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A Killer Show, Page 4: "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

  • Tilikum in isolation at SeaWorld. Naomi Rose/The HSUS

by David Kirby

Even Katina had her bad moments. She had once mouthed a trainer’s waist and on other occasions bumped her head into a hip, a torso, or a hand. Once, she pushed a trainer around the pool inappropriately.

Katina had other issues. She was highly protective of new calves, especially while doing water work, and would often try to separate a youngster from a trainer by swimming between them. Katina at times also “displaced” other orcas to demonstrate her dominance, ramming from the side like a pushing foul in basketball. She routinely displaced Tilikum when she was left with him for extended periods.

Sometimes Katina showed outright chutzpah, especially around newcomers, engaging in “f— you” moments of her own. Instead of working with someone, she might refuse to make eye contact, slink beneath the surface, play with her food, or refuse to open her mouth for fish. Katina was so bossy that, when she decided she didn’t want to cooperate, she could actually force the other killer whales into disobedience as well. Those who still followed their trainers’ signals, despite her lead, received a harsh displacement from the queen.

But even Katina had to defend her status at times. In 1994, her daughter Kalina, the original Baby Shamu, returned to the pools of Orlando after spending four and a half years on tour at SeaWorld locations in Ohio, San Diego, and Texas. Kalina was 9 years old. She had left one calf behind in Texas and was pregnant for a second time.

When Kalina returned to Florida, she began fighting with her own mother for dominance. Katina put down the rebellion, but the insubordination was unheard of in killer whale society—at least in the wild. Jeff located a copy of Kalina’s official animal profile and discovered that Baby Shamu had developed an entire repertoire of behavioral issues while on tour across the country.

Among the things that might upset the young star, according to her profile, were “major environmental and social changes, unclear/confusing situations, divided attention,” and (rather ironically given her travels and many truncated relationships) “long term separation.”

Kalina had several “aggressive tendencies” as well. “When excited or confused, she may slide over, push or bow over her trainer in the water,” the document warned. “[She] will aggressively and physically displace less dominant whales when frustrated, confused or sees an imbalance in attention.” While playing with toys or trainers, Kalina had also “shown extreme excitement to borderline ‘aggression.’ Aggression involves anything from slight bumping or sliding over her trainer to a complete bow over her trainer.” She also “opened her mouth on trainers” on several occasions.

John was eventually able to shake off his doubts about worker safety at SeaWorld. But his days of denial and rationalization about the welfare of the animals were coming to an end.

“You know, every day I go in to work, it becomes more painful for me to see these animals in this environment,” John confided in his buddy Jeff over beers at a local pub. “But I keep telling myself that maybe my presence is going to make their lives better. And I really do try to make their lives better, especially Tilikum. I work as hard as I can for that poor guy.”

A freelance writer in New York City, David Kirby has previously written about factory farming for All Animals. Excerpt reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Available July 17, Death at SeaWorld (©2012 by the author) can be preordered now online. See the book tour schedule—and pledge to get the facts before patronizing facilities such as SeaWorld—at humanesociety.org/seaworld.

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