Why Was The Sea World Trainer Killed By Captive Orca Tilikum?

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After considerable time spent researching this latest tragic death at a theme park, I am left more with the question of how captive orcas can survive mentally, emotionally, and physically than I am with any question of why this happened. Tilikum’s story illustrates all that is wrong with the management of captive cetaceans, and underscores the need to increase legislation to protect these animals because those institutions have found ways to circumvent laws and eviscerate the marine mammal protection act.

For those of you who may have missed coverage of the death of a Sea World trainer yesterday, here is a news clip:

I also recommend OrcaNetwork’s thoughtful press release for more insight into the event.

But what about Tilikum? He was captured in Iceland in 1983, at the age of two years – this is about the equivalent age of a two-three year old child, an age when young orcas are still tightly bound to their mothers and other family members (whom they stay with throughout their lives).

Once captured, he was kept in a holding facility at Hafnarfjord Marine Zoo, Saedyrasafnid, in a small pool made of concrete (measuring 66 x 49ft and only 20ft deep). There are many allegations that Sea World financed the captures and holding of orcas in foreign countries to skirt the marine mammal protection act, but I have not been able to substantiate this yet.

Tilikum, still very young, was then sold to Canada’s now defunct Sealand of the Pacific where he was kept with two other young orcas. The training regimen there is reputed to have included food shortage and sensory deprivation:

Walters reports that some marine mammals including seals, sea lions and orcas were kept in a permanently “hungry” state at Sealand or deprived of food if they did not perform or co-operate. In an April 1991 letter to the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association, Walters wrote: “If the killer whales did not enter the module pool [a small, dark, metal holding pool about 20 feet (6 m) deep and 26 feet (8 m) in diameter] at the end of the day to spend the night, we, as trainers, were instructed to withhold their end of-the-day allotted food. This was usually at least 25 to 35 percent of their daily food intake.”

While in the module, the three whales, one male (Tilikum) and two females, were barely able to turn around, much less escape from each other. They often cut or scratched their skin on the metal sides. Walters told me that he once saw the young male with flukes abraded and bleeding. As well, the orcas sometimes fought and suffered other injuries. Walters, now a biologist who has spent many hours observing wild orcas, said that the injuries were more severe than the usual rakes and scratches which result from orca play in the wild. On one occasion, the female, Nootka, was fighting with the others and crashed into the module, striking her head on the metal side. Her head was bleeding and blood came out of her blowhole.

Those factors no doubt contributed to the attack and drowning of an assistant trainer at Sealand in 1991 by Tilikum and his tank mates. Following that unfortunate event at least one of the three orcas – Tilikum – was slated to be returned and to be set free in Iceland, but Sea World, eager to acquire another orca, stepped in. Sea World managed to persuade the National Marine Fisheries Service and the government of Iceland that they should be able to import and keep Tilikum even though the marine mammal protection act did not allow for it as a first resort. In a letter to the government of Iceland, Sea World wrote:

The provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act under which the emergency permit was granted provide that if it is “feasible” to return the imported animal “to its natural habitat” then “steps to achieve that result shall be taken.” Although this provision was intended to address the rescue and release of beached and stranded animals, it was nevertheless incorporated by reference into the emergency import permit for Tilikum. The permit also stated that if Sea World’s November 7, 1991 application for permanent placement of Tilikum was disapproved, then NMFS could require Sea World to release Tilikum “at the original location of capture.

And where did this get Tilikum? Known to be dangerous, his public performances are limited as are his interactions with other orcas, even though it looks like Sea World allows him to ‘mentor’ young whales, which makes no sense whatsoever.

But Tilikum’s main job these days is to breed – public sentiment is against capture of wild orcas and the captive gene pool is limited so his function as a breeding male is priceless to Sea World. The problem: actually getting him together with females is astronomically difficult since the females are in theme parks all over the world.

Sea World’s answer? They trained this unfortunate, unhappy and deprived animal to give up his sperm. They tease him with estrous (‘in heat”) females, or excite him by putting other males in his tank, then he has to ejaculate into a specially designed container. The sperm is frozen and shipped all over, and these geniuses cross-breed Atlantic and Pacific range orcas, and unbelievably…even the meat eating “transient” type (which eat seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, and otters) with the fish eating “resident” types.

Why did Tilicum grab his trainer, drag her around the pool, drowning her? Every one of us who works with animals knows one thing: there is always a measured risk because ultimately our ability to communicate with other species is limited. You can never let your guard down or go unconscious around even normal ones – something can trigger a reaction from an animal quicker than you can react. They have bad days, and hormonal shifts just like we do. Make an animal like Tilikum half crazy, and you have to redouble your efforts to read them, tread carefully, and never expect them to care for you.

So I ask: when do we decide to do something to stop the companies that are making so much money at such a high price?

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