Marine mammal experts might not be exactly sure what prompted Tilikum, the orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, to grab a trainer, shake her around like a rag doll, and pull her under water, where she drowned, but I wouldn’t be surprised if rage played a role.
It’s tragic when anyone dies suddenly and traumatically, and my heart goes out to the trainer’s family, but is it really all that shocking when captive orcas “snap” and attack their “jailers?” These majestic animals are meant to swim free, not spend their lives in a virtual bathtub full of chlorinated water, performing tricks for human amusement.
Sign the Care2 petition asking for Tilly’s release today!
As I wrote in a previous post about SeaWorld, captive marine mammals are confined to tiny tanks that bear little resemblance to their natural homes. Even the largest pool in the world cannot come close to the vast open oceans where orcas and dolphins should rightfully live. In the wild, orcas swim up to 30mph and can travel at least 75 to 100 miles a day, but, in captivity, they are forced to swim in endless circles in barren 60‑foot concrete tanks.
Some researchers believe that orcas may be the most socially bonded creature on earth. In their natural habitats, they live in close knit family units. Both male and female offspring typically remain with their mothers for life. Captive orcas often die prematurely. In the wild, they have a 60-year lifespan, but captive orcas rarely even reach age 35. In marine parks, orcas often exhibit neurotic and aggressive behaviors.
SeaWorld says it is trying to “make sense” of the attack, but sensible people realize that keeping orcas in captivity makes no sense at all and is inherently dangerous. Tilikum was involved in two other deaths. After the current attack, Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with The Humane Society of the United States, pointed out that whales are large, intelligent, long-lived, socially complex predators who often hunt cooperatively.
Whales aren’t giant wind-up toys meant to do tricks on command. They deserve respect and freedom. As long as we keep trying to dominate orcas and other marine mammals—and profit at their expense—we should expect them to rebel, displaying their natural power and exhibiting inexplicable behaviors beyond our understanding or control.
Steve McCulloch, the founder and program manager at the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch/Florida Atlantic University, pointed out that Tilikum may have been playing, but that it’s hard to say for sure. “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions,” he said. “These are very large powerful marine mammals. They exhibit this type of behavior in the wild.”
And that’s exactly where they belong. Dr. Rose has suggested that Tilikum be retired to a sea pen in Iceland, much like Keiko, the “star” of Free Willy.
Fortunately, marine mammal acts are prohibited in a growing number of places. In Brazil, it is illegal to use marine mammals for entertainment; Israel has prohibited the importation of dolphins; and in England, consumer boycotts have forced all marine mammal exhibits to close. South Carolina banned whale and dolphin exhibits years ago; here’s hoping the rest of the country will now do the same. Caring people can help simply by boycotting SeaWorld and other marine parks.
It’s hard to say if all the captive orcas, belugas, dolphins, and other marine mammals, can be “rehabilitated” and released, but one thing is for sure: Aquariums and marine mammal parks must not continue to operate as they are.
Care2 has created a petition asking SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Jim Atchison to release Tilly and all other orca currently being held in captivity at the amusement parks. Tilly can’t be released into the wild because, thanks to his nearly three decades in captivity, he’s not prepared to face his own natural environment. But a sea pen would provide a much more pleasurable and natural environment for Tilly than his current “bathtub.”