Trainer's Death Revives Cetacean Captivity Debate

Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest killer whale, weighing over 12,000 pounds, killed one of his trainers in February, as spectators watched with horror. He grabbed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, FL, by her ponytail and pulled her into the pool to her death. Brancheau succumbed to blunt-force trauma injuries and drowning.

Orcas, apex predators of the oceans, live in pods with incredibly strong bonds that may consist of as many as four or five generations of animals. Pods have their own distinct language or dialect; young orcas are taught behaviors by adults and these social animals are known to swim more than 75 miles a day. An adequately imitated physical environment where the animals can engage in natural behaviors cannot be created in captivity. Instead, these behemoths are kept in small concrete tanks tantamount to a closet in human terms and are forced to perform unnatural tricks.

Brancheau’s death is not the first to be linked to Tilikum. In 1991, at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada, Tilikum, along with two other captive orcas, drowned a young trainer after she reportedly fell into the pool. According to witnesses, the three whales prevented the trainer from leaving the water as they tossed her around like a doll. Shortly after this incident, Sealand closed and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld. In July of 1999, a 27-year-old man was found floating in the pool with Tilikum and there are reports of Tilikum playing with the body. Although the autopsy ruled the cause of death as hypothermia and drowning, it is unclear if the bull whale contributed to the man’s demise.

Keeping orcas captive in commercial entertainment facilities boils down to profit for parks like SeaWorld. The all-too-often claim of promoting conservation with captive marine mammals can hardly be proven and contradicts the more powerful message that visitors take home - that intensive confinement of cetaceans is acceptable. Dr. John Jett, a former SeaWorld trainer and currently a visiting research professor at Stetson University, summed it up effectively when he wrote on CNN’s AC360 blog, “The burden of proof is, or should be, on zoological parks where animals like killer whales are held. Show us the proof that making killer whales do tricks somehow leads to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors among visitors. Attendance records and monetary profits alone are not an adequate defense of concrete pool imprisonment.”