Orca incidents in captivity

Another friendly orca calf, Luna
Luna, L 98, was another lost whale who befriended people. Photo Credit: photos1.blogger.com

In the wild, orcas behave benignly towards humans, and are reasonably safe to be around, but in captivity these gentle animals can act in ways that are dangerous to their human caretakers – as the recent tragic death of a trainer at Seaworld illustrates.

In my opinion there are three main reasons that orcas hurt their handlers: they don’t understand our frailty and breath-holding ability, they are constantly frustrated by the one way communication we have with them, and they experience discomfort, pain, and fear at our hands.

The orca whale “Lolita”, taken from the endangered Southern Resident orca population is no exception.

Please watch the following clip with a critical eye, and you will be able to learn a great deal about what the life of a trained whale is like when they are not performing. Notice how the Seaquarium seems to have controlled what the camera is allowed to see of “Lolita’s” tank (it is small and she her only companion is a Pacific white-sided dolphin) and to turn this into a public relations piece. Then pay attention to how the trainer keeps her close – by giving her chunks of fish.

But here is the most important thing to notice: as the interview goes on, “Lolita” begins to try different behaviors to get a piece of fish. She doesn’t understand that she is supposed to sit there and be cute for the camera, what she has been taught is that she has to do something to get her food, but in this situation she doesn’t know what it is.

Within the few minutes it took to shoot this video, the whale started to increase the scale of her behavior, searching her repertoire to figure out what the heck the trainer expected. I can almost guarantee that her trainer was aware of her every second and knew exactly how long he could push her patience. Most likely when the cameras left she was given the rest of her food, but hopefully someone ran through a familiar routine with her to ease her back from her annoyance level – had that gone on much longer the whale would have done something to show her feelings, such as swimming off at speed or slapping the water with her tail.
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This orca has nothing to do all day and night except to bob in her tank or sink to the bottom, and wait for something interesting to happen. And by the way, one of the reasons theme parks prefer to put Pacific white-sided dolphins in with orcas is that those dolphins are fast and agile, and are less likely to become injured when the orcas want to play.

Below are the most widely known incidents with captive orcas – the first entries are about orcas that hurt themselves or each other, the second series is about encounters that involved humans. Most of these are recounted in ‘Dying to Entertain You‘ (linked at the end).

“In the 1970s, a male named Hugo broke an observation window at Miami Seaquarium, causing significant water loss and slicing off the end of his nose.

In 1985, researcher Jerye Mooney witnessed Corky – then at Marineland in California – break an observation window. The incident resulted in the loss of over a third of the water in the pool.

In 1991, Kahana died at Sea World, Texas after colliding with a pool wall. She suffered multiple skull fractures, cerebral contusions and severe haemorrhaging.

In 1992, a young female named Samoa died at Sea World at the age of only 13. For months prior to her death, horrified onlookers had watched her performing bizarre, repetitive movements, hurling her body into the air and crashing down again and again upon the hard surface of a wide shelf at the side of her pool. Sea World staff claimed never to have witnessed such behaviour.

Keet, the original ‘Grandbaby Shamu’ born in February 1993, has been observed by visitors allegedly slamming his head and body repeatedly into the walls of his tank at Sea World, Texas. He was taken from his mother, Kalina, at the age of just one year, 8 months.

During the autumn of 1995, Splash, then six years old, was involved in an incident at Sea World’s San Diego park. It appears that he was interacting with another male when he collided with the side of the pool, cutting his chin badly and requiring stitches.

During 1997, there were even reports that Keiko – the male Icelandic orca transferred from a sub-standard pool on Mexico to much improved conditions at Oregon Coast Aquarium, as the first stage in a rehabilitation and potential release programme – was repeatedly banging his head against the viewing window of his pool and displaying signs of aggression. The aquarium was forced to temporarily close the viewing area to visitors, who were charged $8.50 a head to see the famous ‘Free Willy’orca.

A female caught at Taiji in February 1997 and sent to the Taiji Whale Museum was observed in May 1997 by orca expert Dr Paul Spong to be making a “strange twisting movement with her body every minute or two.”

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued SeaWorld four citations this week that carry nearly $26,000 in fines. PHOTO BY JEFF KRAUS VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

Aggression towards trainers:

“Marine mammal veterinarian Jay Sweeney writes that ‘aggression expressed by killer whales towards their trainers is a matter of grave concern [and has] included butting, biting, grabbing, dunking and holding trainers on the bottom of pools and preventing their escape. Several situations have resulted in potentially life-threatening situations.’
In March 1987, at Sea World, San Diego, 21 year-old trainer Jonathan Smith was suddenly grabbed by a six-ton orca and carried to the bottom of the tank. He was carried, bleeding to the surface, but no sooner was he released, than a second whale slammed into him. Both whales repeatedly dragged him to the bottom of the pool, as if trying to drown him. He finally escaped from the pool, but had suffered a ruptured kidney, lacerations to his liver and severe cuts.

