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A Killer Show, Page 3: "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 in the wild can swim 100-plus miles in a day. orcahome.de

by David Kirby

On New Year’s Eve 1993, Tilikum’s fourth offspring, named Nyar, was born to Gudrun. Nyar did anything but thrive. The infant girl seemed to suffer from congenital birth defects. She was physically and mentally unsound. Gudrun rejected her calf and tried to drown her several times before SeaWorld separated the two. Nyar made little progress and had trouble swimming correctly. Blood tests showed she suffered from immunosuppression. She had trouble learning and was unfit for shows. Nyar often spent time in the company of Tilikum, her father, who treated her with great gentleness.

Astrid told Jeff that Gudrun’s rejection of her calf would be rare in the wild. The Dutch scientist was on her way to becoming a bona fide killer whale researcher, having now spent six summer seasons on San Juan Island at the Center for Whale Research. Over the years that she visited SeaWorld, Astrid taught Jeff much about the natural history of killer whales in the wild, something he would never learn at the marine park.

The Dutch doctor was not overtly opposed to captivity and was by no means anti-SeaWorld. But many of the things Jeff learned from his discussions with her left a lasting impact. However inadvertently, Astrid was helping to change Jeff’s feelings about captivity. Jeff’s talks with Astrid added more fuel to his nighttime ruminations with John. Both of them were growing more concerned about the animals’ health—the drugs in their morning meals, their collapsed dorsal fins, the way they kept dying.

And then there was the tooth issue.

Many of the killer whales had developed serious dental problems—mostly chipped and broken teeth, but also teeth that had been removed or had fallen out. Most disturbing of all were teeth that needed to have the pulp drilled out of the center, leaving behind a conical cylinder.

Captive orcas confined to tanks one ten-thousandth of their normal habitat size experience dramatically reduced lifespans and higher mortality rates, research shows.

Jeff and John were beginning to believe that stress and boredom were adding to the tooth problem. The steel gates that separated the park’s pools were made from horizontal bars. These gates were the first line of defense when the orcas went “off behavior” and became aggressive and in need of physical separation. Once separated, they sometimes bit down on the bars, a display of aggression called jaw-popping.

Even when they were not challenging each other through the restraints of the gates, some animals passed the time fighting boredom by simply chewing on the bars or on the corners of the concrete pools. Several times Jeff and John discovered teeth or fragments of teeth on the bottom of the tanks, especially near the gates.

Jeff and John were slowly coming to accept that life at SeaWorld was just too stressful for killer whales, though some animals seemed to handle confinement better than others. Katina, for example, was always businesslike and ready to follow signals consistently and predictably. But other animals were not so reliable.

Taima was the least predictable water-work whale in Orlando. Strong-willed and independent, she would break from control during sessions far more often than the others, then go off and do her own thing. The impetuous Taima had many “f— you” moments, Jeff liked to joke, as in “F— you, I’m not going to do the bow you just asked for; I’m going to swim circles on my back instead.”

The best way to maintain control over trained animals is to remain hyper-observant of everything in the environment that might interfere—other trainers, other animals, distractions in the crowd, even the weather in an outdoor stadium. The trainer must also constantly monitor the animal for any “precursor” of going off behavior, especially if it could lead to aggression. This  might include visual cues such as a widening of the eyes, an open mouth, or jaw-popping; or spitting food at a trainer or ignoring hand signals, water slaps, or calls to return to stage. 

Recognizing a precursor in time did not guarantee that the trainer could defuse aggressive behavior. Sometimes, social stress or changes in the environment produced completely unpredictable behavior—some of it potentially aggressive. Some whales were more prone to such stress-induced loss of control, such as Tilikum. When frustrated by stimuli around him, Tilly could suddenly display a host of aggressive and dangerous behaviors, such as mouthing the concrete stage, vocalizing in threatening tones, banging on gates with his head, even lunging up from the water at his control trainer during practice or exercise sessions. Tilikum was also inconsistent with “separations”—it was difficult to make him leave a pool when he did not want to go.

When frustrated by stimuli around him, Tilly could suddenly display a host of aggressive and dangerous behaviors ...

Tilikum also became stressed after spending too much time with the females. Ironically, he became agitated after prolonged separation from them, especially if visual access to his tankmates was blocked. He was highly averse to change in his environment, but he also disliked repetition during learning sessions. When bored during a session, he would repeatedly give incorrect responses.

Tilikum reacted better to some trainers than others, and his bond with John Jett was evident. John loved and trusted the huge animal. He put his hands on the big bull daily. He actually grew to feel sorry for the guy. “He’s just a big, misunderstood puppy dog,” John once remarked to Jeff. “He’s very subdominant. He gets picked on all the time, and he has nowhere to run.” John felt this killer whale needed him, needed his companionship. John thought he had made a difference in Tilly’s life.

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