Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Tilikum the orca: does this sound familiar?

I just heard most of an NPR show (Diane Rehm, but hosted by a guest today) in which three ocean mammal researchers were discussing Tilikum, the orca whale who was responsible for the death of his trainer back in February of this year.

One of the researchers, and I've been unsuccessful thus far in googling to find out her name, described the life of Tilikum, who is 30 years old, has been in captivity since he was captured as a 2-year old, and has been associated with the deaths of 3 people during his lifetime.

She noted that he is kept almost completely isolated, with no contact with other whales, in a tank much too small to be considered humane, in chemically-treated water that is known to affect whales and other ocean mammals negatively over the course of their lifetimes, and is regularly forced to donate sperm that is used to artificially impregnate female whales owned by Sea World.

She noted that since the death of his trainer, he is now even more isolated than he was before, and that Sea World has flatly ignored her suggestion that Tilikum be retired into a much larger tank, with at least one other whale, where he might be less stressed and live out his life in a more humane manner.

When I got home, I was so upset I tried to locate more information. I did find a description of how they obtain the sperm from Tilikum, which involves getting him to roll onto his bank in a small tank, stimulating him, and then collecting the sperm. Apparently they are continuing to do this, even though he is no longer being used in the shows at Sea World.

As I listened and then read, I couldn't help but think about how similar this sounds to the living conditions of many of the breeding stallions around the world whose foals are much in demand.

I read some quotes attributed to several trainers who left Sea World and have since changed their minds about the ethics of keeping these huge, intelligent mammals in captivity. Their descriptions of the living conditions of these animals at Sea World used the word "brutal."

I have been to Sea World one time, as a graduate student in Austin, Texas. I admit, the whale show was a moving experience, but I worried about the animals the entire day I spent there. As one researcher said in today's show, she tries to reconcile her feelings that there should be no Sea Worlds with the knowledge that some of these animals will never be able to be returned to a natural, free environment. What needs to happen is a harsh, behind-the-scenes look at the way these captive mammals are kept, how they are used, and what can be done to ensure a humane and dignified life for them.

I'm still looking for information, and will try to add links as I find them.

I found a link to the show, which lists the speakers and gives links and information about their publications.


Matthew said...

Those animals roam hundreds and thousands of miles in the ocean. How cruel!

Valentino said...


I listened to the most of that show today as well. I found another part of the discussion very interesting...

One of the researchers stated that male killer whales live their entire lives with their mothers, in a matriarchal social group. They leave the group to mate with non-related females but then return.

According to her research, when the mothers pass away, the male will then go live with a sister. They basically don't function outside of a female lead family group.

Is it any wonder why disturbing incidents happen involving these large captive mammals? Or why the attempts to release them back into the wild are seldom successful?

billie said...

I personally, without knowing all the ins and outs of it, think they should just release them and allow them to live out their lives, even if they're short lives, in a natural environment. I can't imagine there is any happiness or contentment to be had in those tanks.

billie said...

V, I didn't hear that part but thank you for sharing it - it explains why releasing them wouldn't work - although I still feel having some time to swim and be free would be better than living the way they're living.

It IS fascinating - and makes me want to know more about them. Did you hear whether any of the researchers have books out?

Anonymous said...

It seems completely absurd to me, to say that he could not/never be released into the wild--like he'd forget how to catch fish to eat when he got hungry??? Somewhat unlikely...that sounds like the same argument about what would happen if we stopped handing out foodstamps...do you think ALL of those people would stop eating? Probably not...

billie said...

Anon, I don't know enough about these whales to make a statement about their ability to find and eat food in the wild, but my assumption is that they would be happier free and trying to figure it out than they are currently in those tiny tanks.

It seems they could be put together in "blended family" pods before being released - perhaps they would then live in some kind of grouping.

I have a book in my cart at Amazon that will offer some more information - I'm interested enough in this that I want to know more details about how they live.

Apparently whales are currently still being captured for use in these parks, which seems incorrigible to me. I guess Sea World is successfully breeding their own for continuing use in their shows, although the most recent whale baby (an offspring of Tilikum) was stillborn.

Dougie Donk said...

I think it's inhumane to keep any intelligent animal in an artifial environment.

For many, many years; Edinburgh Zoo (which does fantastic research & breeding programmes) kept a female polar Bear in a very small enclosure. She was healthy, but always looked SO miserable. The Zoo then expanded to have a wildlife park in the Highlands of Scotland & relocated Mercedes the bear into a much larger enclosure, where she is free to do more than just walk in circles. Still captive, as she has been for all her life, but much closer to a natural way of lifew for a free-roaming animal.

Couldn't they have wildlife parks for marine species? I'd certainly support that, where I wouldn't go near a Sea World.

billie said...

DD, I think the idea of wildlife parks for marine species is intriguing... a sanctuary in the actual ocean somewhere, where these animals can be returned to their natural environment but with some supervision and care if they need it, and where the average person could visit to learn about them.

The zoo here in NC is fairly progressive in terms of the habitats. It does mean that you can't always get close up looks, but who cares? I'd rather see the animals living with some semblance of normalcy than in tiny enclosures.

Seeing an elephant from a distance, interacting with its herd, is so much more exciting than seeing one in a tiny space, pacing or just standing, depressed.

As I am feeling right now. It's like I could close my eyes, spin myself in a circle, and toss a dart. No matter where it landed, there would be some kind of issue related to animals needing attention.

Grey Horse Matters said...

I like the idea of either releasing these wonderfully intelligent animals or having some sort of wildlife ocean park for them. I'm sure they could acclimate to the ocean life again if released in groups with a female or two. I'm like you though and don't know enough to really make a statement backed up with facts. Still, I'm thinking, if they could live in captivity they could certainly learn to live free.

The way they are kept in small tanks is cruel. They are social animals and need contact with their species. It's not surprising to me that a few might rebel and attack the hand that feeds them. It's like being in solitary confinement in prison. They are probably going stir crazy.

Valentino said...


Two of the panelists have books out:

Toni Frohoff

Director of TerraMar Research and co-author of the book, "Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication."

Janet Mann

Professor of Psychology and Biology at Georgetown University, director of the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Project and author of the book "Cetacean Societies: Field studies of dolphins and whales."

I believe we shouldn't be keeping these animals captive in the first place. As far as releasing them - I wasn't suggesting not to - just theorizing about why it doesn't always end well for the animal...

Here's a link to the Diane Rehm show. You can listen to the broadcast and there are some excellent comments regarding this topic.

billie said...

Arlene, agreed!

billie said...

Thanks, V!

Jessica Keener said...

Everything about this is heartbreaking.

billie said...

I think so too, Jessica. :/

I can't stop thinking about it. When I was in high school, there was a brief time when I wanted to study ocean mammals. I had a record album called Songs of the Humpback Whales, and I loved listening to their mysterious cries.

The orcas are so interesting because of their coloring and faces - and I'm so intrigued with the family structure they live in.

ponymaid said...

Billie, humans are still in the dark ages in so many ways, especially in the arrogance and ignorance shown toward other beings. Prison is prison, no matter who is behind the bars.

billie said...

Sheaffer, I think you have perfectly summed it up:

Prison is prison no matter who is behind the bars.

This one-sentence, profound wisdom is why we love donkeys so.