simple fact is that this 12,000 pound animal had tolerated all he was going to put up with, and released his frustration on the trainer.

To understand the situation better, it is important to know that orcas are the largest of the dolphins. Despite being called “killer” “whales”, only transients hunt mammals. Resident pods are fish eaters. Though they are clearly capable of killing a person, orcas and other smaller dolphins are nearly always careful with humans. The fact is that this is by their grace, not though any great cleverness or superiority on our part, as these deaths and others have demonstrated. (One trainer was used as the rope in a tug of war between two orcas, for example.) The orcas can withdraw that grace at any time, with little or no notice. In short, it is inherently dangerous to work with these large, highly intelligent marine predators in captivity. In the wild, there are no documented cases of attacks against humans by orcas, and countless accounts spanning thousands of years, of smaller dolphins befriending humans, saving them from drowning and shark attacks.

It is my conclusion that orcas in captivity are inherently dangerous. Continued interaction with them is certainly going to cause further injuries and death. In investigating another similar incident in California, OSHA made the statement “swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen.” SeaWorld successfully lobbied to have the statement removed from the final report.

This time, OSHA’s inquiry into the matter didn’t go as far as that. This may be due, in some part at least, to the interference by U.S. Representative Alan Greyson (D, FL)** who took it upon himself to intervene on SeaWorld’s behalf in the final hours of a six-month investigation by the federal OSHA, pushing for leniency for SeaWorld.

In their report, OSHA wrote that its probe “revealed that SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities. …Despite this record, management failed to make meaningful changes to improve the safety of the work environment for its employees.” In a written statement, SeaWorld retorts “OSHA’s allegations in this citation are unsupported by any evidence or precedent and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care.” Yeah, right, SeaWorld. OSHA and all the other orca experts don’t understand but YOU do. That’s why your precautions have been so (un)successful.

A bit of history: OSHA’s report specifically addressed interactions with Tilikum. The OSHA investigators noted that he had “known aggressive tendencies” (referring to that he was one of three killer whales who drowned another trainer at a Canadian marine park nearly 20 years ago.) Although SeaWorld claims to have barred trainers from swimming with Tilikum since acquiring him shortly after that 1991 death, the reality presents a very different story. Dawn was videotaped that very same day, just before the attack, lying on an underwater ledge. OSHA’s report suggests that SeaWorld eliminate the hazard by not allowing trainers to work with Tilikum again unless there was a physical barrier between him and the employees.

Though not going as far as to say that injury and death are inherent in the keeping of captive orcas, OSHA did acknowledge that trainers face similar risks from the rest of the orcas that SeaWorld keeps. They did recommended changes in policy, stating that trainers should not be allowed to swim with the remaining orcas unless they are protected by a physical barrier or “through the use of decking systems, oxygen supply systems or other engineering or administrative controls that provide the same or a greater level of protection for the trainer.” But this was only a recommendation. They stopped short of making it a requirement for SeaWorld to continue operations.

In the end, SeaWorld was fined a total of $75,000 for three major violations in the death of this experienced trainer. Amongst issues cited was that SeaWorld had not done enough to avoid drowning (though this was not the cause of death in Dawn’s case.) SeaWorld’s response, predictable to a fault, was to say they’d be adding Spare Air* to the pool employees’ gear. Their attorney’s immediate response was to cry foul, claiming that the citations were baseless, and vowing to fight them. A mere $75,000 against their draw of over a billion dollars a year, and they intend to fight it. Why? Because the citations are an expression of guilt and responsibility which could be used in civil court. SeaWorld is covering its assets by denying responsibility, and continuing to claim that working with these creatures can be safe.

Enter the Whistleblower. Linda Simons, who was hired as safety chief for that SeaWorld location a week before Dawn’s death, claims she was fired for cooperating too thoroughly with the OSHA investigation. In her version of things, the violations cited are the tip of the iceberg. Ms. Simons said that SeaWorld held a safety drill two weeks before the fatal attack that “… went so poorly that they stopped the drill and were going to have another one.” She went on to claim SeaWorld withheld documents from OSHA investigators and blocked interviews with trainers that might have been critical to the outcome of their investigation. Predictably, SeaWorld is now trying to claim that Ms. Simons tried to extort money from them to keep quiet, and that she was fired for “poor performance” during the OSHA investigation of Dawn Brancheau’s death, that she “demonstrated an inability to conduct herself to the acceptable standard of competence, transparency, integrity or professionalism.” Allow us to extrapolate: She didn’t lie the way they wanted her to. And SeaWorld is willing to do or say whatever it takes to defend over 1 billion dollars a year in revenue. In light of that, the $380,000 they spent on lobbying is pocket change, and their employees’ lives are even more disposable.

