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March 1, 2010

Tragedy for Two at SeaWorld

"Keeping orcas this way is tragically unnatural."

HSUS marine mammal scientist responds to the death of a SeaWorld trainer

by Naomi Rose, Ph.D.

Tillikum, a captive male orca at SeaWorld Orlando, drowned Sea World trainerDawn Brancheau on February 24. This is a tragedy, for Ms. Brancheau and her devastated family, to whom I and my organization offer our condolences. But it is also a tragedy for Tillikum.


He has now been involved in the deaths of three people. Before Ms. Brancheau, there was Keltie Byrne in 1991 and then Daniel Dukes in 1999. But Tillikum isn’t the only orca who has killed someone.

Keto, an orca born at SeaWorld, killed his trainer last year at Loro Parque, a marine attraction in the Canary Islands. And there have been dozens of injuries—some quite serious—resulting from captive orcas attacking their trainers or members of the public.

I do not enumerate these incidents in an attempt to vilify orcas or to suggest that they live up to the name by which 19th century whalers called them—killer whales. In fact, there are no known deaths or injuries from wild orcas attacking people. I’m simply pointing out how inappropriate—how tragically unnatural—it is to keep these large marine predators in small concrete tanks, in such forced and artificial proximity to human beings.

The idea that orcas—perhaps the most social, intelligent, family-oriented species other than humans—are suited to confinement in featureless enclosures should, on its face, be ludicrous. Unfortunately, because we enjoy their beauty and ability to perform so much, society has recast the image of these animals from “killer whales” into “sea pandas.” We admire the orcas’ power and grace, yet we fail to see the irony of forcing them into straitjackets of concrete. We believe they are happy because they seem to be smiling.

It is not just tragic but almost irrational to suppose that it could ever be in the best interests of such a complex animal to be confined in a small tank and trained to entertain us. Some orcas may adjust better than others; some orcas may be more timid and find the company of humans a substitute for the family life that captivity takes from them. But no orca captured from the early 1960s (when the first orca was brought into captivity) through the late 1980s (when most orca captures ended due to public outcry) was ever best served by being taken from his or her mother (a mother who would otherwise have been a life-long companion) and shipped far away to live in a box.

This should all be self-evident.  Maybe at last, in the 21st century, it will become so. Tillikum should be given a chance to live a better life.  He should be retired to a sea pen, given more space and choices and stimulation.  And as the remaining captive orcas age and die, let orca exhibits become a thing of the past.

External Link: The Killer in the Pool (Outside Magazine)

Naomi Rose is senior scientist for Humane Society International, specializing in international marine mammal protection issues.

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