Friday, February 26, 2010

Kill The Whale!

By Pablo Fanque, All This Is That National Affairs Editor
and Jack Brummet, Editor-in-chief, All This Is That

Magnificent but deadly, is how a Florida newspaper described Orcas.  I live within walking distance of Puget Sound, where we have pods of Orcas.  I have seen them all my life out in the sound, sailed by them in ferries as whole pods breached and frolicked, and even watched on TV when they were captured (specifically Name and Shamu).  It's sad, but not shocking, to hear one they had cooped up in Florida has killed someone.  Tilikum an Orca at SeaWorld has now killed three people.  Our local Orcas don't have such an ugly track record.  But they are free to roam the sound and Pacific Ocean, and have social relationships among their pod. 

Tilikum is a star attraction for SeaWorld, and a stud--he's now father to 13 calves.  He is a large Orca, and has been a marquee fixture at SeaWorld--partly because his considerable girth lends itself to making gigantic splashes that awe the tourists.  But his male hormones, that delight the breeders at the park, and his size, that delights the paying visitors also make him dangerous to Dawn Brancheau, his handlers and trainers.  He killed Brancheau, dragging her by her ponytail and drowning her earlier this week.  This isn't completely surprising.  Tillikum is often separated from the seven other whales at SeaWorld, because he is very large.  And "randy." 

"Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said the park's female killer whales typically only want Tilikum around them when they are sexually active." 
But Orcas are extremely social, and the isolation Tilikum experinced may have led to his aggressive behavior (sounds like prison behavior, doesn't it?).  SeaWorld knew this, and only put him in isolation for three days maximum.   Being alone is cruel punishment for a whale.

Dawn Brancheau was not his only victim.  This is a serial killer whale.  In 1991, he was one of three Orcas that drowned a trainer at an aquarium in our neighboring town, Victoria, British Columbia.  In 1999, authorities found a dead body on his back--authorities believe the man snuck into SeaWorld's orca tank and drowned.

Tilikum weighs six tons, twice the size of the next largest whale in captivity in Orlando.  SeaWorld allows no handlers in his tank, and only allow the most seasoned handlers to work with him at the edge of  "the tank."  Many experts say he is so large that any tank man can create is far too small for him.  They also say no tank is large enough for a whale.
"We've proved in the past few years that putting people in solitary confinement makes them crazy. How can we expect anything different from marine animals?" said Edward O. Keith, an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center.

SeaWorld is assembling a panel of experts to decide how best to handle Tilikum in light of this most recent "accident."

Really?  I guess you don't even consider sterner measures when the perp is your tourist attraction's cash cow.  But if this were a Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Malamute, or German Shepherd who just killed their third victim, what do you think their fate would be?  Well, let's face it, they would have never reached their third strike.  The "authorities" would have taken the dog out after their first srike.  And we've done the same dozens of times recently with rogue bears and cougars.  We do it with humans too.

So, what now?  If this was a human, we would never set him free.  If it was a dog, we would have killed him back in 1991.  We could slowly acclimatize him, and eventually set him free.  That's worked with birds, but with whales...we haven't had much luck.

Incredibly, SeaWorld wants to keep him around.   They have a deep pecuniary interest in keeping him performing.   What are a few dead handlers compared to a magnificent revenue-generating marquee whale?  Not much apparently.

Fly him back to Puget Sound and drop him near one of the local pods.  It's sink or swim out there, and he'll make it, or he won't.  But, SeaWorld,  your status quo?  It really isn't working.  It's time to implement the Free Willy option.  You've collected enough of your dollars, sheckels, and piastres.  It's time to free Tilikum and let him enjoy whatever remains of his life.


Jason Hack said...

Larry King (think what you will of him and his show) was on this topic last night. Marine biology specialists Philippe Cousteau stated that orcas do not belong in aquariums, which are far too small to accommodate their nature, and that SeaWorld absolutely can not release an orca who has been kept (arguable) or born into the wild. Both Philippe and another Marine Biologist from the University of Florida used, interestingly enough, the word "disrespectful" when discussing the living conditions and “silly” when describing the shows themselves.

A statement by a fellow trainer explained that the whales are “asked” not “told” to perform. As you quoted, solitary confinement makes people crazy. Has anyone invested any time into studying the psychological affect that confinement has on whales and other species on earth? Tilikum is 22 feet 6 inches and weighs 12,300 pounds. He's the largest orca ever kept in captivity. On average, male orcas reach sexual maturity at age 15. That places Tilikum within 2 years of sexual maturation and may help to explain his already “randy” behavior turning into something deadly.

I am not shocked by Tilikum's behavior. He's a large, social creature living in confinement. SeaWorld, PETA and any other Organization/Company/Corporation/Marine Life Expert can say what he/she/they want. It should never have come to this, ever. These animals should never have been confined by us. If people would like to see orca whales, may they go to the Pacific, Puget Sound or any other place these creatures frequent and observe them in a non-disruptive way.

Jack Brummet said...

I even thought the whale shows were ridiculous when I was a young kid. But maybe that's because I'd seen them in the wild already...