The solution seems obvious enough. Orcas should be returned to the wild, as they are not appropriate for keeping in captivity. Of a group of nearly 60 orcas taken from the Pacific Northwest some forty years ago, only one remains alive today, Lolita, at the disgusting Miami SeaQuarium. That she is in relatively good health and has not harmed anyone in her 40 years of captivity (in a tank just 3 times the length of her body, and 1 foot deeper than she is tall,) is testimony to her good will towards us. Nevertheless, her previous companion bashed his own head into the walls of that little concrete puddle until he finally died. When he did, the facility, owned by the Hertz family, had his body dumped unceremoniously in the trash.

Can an orca commit suicide? Can an orca make the choice to attack or kill? Is an orca smart enough to survive if it were released to the wild? Apparently so, and without question. Neuroscientist Lori Marino led a team that did an MRI on a deceased orca’s brain, and determined that they had “an astounding potential for intelligence.” Performed in 2004, these findings are not news. SeaWorld most certainly should have been aware of it. When asked if she felt that Tilikum could have intention, the neuroscientist replied “I’m not trying to second-guess what was in this particular whale’s mind, but, certainly, if we are talking about whether killer whales have the wherewithal and the cognitive capacity to intentionally strike out at someone, or to be angry, or to really know what they are doing, I would have to say the answer is yes.”

It’s apparent that orcas are sentient, and should be considered sovereign. It is no stretch to say that capturing and keeping dolphins in captivity is this century’s slavery. It is impossible for us to create an artificial environment suitable to them, even if one could discard the ethical wrong of keeping them in captivity. Clearly, to Tilikum, enslaving him is unacceptable. Just as any other abducted individual is within his rights to use lethal force to escape his tormentors, this orca’s actions are justifiable. There is no reason whatsoever to think that he would pose a threat to human beings if he were released and left unmolested. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that he could not be released successfully. Orca experts have spoken; it is doable to release him. So… What to do about Tilikum? That’s pretty obvious. Set up a reintroduction plan and set him free. He and Lolita may even hit it off. Imagine the stories they’d tell their children and grandchildren!

In times to come, these will either be considered the Dark Days of humanity, or the beginning of our age of enlightenment. Indeed, the ways we treat the other creatures with whom we share this planet is a sign of our own merit. How intelligent must a creature be before it “deserves” the inalienable rights we afford ourselves? Does a mother teaching her baby how to get along in the world qualify it? How about if we add complex language and complex social relationships very similar to our own? Let’s sweeten the pot with that they are at the top of the food chain within their environment, the sea. Remembering how dolphins have shown benevolence towards us for so long, just what else might one require before we recognize their right to self-determination?

There really is no difficult decision to be made in the case of orcas. They should not be held captive against their will. They should be released, and we should educate our children to enjoy these majestic and wonderful creatures in the wild, where they truly belong.


*Spare Air are small (1.7 to 3 cu ft.) air canisters that SCUBA divers use as a backup in case their regulators fail or they run out of air in their tanks while beneath the surface. Unfortunately, one is highly unlikely to be able to get to that canister, (let alone get it to one’s mouth, let alone keep it there,) while being tossed to and fro like a rag down in a 12,000 pound predator’s jaws. The devices, which cost between $200 and $250 in most stores, are simply not a solution to any but the most passive of incidents. If an orca was gently holding a human down under water, it might buy time, but in any actual attack, the device is likely to be useless.

**Regarding Representative Grayson, it has been said that he was simply looking out for the jobs of his constituents. Many apt and informed minds suspect the Representative’s motives were nowhere near that noble. Grayson has a history of pro-SeaWorld remarks, even calling the facility the “crown jewel” and endorsing its “wonderful conservation and education programs” We’re left to wonder. Though SeaWorld means big bucks for his area, SeaWorld has spent at least $580,000 on congressional lobbyists so far this year, $380,000 of that between April and June, after the trainer’s death drew scrutiny from the federal government.

Research, Editorial, and Opinion Submitted to the Protect The Ocean Blog by John Taylor

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1 reply
  1. Glencairn Murray says:

    These wonders of Mother Nature ,beautiful and dangerous in captivity ,must be soveriegn,their freedom is essential to their survival.We have much in common!


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