25th 2010
The “Killer” Whale

Posted under misc & news

First, my deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dawn Brancheau. She was clearly a dedicated and well loved person and she will be missed by many.

I’ve been following a lot of the stories and commentary about this latest incident of a captive orca’s killing a human trainer. Not surprisingly, that leads to having thoughts of my own.

I used to have a strong aversion to orcas, or killer whales. When I was 9 years old, I went to see a movie called Orca, a thriller. My one enduring image from the film is of a large orca surging up onto a beach, trying to grab some human(s) there. We left the movie before it was over because it was so terrifying to us. I have also once been to SeaWorld in Florida, around the same time, and seen a killer whale show, though I don’t honestly remember much about it. I knew just about nothing about the reality of orcas.

Then, as an adult with a growing interest in and passion for whales, I finally picked up a book (that I had passed over multiple time before) called “Listening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us” by Alexandra Morton. This is a highly engaging and accessible book which demystified orcas for me and made them much more intriguing animals. They were no longer in my head as mindless, vicious killers, but as intelligent, complicated animals. Part of the book talks about how she started by working in marine parks and then moved to study orcas in the wild as she became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea and practice of orcas in captivity.

I find that one of the things bothering me most about the coverage of this latest killer-whale-kills-human story is that almost universally it is called a killer whale, not an orca. While  I know that killer whale is a legitimate and commonly used name for this species, I feel like it is also deliberately ramping up the monster image of this particular whale, Tilikum. That he has a history of killing another trainer and having been found with another deceased human just adds to that portrayal. BUT, in the wild, there are no documented cases of a killer whale’s killing a human. There are rare stories of attacks, usually attributed to a whale’s presumed perception of a human as prey. The name “killer whale” seems to come from a mistranslation of Spanish fisherman who dubbed these whales as “whale killers” because they witnessed orcas pursuing and killing other whales.

It is a good thing that this is sparking a lot of discussion about captive large marine mammals and shows, though it is a result of an unquestionably tragic event. Captive whale shows are undoubtedly big money for marine parks. But are they really educational? What do we learn about a whale’s life in the open oceans by watching them perform tricks? It’s a pretty safe bet that wild orcas (or sea lions or dolphins etc etc) are not bouncing balls off their noses or leaping through hoops out in the wild. I am sure that some facts about orcas are conveyed through the show’s narration, but do any of them make the sort of impact which will lead to greater awareness and efforts towards conservation? (Really, if someone could tell me, I would like to know.)

Animal expert Jack Hanna chimed in today, with unwavering support for both the whale and SeaWorld. I am glad he points out that this is not the whale’s fault (what we as humans attribute to the human condition of fault, that is), but I am struck at how he names SeaWorld the world experts on killer whales. I am sure their body of knowledge is immense, and it does seem that they partner with scientists from around the world. Their site is unclear (on quick review) as to what scientists they have on staff who are out in the field. I hope they do have some because there is no way to fully understand a wide-roaming animal that is stuck in a cement tank. I am going to keep digging because I would like to know more about their work and programs overall.

I think Hanna’s saddest statement is:

“Let’s say 20, 30 years from now, there’s 200 killer whales left in the wild. Let me tell you where we’re going to go: We’re going to go to SeaWorld and see what to [do] to save this magnificent creature. That’s how valuable it is for what we’re doing with research.”

Not a single word is in this interview about conservation, or about how human activity has threatened all of the populations of all whales around the world, making this sort of captive breeding/preservation necessary in the first place.

He also said:

“Some people said they know what the whale [is] thinking. That’s impossible. I don’t know what the whale is thinking I don’t know what stress is to a whale. All I know is that SeaWorld provides the best possible care, and I’ve in been going to those parks for 30-something years. And I always seen nothing but animals that seem to be very, very happy.”