In June 1987, 28-year-old trainer Joanne Weber had a three-ton orca, Kandu, land on her during rehearsals at Sea World. Joanne fractured a bone in her neck which has resulted in permanent loss of head movement.

November 1987, Orky, the five-ton male came crashing down upon 26-year-old trainer John Sillick during a show at Sea World, San Diego. At the time, Sillick was riding on the back of a female orca. Sillick suffered severe fractures to both hips, pelvis, ribs and legs. He nearly died of his injuries.

In February 1991, the first death occurred. Part-time trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, slipped and fell into the orca pool at Sealand of the Pacific, Canada. Sealand trainers had stopped doing in-the-water-work, so she wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. Three orcas were in the pool: Tillikum, Haida and Nootka. One of the orcas seized her in its mouth and began dragging her around the pool, mostly underwater.

Although a champion swimmer, Byrne proved no match for three orcas determined to keep her in the pool and she finally drowned. It was several hours before her body could be recovered. Smith, Sillick and Weber all filed lawsuits. Despite being encouraged to go to court, all three accepted out-of-court settlements, with confidentiality clauses (‘gag orders’)attached – effectively ensuring that many pertinent details remain hidden. Keltie Byrne’s parents have so far decided not to sue.

On 12th June, 1999, at the 2.30pm show, Sea World trainer, Ken Peters, was shaken up but otherwise unharmed after an incident at the San Diego facility in which 23 year-old female orca, Kasatka, grabbed him by the leg. Previously, Kasatka had been circling and had started to thrash around in the water near Mr Peters. Then, without warning, she grabbed him by the shin with her teeth and tried to push him out of the pool. The incident forced the cancellation of the show. Sea World later issued a statement that the orca would be given “additional training to discourage aggressive behaviour”. Spokesperson Darla Davis said that “we’re keeping her in the show but not allowing any trainers in the water with her and she will be doing additional behaviour modification.” She added that “while it is unusual for a whale to bite a trainer, Kasatka is the dominant whale in her pod (sic) and will definitely be more aggressive than the others.” This incident was the second of its kind involving Kasatka: in 1993, she had previously tried to bite a trainer.

On the morning of July 6th, 1999, a member of the public was found dead in an orca enclosure. The body of Daniel Dukes, 27, was discovered naked and draped over the back of male orca, Tillikum, at Sea World’s Florida site. Daniel, whose address was listed as a Hare Krishna temple in Miami, is believed to have hidden in the marine park at closing time on July 5th. Authorities say he either jumped, fell or was pulled into Tillikum’s tank. At almost 5 tonnes, the 14 year-old male is the largest in captivity and was also involved in the death at Sealand in 1991.

Tillikum may have played with Duke’s 81kg body as if it was a toy. Whilst initial reports suggested that the body had no obvious injuries, the autopsy report indicated that Dukes had been bitten in the groin after drowning in cold water. Duke’s parents initially filed a several million dollar law suit against Sea World for pain and suffering caused at the death of their only son. Attorney Patricia Sigman said that Sea World was legally liable as it had portrayed the orca as human loving, and as a “huggable stuffed toy”. She went on to say that an inaccurate image had been given of this whale, when in fact, “he is extremely dangerous.” Sea World said at the time that they would be vigorously contesting the suit. General manager, Vic Abbey, stated that “a fellow trespasses on our property, evades our security, scales two very clear barriers and takes off his clothes and jumps into 50 degree water with an 11,000 pound (4,990kg) killer whale. This is an incredibly unwise thing to do. He is responsible for his actions.” In early October 1999, Duke’s parents dropped their suit. Vic Abbey said he did not know why the suit was dropped, but stressed it had not been settled.

The 1991 tragedy at Sealand has no precedent, and the full details surrounding the 1999 death of Daniel Dukes may never be known, so it is impossible to assess whether Tillikum played any active role in his death or whether Dukes was unable to swim and
simply drowned. However, other incidents involving sometimes serious injury to trainers are by no means as isolated as the marine parks would have the public believe.

So what exactly was going on in these and other incidents?

Why are the whales displaying such open aggression towards their trainers? Part of the reason may lie in the training philosophy espoused by each marine park. Graeme Ellis,a former trainer and now researching orca in the wild, maintains that a good training programme is one which keeps orcas mentally healthy and interested, whilst promoting trainer safety. ‘It’s not how many tricks you can train them to do in two months; it’s how long you can maintain a whale’s sanity… We seem to have a limited imagination when it comes to keeping these animals from becoming bored or neurotic.’

Bud Krames, a senior trainer, resigned because he didn’t agree with the new training system. He estimated that around 35 trainers also departed within the space of one year. Some commentators feel that part of the problem has been an over-dependence upon young or inexperienced trainers, unfamiliar both with training signals and with the particular personality of each orca.

…Over the years, most ‘accidents’ have occurred at facilities which routinely feature trainers performing in-the-water stunts such as riding the whales around the pool or balancing upon the orca’s head.”

For the full article and references: Dying To Entertain You
(Since that article was published, the aggression towards trainers has continued, including a second time on trainer Ken Peters.)

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