Last week at SeaWorld Park in Orlando, Florida, veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau died after traumatic injuries were inflicted by a 22-foot, 12,000-pound orca named Tilikum. The whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her into the water during a live performance in front of spectators. No one can say for certain why this attack occurred, but Danny Groves, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) says, “These tragic events are a reminder that orcas are wild, strong, and often unpredictable animals.”
The recent attack has animal advocates across the country voicing their opposition to keeping orcas in captivity. Dr Andrew Foote, an expert on wild orcas from the University of Aberdeen, U.K., says, “They are highly social animals that tend to live in cohesive groups, so it’s quite an artificial environment to capture them and put them in a small area.” Experts say that killer whales travel more than 100 miles per day, so to keep them confined in a small area is the equivalent of a human being forced to live in a bathtub.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) stated on its Web site: “The only thing that people learn from visiting a SeaWorld theme park is how miserable life is for animals held there. Children see mere shadows of animals, defeated beings who are not behaving as they should and cannot do what nature intended for them. And these parks teach all the wrong lessons: that it is acceptable to imprison animals; to deprive them of freedom of movement and thought; to forbid them the chance to establish their natural territory and explore; to breed and separate them as we, not they, please; and to let them go insane from loneliness.”
It’s hard to argue that there’s anything “natural” about the way the orcas and dolphins are living at SeaWorld. These are intelligent, social animals that are confined to small tanks where the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, which orca experts say can drive some of them insane. Some claim that many of these animals were violently captured from their homes and once they enter the circus world, common training methods include withholding food and isolation if they refuse to perform.
Putting aside beliefs on holding orcas in captivity, one question has yet to be answered—what should happen to Tilikum? As far as I can see it, there are only three options. One option is to prevent trainers from working closely with Tilikum and allow him to remain as part of the show, but with no physical interaction.
Another option would be to euthanize him. According to the Huffington Post, the American Family Association, a religious right group, is urging that Tilikum be put down, preferably by stoning. Citing Tilly’s history of violent altercations, the group is slamming SeaWorld for not listening to Scripture in how to deal with the animal. Whether you’re religious or not, stoning seems a bit extreme.
The third option to deal with Tilikum, which most animal rights advocates support, is to release him back into the wild. The WDCS has repeatedly called for captive whales to be returned, mostly because captivity appears to drastically reduce their life expectancy. But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The 1993 movie Free Willy was based on the orca named Keiko, who was captured in the wild in 1979 and brought into captivity when he was just two-years-old. Pressure from the public eventually caused his release back into the wild in 2000. According to reports, Keiko rarely interacted with wild orcas, never integrated into a wild pod, and struggled to learn how to hunt. Even though his trainers tried to break his need for human contact, he kept following his trainers’ boat. Keiko eventually died, still semi-captive in 2003.
Tilikum was captured close to 30 years ago near Iceland and is one of the most valuable animals at SeaWorld, fathering 13 calves. He is currently the largest orca in captivity. Even though Tilikum has now been linked with three deaths, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison said last week that Tilikum will remain an “active, contributing member of the team,” in part because the killer whale show is big business at SeaWorld. Although federal and state wildlife statutes cover the care and handling of captive animals, Florida fish and wildlife laws do not require an owner to euthanize a captive animal after a fatal attack. Surprisingly, I had to explain to a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) that the whale would not actually have to stand trial.
My hope is that this unfortunate incident might lead to a well thought-out discussion on phasing out these marine parks. Once you see these animals in the wild, it’s difficult to theorize they are leading comparable lives in captivity. As far as Tilikum is concerned, release into the wild could prove difficult as he doesn’t have any viable teeth remaining. Representatives from PETA maintain that SeaWorld should provide a “coastal refuge” for Tilikum, where the killer whale could live as close as possible to its natural habitat. However, SeaWorld stands by their statement that they will continue to use Tilikum, “…who delights audiences with outsized splashes…” in their performances. Personally, I believe that if SeaWorld insists on using orcas and other large animals as a way to make money, they should be required to set aside some of their large profits to build and maintain “retirement sanctuaries” for these animals, if they cannot be reintroduced into the wild. I’m curious to hear what readers think. Please voice your comments online about what you think should happen to Tilikum.