Which is it, Jack? How can it be impossible for people to know what the whale is thinking, and yet you then assert that the animals seem happy.  That strikes me as a dramatic contradiction. If you do not know what stresses the animals, can you really know if they are happy? (Maybe they are, I don’t claim to know one way or another. I’m just reacting to the mixed bag of anthropomorphism that this story is generating.)

I am glad that this whale will not be euthanized as he was acting out of instinct and not likely out of any malice, but have we also condemned him and his fellow killer whales to a life of torture caused by confinement, all for the sake of research?  I don’t know what the best answer is – there are no magically large water parks that simulate the ocean environment. There are no easy answers, period.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have done a “swim with dolphins” thing, when I was on a cruise that stopped in Cozumel. These dolphins were captive in a pen fenced off the beach, not in a cement tank, but yes, still captive. I admit that I could not resist the opportunity. I do realize now the very very mixed good/bad about doing this sort of activity. I also fully acknowledge the powerful draw of these charismatic animals which is hard to resist. Does make one wonder if dolphins think about swimming with us… (No, I don’t for one second think that they do, but it would be an interesting thing to discover, what they think of us wacky humans.)


10 Responses to “The “Killer” Whale”

  1. Cynthia on 25 Feb 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Perhaps Tilikum could be released back to the wild in the same way Keiko was. At least Keiko got a chance to swim free and mingle with his kind up until his death in 2003.

    I wish Orcas were not kept in captivity . . . and have been saying so for a long time . . . I just wish someone would listen.

    Perhaps the NE Whale Center can get you the information about scientific staff and support at Sea World?

  2. whalegeek on 25 Feb 2010 at 10:44 pm #

    Thank you for reading and commenting!

    I’d agree that release would be the ideal solution, but Keiko’s release was not really entirely successful so I think it would be difficult to try with the current population of captive whales. This sucks, but the question comes down to the potentially unanswerable “which is better?” question – ongoing captivity or a whole new sort of stress of being in the wild but still dependent on humans.

    I don’t know if the Whale Center folks would know about SeaWorld programs but I will make a note to ask on a whale watch. I don’t think it would be a high priority question for them to answer otherwise. The Director of Center was just on the local news making a case for the benefit of these shows, which I found a bit surprising. His reasoning is that it brings whales before people who might otherwise not see them or develop better empathy for them. While that may be quite true, I still wonder what the trade off is for the whales stuck in those pens.

  3. Graham on 26 Feb 2010 at 5:01 am #

    I’m deeply conflicted about this (as I suspect you are too). On the one hand, I am bothered about these animals being in captivity. On the other, I have been to SeaWorld (San Diego) and greatly enjoyed the Shamu shows. I’ve also been on Whale-watching cruises from SD and seen whales in the wild.

    In SW’s defense, I do believe that the trainers do show a lot of concern for the animals in their care. They seem to be very knowledgeable about whales in the wild. They seem to be very aware about their behavior. I don’t know about whales, but I do know that SW in SD do take in a lot of stranded and hurt marine animals and nurse them back to health.

    They appear to see the captive creatures as “ambassadors” of sorts, helping people to become more aware of things like the environment, endangered species, etc. And to a certain degree, I think it works. I know my daughter loved being at SeaWorld, and it seems to have had an effect on her curiosity about the natural world.

    I have seen the names “Killer Whale” and “Orca” used pretty much evenly in the media, to be quite honest, so I don’t think this is a case of the media trying to overplay the “killer” aspect. And from looking at the comments to a lot of these news stories, it seems like the public are overwhelmingly sympathetic towards Tilikum.

  4. Anne on 26 Feb 2010 at 6:09 am #

    Like you and many others, I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don’t think highly intelligent animals (cetaceans and higher primates) should be kept in captivity, particularly wild-caught ones (i they’re born in captivity I suspect it is not quite as bad for them, though I guess I can’t know). On the other hand, I’ll never forget spending about an hour making eye contact with a beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium some years ago (before I’d ever gone out whale-watching, but after I’d become interested in them) – the intelligence and communication was unmistakable, and changed me, and it wasn’t an encounter I could have had in the wild, most likely.

