By Helene O'Barry
Horrified parents and children, who had come to SeaWorld's Orlando amusement park to watch the killer whales perform, were quickly ushered out of the killer whale show area by SeaWorld staff. On February 24th 2010, the 6-ton killer whale Tilikum pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, underwater and dragged her around his tank until she drowned. This was the third time in the last 20 years that Tilikum had been involved in the death of a person. In fact, there have been several other incidents in which captive killer whales have caused injury to humans. In December 2009, another SeaWorld killer whale killed a trainer, 29-year-old Alexis Martínez.
These attacks by captive killer whales on humans, I believe, should be seen as nature's way of telling us that something is wrong. Terribly wrong -- not with Tilikum or any of the other captive killer whales who have attacked humans -- but with the ways in which these animals are treated in captivity.
In nature, killer whales are opportunistic foragers that travel many miles every day. They can dive down to 300 feet and are among the fastest swimming whales in the world, reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour or more. Studies have shown that killer whales are highly social and family-oriented marine mammals that possess cognitive abilities and carry out several variations of learning-based foraging. These large-brained animals demonstrate amazingly complex communication skills and social structures. Forming lasting bonds with their relatives and other pod members, a killer whale remains with its pod its entire life.
Only two events will make a killer whale leave its pod: death and capture. Tilikum was about two years old when he was yanked out of the ocean in 1983, near Iceland . Ever since, he has been kept in small concrete tanks, and finally ending up in Sea World’s Orlando amusement park where, according to an anonymous account by a former SeaWorld contractor, Tilikum spent much of his time alone in a 15-foot deep pool.
Confined for nearly three decades in a minuscule and artificial concrete environment, the diversity and challenges of his life in nature were replaced with the monotony and boredom of captivity. Whereas killer whales in the wild can make complex decisions regarding the details of their lives, captive killer whales lose all control. Something as basic as fulfilling their hunger is controlled by their human keepers, and food, in the form of dead fish, is used as rewards for tricks well-done.
Incidents of aggression, as shown by Tilikum, should be expected when free-ranging and sonic marine mammals experience lifelong confinement in a barren and highly controlling environment where their natural abilities can find no expression. These powerful animals become powerless in captivity. Captive killer whales live in constant conflict between their true identity as a wild animal and their forced role as a performing pet. The stress and anxiety they endure must become enormous over time. And this, I believe, is the reason why we see captive killer whales attack humans: their attacks are a normal reaction to the profound abnormality of their lives in captivity, coupled with the strict oppression of self-expression that is imposed on them.
Since Tilikum's capture, his family and pod members have engaged in natural activities of wild killer whales, such as traveling long distances, as well as foraging and nourishing their strong social bonds. Meanwhile, Tilikum has been used for splashing audiences. I believe that Tilikum's fatal attack happened because of a deeply felt frustration at having to suppress who he really is and become something that he is not.
SeaWorld currently confines 21 killer whales in three theme parks. While not all of them are viable candidates for release, they could all be relocated to a natural sea pen. In a fenced-off area in the ocean, the killer whales would once again be able to enjoy the natural rhythm of the sea, the tides and the currents and be free from human exploitation. This would drastically improve the quality of their lives, thus preventing any further attacks on humans.