NEWS RELEASE - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 23, 2010
Howard Garrett or Susan Berta
Extreme stress and frustration are inevitable in captive orcas.
Today the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its report on the circumstances that led to the brutal death of Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida last February, and outlined measures needed to prevent such tragedies from happening again. OSHA issued one "willful" citation, and fined SeaWorld $75,000, for exposing its employees to hazards when interacting with killer whales. A willful violation is "one committed with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health."
According to today's San Diego Union-Tribune: "If the fine stands and SeaWorld is forced to meet new safety standards, it could mean an end - or at least substantial changes - to the long-running attraction at SeaWorld San Diego and other venues of having trainers swimming with the largest carnivores in captivity."
The record is clear that confinement of orcas in amusement parks results in extreme frustration and stress. Constant manipulation by trainers and management, loss of extended family, concrete walls with steel gates, and lack of exercise all lead to chronic illness and the death to date of over 150 orcas in captivity since 1965, all in their youth or young adulthood.
It's not surprising that park employees working with highly stressed orcas also suffer injuries and death. At least 50 violent incidents and four deaths have now been attributed to captive orcas (http://www.orcahome.de/incidents.htm). In 2006, for example, a trainer at SeaWorld in San Diego was dragged by his broken foot at least twice to the bottom of the 30' tank and nearly drowned. At one point the whale, Kasatka, lay down on top of the the trainer for about a minute. California OSHA's initial report on that incident noted that "The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn't been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen."
Close inspection of the famous Connell video of the Dine With Shamu Show on Feb. 24, just seconds before Brancheau entered the water, shows that both Tilikum and Brancheau are moving leftward in tandem. She has no means of locomotion at that point, and there's no water current that would push both her and Tllikum, so the only explanation is that he has grasped her arm (or upper torso) and is slowly pulling her in. Her hair is visible down her back and is clearly not in his mouth. This indicates a deliberate action on Tilikum's part, not a reflexive impulse to grab her flowing pony tail, as SeaWorld would have us believe.
It's surprising that such hostile interactions with trainers don't happen more often. For context, it helps to know that free-ranging orcas have never harmed a human. Even when orcas were being captured, when divers and handlers were in the water or in small boats among the orcas during capture operations, as the mothers were being poked and driven away with sharpened poles while their young were being wrapped in nets and forced into slings, never did the mothers or calves or any of the accompanying whales strike out with even the slightest shove or flick of a fluke. This exemplary restraint is the norm among all the many diverse communities of orcas worldwide, whether they specialize in foraging for fish or hunting and killing 8,000 pound sea lions.
Orcas are self-aware, like humans, and their actions are almost always conscious and deliberate. They tend to cooperate with their prevailing social setting, even in captivity, and the baseline for orca behavior everywhere is to never strike out against humans, so even if only a minority of captive orcas assault humans in some way, and then only rarely, it indicates that the stresses must be extreme and are in effect throughout the captive population. There are also many instances of self-harm by orcas, from gnawing on gates or concrete, leading to severe tooth damage, to bashing their heads against the walls.
Tilikum may represent an extreme case of deprivation and frustration, but all captive orcas, including Lolita, captured from the Pacific Northwest in 1970 and still surviving at a marine park in Miami, are in some way suffering the same sorts of constraints, and thus the potential for acting out without warning when the opportunity occurs must be considered for all of them.
Unfortunately there seems to be no way to mitigate the harm done by captivity to orcas, or the danger for humans working around them, short of relocating the whales to more natural settings. Orca Network would like to see the practice of public display of captive orcas phased out, case by case, with transitions to retirement facilities in bay pens when feasible.