    But what this also makes me think of is that we do wild animals a disservice by cutesy-fying them. And it happens to whales a lot. Smiley dolphins, cute round bobble-headed orcas. Something like this happens and we realize they are animals who are, by their nature, built to kill large mammals – good-sized seals are about the size of humans, and are the natural prey of some orcas. People think of cetaceans as sweet, friendly, social critters who’d probably love us if they only knew us. But they are ferocious hunters. Even baleen whales who just eat krill and little fish – they do that ferociously, in their own way! So, if this maybe reminds people that whales are wild ferocious animals and not fuzzy bunnies, maybe that’s one small good thing?

    (I think of this sometimes when I smooch my cats on the nose and then realize they are carnivores who would be perfectly delighted to eviscerate small mammals if they got half a chance. Sorta makes me stop and think now and then.)

  5. Cynthia on 26 Feb 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Perhaps Keiko’s “freedom” was less than ideal it does point to a potential solution for keeping the ones presently in captivity in better circumstances. They should be moved to some protected location similar to the one where Keiko spent his last days, weeks, and months. It would be a hundredfold, perhaps thousand fold improvement over the ridiculously small tanks they are presently in.

    There’s no idea solution for the ones presently in captivity but the ideal solution for the future is to no more put any large marine mammal in captivity.

    I am uncomfortable with using their intelligence as one (of many) reasons for not keeping them in captivity as that smacks of the anthropomorphism you dislike so much. The real consideration is the environment they exist in naturally . . . anything different from that would be unsatisfactory.

  6. whalegeek on 26 Feb 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Graham, I think you are absolutely right that the trainers care deeply for their animals. I don’t have an issue with them. In many ways, those trainers are the whales’ best advocates. And I have also heard about the good work SD does with injured and stranded animals.

    I do think it’s a bit too simple to say that SD sees the whales as ambassadors. I am sure that is part of it, but there is also no denying the powerful financial draw of those shows. It is a good thing that many people of all ages have taken away a clearer sense of conservation and awareness after a whale show. But I think the same can be achieved with smaller animals. I have taken all three of my nephews to the New England Aquarium long before they saw a whale and they came away with wider eyes. Whether it be Myrtle the Turtle or a shark in the Great Ocean Tank or jellyfish, each marine animal has the power to open eyes.

    I too am glad that Tilikum is being seen sympathetically. And I am glad some outlets are not dwelling on the killer part of the name of the whale…

  7. whalegeek on 26 Feb 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    I’ve had the same experience at the Mystic Aquarium, being entranced by the belugas. They were doing one those “close encounters” things with a visitor too and I’ll admit to feeling envy and wanting to do the same.

    You make a great point about the cute effect. Dolphins have long been seen as gentle because they *look* like they are smiling. The real life of a dolphin actually can involve a fair bit of violence, even to each other. It’s that double edged sword of the charisma with the reality.

  8. whalegeek on 26 Feb 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    I would wager that there will be much more discussion about potential release scenarios, but SeaWorld has also clearly tagged Tilikum as a valuable breeding male so I think they would part with him very reluctantly if at all.

    I understand your point regarding the intelligence of these animals. I’d offer that this is much less anthropomorphic than seeing a performing marine mammal and deciding it is happy. Intelligence has been demonstrated in the wild, being able to quantify environments and react in a fashion that indicates abilities to learn and discern. I’d also offer that this is a critical element to their natural environment, being able to adapt “on the fly” and learn new things. For me, it’s part of the larger picture, not just where they live but how they live.

  9. Yu Kosier on 01 Feb 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had problems with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  10. whalegeek on 03 Mar 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    Apologies for the slow answer to your question. I am actually using WordPress for this blog. Happy to say that I haven’t had any problems with it!

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