The media love an animal attack story and the “death by whale” narrative produced at Sea World on February 24th has produced hundreds of columns and opinion pieces. They chiefly fall into two broad camps – “It was a tragic accident and the whale was playing” or “These animals aren’t called Killer Whales for nothing and you shouldn’t get in the water”. What seems to be lost in most accounts are the questions of orca behaviour and whether these creatures are behaving naturally or reacting against a captivity which is far from tolerable to them.
The issues surrounding orca captivity are hardly new. In 1992 the Whale and Dolphin Conservation society commissioned a report entitled The Performing Orca. The society sponsored the investigation with an open mind as “there has been considerable confusion over the so-called facts routinely tossed around and argued over by polarized pro and con advocates”.
Researching and writing the report took the author Erich Hoyt almost a year; during which he visited most of the 17 parks around the world that kept orca, travelled to Iceland, the site of most Orca captures, interviewed marine park owners and trainers and top orca scientists from around the world. The report (a pdf copy of which can be found here) investigated, amongst other things, the educational value of keeping orca, the value of scientific studies funded by marine parks, the world orca trade, the impact on captivity conditions on orca behaviour and the dangers to trainers. And it is that last chapter, dangers to trainers, that drew my attention the most given the recent death of Dawn Brancheau at the hands fins of Tilikum.
Bruce Stephens, former director of animal behaviour at Sea World, says he has been hurt on dozens of occasions…
Any person who has trained these animals has been thumped, bumped, bruised, bitten and otherwise abused over the course of time. It happens to everyone… You have to appreciate the potential for danger.
But, in defence of his trade, he went on to add the record…
…has really been quite good for orcas, especially when you consider that about 40 people a year are killed in accidents with elephants.
Presumably he failed to take into account the large numbers of captive elephants in comparison and the difficulty an orca has in leaping from a pool to go on a rampage.
During the 1980s Sea World pioneered a new training programme devised by David Butcher. His system, known as PLESR (pronounced Pleasure), emphasised human interaction as reward for the whales. It was split into five elements; Play – in which anything goes, Learning – when new “behaviours” were taught, Exercise, Socialisation – where whales interacted with several trainers to simulate a wild pod and Relationship, where whale and trainer bonded one-on-one. If a whale misbehaved it would be punished by being stared at by Butcher and his fellow trainers. To avoid predictability sessions would be scheduled at random and no one whale would get to play the lead, “Shamu”, exclusively. They would all take turns.
The approach, dubbed the “Sea World method”, brought dividends in the range of new tricks, or “behaviours”, the whales would perform but it also had unintended consequences. In March 1987, Jonathan Smith was grabbed by an orca during a performance at Sea World, San Diego. It dove to the bottom of the pool, then carried him to the surface and spat him out. He gallantly waved to the crowd before a second orca slammed into him and dragged him back down. He was repeatedly attacked and dragged beneath the surface until, with the desperate help of his fellow trainers, he managed to struggle from the pool bleeding with a six-inch laceration on his liver and a ruptured kidney.
Three months later, Joanne Webber had a three ton orca, Kandu, land on her during rehearsal. Chris Barlow was rammed soon after during a show and Mark McHugh was bitten on the hand while feeding. In August the accident rate accelerated and, a dozen incidents later, in November a five-ton male named Orky crashed down on John Sillick as he rode on the back of a female orca. Sillick suffered multiple fractures to his back, pelvis, hips, ribs and legs.
The Orky incident was the last straw. Butcher was fired and lawsuits involving Sillick, Smith and Webber were settled out of court and gag orders imposed. But the idea of orca as large, lovable dolphins desperate to bond with their human captors had been shattered as comprehensively as Mr Sillick’s pelvis. And, as The Performing Orca points out, there had only been one recorded instance of a wild orca attacking a human (when a surfer was “mouthed” off a California beach).
But today, 18 years after Erich Hoyt’s original report, little has been done to change the conditions orca face in captivity. And, as Tilikum reminded his captors two weeks ago, the whales continue to lash out at their jailers.
One of the articles in the wake of Ms Brancheau’s death wistfully asked, “If only they could talk. I wonder what they would say” whilst another, citing the bible opined the offending creature should be put to death. (Originally the author had mentioned stoning as a possible method although he seems to have retracted that part of his column saying he was misquoted and “trying to stone a whale would be silly”). The combination of the two did fire my imagination however. It reminded me of a scene from the Kirk Douglas classic Spartacus and, with the assistance of our audio-visual editor CuriousCartman, we can now offer you a glimpse of the Orca Slave Rebellion as the officials hunt for the whale Spartacus (played by Tilikum).