Tilikum, an adult male orca, or killer whale, killed his third human victim, trainer Dawn Brancheau, a few years ago. I remember finding it odd that he wasn’t kept away from people after killing the first two. Then, he went back to work after killing a third.
Blackfish takes a fascinating look at Tilikum and other killer whales in captivity.
I was under the vague impression that most marine mammals in captivity were either rescued or born in captivity. Tilikum was captured off the east coast of Iceland in November of 1983, at about three years of age. Blackfish includes some powerful footage of whalers in the 1970s, before Tilikum’s time, driving a pod of orcas into shallow water, separating the young from their mothers, and then loading them aboard, while the mothers stay just outside the nets and wail. The salty old sea dog they interview seems shaken and distraught about what he did.
From there, Tilikum ended up at the not-so-prestigious Sealand of the Pacific, in British Columbia, where he spent his nights in a tiny “holding module” with two older, female whales — who didn’t seem to like him. On February 21, 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne slipped into the tank, and the three whales drowned her, in front of the audience. Blackfish presents this as Tilikum’s doing. Sealand shut down — apparently with no inquest into the death — and Tilikum moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where the trainers were told he was not responsible for the death at Sealand. (If he was, this is sinister. If he wasn’t…)
Years later, in 1999, a man’s body was found, dead and nude, draped over Tilikum’s back. The 27-year-old man, Daniel P. Dukes, apparently snuck into the tank after hours. (Yeah, he was disturbed.) It’s hard to blame the whale for that one, but… the man’s genitals were ripped off. Also, one of the trainers interviewed seemed to think that Tilikum had stripped the man and was quite consciously parading him about when the morning crew showed up.
Less than a year later, he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a “Dine with Shamu” show. Now, when a trainer gets killed by a killer whale, that seems like an occupational hazard, but both SeaWorld and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) treated it as if it needed some explanation. SeaWorld tried to blame the trainer — for having a ponytail, which might have got caught in Tilikum’s teeth — and OSHA blamed SeaWorld for “safety violations”, leading to their current practice of keeping the trainers away from the whales, behind a barrier.
Can’t we accept that working with killer whales is dangerous? When your human co-workers are cranky, they raise their voice, say something unkind, maybe slam a coffee mug on the meeting table. When your multi-ton carnivorous co-workers are cranky, they kill you. The trainers may be a bit deluded about their special relationship with the animals they train, but who knows more about the animals than they do?
Well, it turns out that SeaWorld seems to know a lot more than it shares with trainers and the public about killer whale attacks. Some examples:
- On June 12, 1999, 22-year-old Kasatka grabbed her trainer Ken Peters by the leg and attempted to throw him from the pool during a public show at SeaWorld San Diego.
- On July 8, 2002, a trainer by the name of Tamaree was hospitalized for a broken arm and several minor injuries after an incident occurred in Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Florida. The 28-year-old trainer was doing poolside work with two of the park’s orcas, Orkid and Splash. “She was playing with the whales, talking to them… the next thing we know, as it appears from the video, she was pulled into the water,” said SeaWorld spokesperson Darla Davis. Visitor video shows that the trainer was pulled in by her foot after the female Orkid grabbed a hold of it during the session. Both Orkid and Splash continuously pulled the trainer under as she screamed for help. A fellow trainer made the decision to make as if to let in a more dominate female into the pool. Orkid who was holding the trainer at the time dropped her and Tamaree was able to escape. Park officials stated that the trainer exited the pool without assistance and was taken to a local hospital, where a pin was needed to reset her arm.
- In late July 2004, during a show at the SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, a male orca named Kyuquot (nickname Ky) repeatedly jumped on top of his trainer, Steve Aibel, forcing him underwater and barred the trainer from escaping the water. After several minutes the trainer was able to calm the animal and he exited the pool unhurt. “Veterinarians believe the whale… felt threatened by the trainer, perhaps a result of the effects of adolescent hormones.”
- On April 4, 2005, SeaWorld Florida trainer Sam Davis was repeatedly “bumped” by an 11-year-old male orca named Taku. The show continued uninterrupted but the trainer was later taken to Sand Lake Hospital for unspecified minor injuries and released the same day. Additional eyewitness account: “The trainer and Taku were about to slide on the slide out at the end of the show when Taku completely stopped and started “bumping” the trainer. The trainer was male and he finally swam out of the tank. I knew something was wrong because none of the whales except Kalina wanted to perform. Then they finally got Taku out to splash people at the end of the show, when this incident took place.”
- On November 15, 2006, a SeaWorld California trainer was injured when the park’s 18-year-old female killer whale, Orkid, grabbed veteran trainer Brian Rokeach by the foot and pulled him to the bottom of the tank, refusing to release him for an extended period of time. Orkid released Rokeach only after heeding fellow trainer Kenneth Peters’s repeated attempts to call the animal’s attention back to the stage. Rokeach suffered a torn ligament in his ankle but was not taken to the hospital. In response to the incident, SeaWorld increased the number of trainers who must be available during performances and in water training to five staff members, but this was ineffective because a fortnight later trainer Kenneth Peters was involved in a similar incident with a different orca.See next bullet for Peters attack.
- On November 29, 2006, Kasatka, one of SeaWorld San Diego’s seven orcas, grabbed her trainer, Kenneth Peters, by the foot and dragged him to the bottom of the tank several times during an evening show at Shamu Stadium. The senior trainer barely escaped, after 9 terrifying minutes, when Kasatka released him. The whale chased and tried to grab him again, after he got out of the pool. This was the second documented incident of Kasatka attacking Peters and was the third most widely reported of all the SeaWorld incidents.