What's best for Tillikum now, and what have we learned?
The terrible tragic death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Florida has suddenly generated a nationwide public examination of our feelings about captive orca shows. We've now seen the harm they can do even to compassionate humans, and the mental distress captivity can cause in the orcas. Google shows at least 6,892 articles on the trainer's death. No other single news event has brought out such a groundswell of emotions doubting the ethical wisdom of using captive orcas for entertainment.
Now that we've had a few days to digest the multitude of facts and opinions, what have we learned about orcas, and what's next for Tillikum? What happens to the orcas, so exquisitely evolved to move great distances in vast surroundings as lifelong members of complex social worlds, when they are removed from their natural settings and families, or born in concrete bowls, and confined for life in minuscule, featureless cells?
Sea World had special operating procedures for Tillikum. Because of his involvement in two previous deaths and his unpredictable temperament, no trainers were allowed to get in the water with him. As an unrelated male among matriarchal females he was bullied and shunned by the other orcas and was usually kept separate from them. Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld's curator of animal behavior, said the park's female killer whales typically want Tillikum around them only when they are sexually active. Brancheau was one of the few trainers allowed to even get near him, and by all indications had been giving him quality time and attention for at least a decade. Her sessions with him must have been very important and emotionally charged for him.
On February 24th Brancheau had been interacting affectionately and intensively with Tillikum for possibly a half hour, making sustained, enthusiastic eye contact and giving signals for all sorts of behaviors that he performed obligingly. She was stretched out on a 4-inch deep ledge on the edge of the pool, as close as she could possibly get, when he grabbed her, possibly by her ponytail, and pulled her into the pool.
"Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance to Brancheau due to the whale's aggressive nature," says a report released Thursday by the Orange County Florida Sheriff's Department. "She was recovered from the whale by SeaWorld staff members after the animal was coaxed into a smaller pool and lifted out of the water by a large scale/platform."
Brancheau's cause of death was "most likely" multiple traumatic injuries and drowning, the report says, citing autopsy results.
Many have assumed that Tillikum attacked Brancheau, acting out of pent up frustration from decades of confinement, domination and isolation. Others have suggested he was playing with her like a toy, or was holding on to her body as a trophy.
To be honest, I'm still not sure whether drowning Dawn Brancheau was a hostile act or Tillikum's desperate attempt to grab and keep a companion. There is a striking similarity in the three deaths he has taken part in: in each case he kept hold of the deceased and refused to allow the body to be taken away.
If we've learned anything about orcas after almost four decades of field research, now worldwide, and the entire history of captivity, it is that orcas need companionship. They bond with their families for life, through good times and bad, and share their food with family members even when starving. In captivity they tend to form ad hoc bonds and swim in unison, always attuned to one another, always communicating.
Human companions seem to be the next best to the real thing, and when offered quality time by caring humans they often build trusting relationships, as many a veteran orca trainer will confirm. It's plausible to say that after years of extreme isolation Tillikum has become neurotic, obsessive and mentally disturbed. He never learned how to relate normally and safely with orcas or humans, at least since he was plucked from his mother's side as a youngster and thrown into a life of domination and rejection by strangers, both orca and human. Brancheau showed great compassion and empathy for Tillikum, but she may have underestimated just how messed up he was.
At this point there may be no good options for Tillikum. Sea World will probably not allow staff to get anywhere near him from now on, although he'll still need dental and other medical procedures so that may be problematic. Certainly nobody will be allowed to get as close to him as Brancheau was.
Sea World is now under new ownership, Blackstone Investments, whose theme park subsidiary is Merlin Entertainments, which has a public policy in opposition to captivity for cetaceans. This incident may force the new owners to decide about the future of Sea World. If they choose to keep Tillikum, they'll have to isolate him more than he has been ever since his capture in 1982, which could tip him further over the edge and make him more hostile or suicidal. If that happens SW will suffer a massive PR hemorrhage and could lose their primary stud as well. The park's days will then be numbered in a climate of very bad will, and the new owners will be responsible.
Retiring Tillikum to a bay pen in Iceland (hopefully also conducting field research there to locate his family) would build good will for doing their best for him. But such a courageous decision would also be the beginning of the end for Sea World as we know it. Not only is he their breeding male -even with his 13 progeny orcas in captivity are dying faster than they're being born - but successfully retiring a captive orca would set the precedent that has long been feared by Sea World. Keiko proved that even after long-term captivity an orca can regain his strength, catch his own dinner and thrive in the ocean, but since his death the whole project has been declared a failure in the media.
We humans with our relatively tiny brains and short evolutionary history are in no position to judge the actions of orcas, much less make plans for them, but at this point a management decision will have to be made about Tillikum's future. It's an open question whether it's too late for him to ever return home. Not only is he emotionally unpredictable but his teeth are mere nubs after years of gnawing on gates and being filed down to prevent infections, which could make it hard for him to catch live fish. His sad predicament and the hard choices now facing Sea World present the company with perhaps their greatest challenge ever.
- Howard Garrett