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June 22, 2012

A Killer Show, Page 2: "Death at SeaWorld" Exposes the Tragedy Behind the Tricks

David Kirby's new book examines the risky business of keeping killer whales in captivity

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Orcas performing at a marine park. iStock.com

by David Kirby

One outsider did manage to break through the wagons to connect with a few of the trainers in Florida. Her name was Astrid van Ginneken, M.D., Ph.D., a tall, athletic woman from Holland with gray-blond hair pulled back behind the ears and a deep, heavily accented voice. Jeff first noticed her back in the spring of 1988, sitting alone for hours in the stands at Shamu Stadium, during shows and in between, watching one of the killer whales: Astrid first arrived after the female Gudrun had been brought to SeaWorld from the Netherlands.

Jeff began speaking with the stranger, even though most staff dismissed her as that “crazy Dutch whale lady.” Eventually, he became more cautious and met Astrid off-site, to avoid prying eyes and ears.

Astrid, who had designed an innovative computerized patient record system for Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, first fell in love with killer whales after seeing one at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk theme park in the Netherlands. It was Gudrun, whom the Dutch aquarium—together with SeaWorld—had captured off Iceland in 1976, along with the female Kenau. The two orcas were brought to Harderwijk, east of Amsterdam. Kenau was quickly sent to SeaWorld in Orlando but Gudrun remained. Astrid found herself spellbound by the giant black-and-white orca with the gentle personality.

Jeff began speaking with the stranger, even though most staff dismissed her as that "crazy Dutch whale lady."

In 1986, work brought Astrid to a conference in Washington, D.C., where she visited the Natural History Museum, which was having a blockbuster exhibit on whales. Again, Astrid was enraptured by the creatures. She purchased a few books on cetaceans at the museum store. Two of them were about whales: Erich Hoyt’s Orca: The Whale Called Killer, and Rex Weyler’s Song of the Whale, which tells the story of Paul Spong’s metamorphosis from dispassionate scientist to global whale advocate. She was deeply inspired by what she read.

Astrid went back home with a deep desire to see Gudrun again. She arrived at the Dutch aquarium early one Sunday to see if the orca was still there. She was. But it was November now. The park was closed for the season. The staff allowed Astrid some time with her.

As they approached, the trainer cautioned, “Gudrun doesn’t like strangers much. She can be very nervous in their presence. So please don’t look her in the eye, and don’t make any wild movements or that sort of thing.” But Gudrun acted calmly around the stranger. Astrid felt they had a bond. Using her charm and enthusiasm, her university credentials, and the reference of a curator she knew at the New York Aquarium, Astrid talked her way into a standing invitation to visit Gudrun. She was even allowed to feed her.

Astrid visited every week for the next year. “She dramatically changed my life,” Astrid told Jeff one day, “because somehow she broke through my shield.”

In the fall, it was announced that Gudrun would be transferred to Florida on a “breeding loan.” Astrid was allowed to stay with Gudrun in the final hours before the flight, in mid-November 1987, keeping the animal calm and hand-feeding her fish.

SeaWorld officials were unsure what kind of mother she would be, but Gudrun showed herself to be loving and competent ...

Gudrun had a rough time when she got to Florida. Not only did top female Katina assert her dominance by raking and shoving the newcomer, but SeaWorld began breeding her almost immediately. She was locked in a back pool with the aggressive Kanduke, who chased her around the tank, trying to penetrate her over and over, and often succeeding. What seemed like serial rape to Jeff produced the birth of Taima in July 1989. Born during a summer storm, her name was a Native American word for “crash of thunder.” It would prove to be an appropriate moniker.

In Europe, Gudrun had spent most of her time with bottlenose dolphins. SeaWorld officials were unsure what kind of mother she would be, but Gudrun showed herself to be loving and competent with Taima. Within a year, the two of them were performing daily at Shamu Stadium.

Astrid had been disturbed to see Kanduke’s rough treatment of Gudrun. But after Kanduke died in 1990 and was replaced by Tilikum in 1992, things began to get better for the Icelandic female. Both Gudrun and Taima took to Tilikum soon after he arrived, Astrid observed, unlike the dominant matriarch Katina, who harassed Tilikum and raked him with her teeth—unless she was in estrus (heat) and wanted to mate.

“Gudrun is different,” Astrid told Jeff. “Maybe she comes from Tilikum’s clan in Iceland, or maybe their personalities just match better. We’ll never know. But they do spend a lot of time together, and very harmoniously.”

The two also mated harmoniously. There was no “rape” between Tilly and Gudrun. One day, a trainer informed Astrid that Gudrun was in estrus and invited her to watch the pair mate in a back pool. She watched in amazement and even captured the ritual on her camcorder.

“Tilikum was so gentle!” she marveled to Jeff later that day. “He would swim behind her, and Gudrun would be in the lead, and she would look back at him, as if to say, ‘You’re still following me, right?’ And then he would swim up to her and caress her with his head, or he’d roll over and take her on his chest. It was so romantic. Afterwards, they were completely content, resting side by side. It was totally different from Kanduke.”

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