A disturbing look at why the Killer Whale in Sea World may have snapped
SeaWorld doesn’t forget, and conducts safety and rescue training once a month. Among other things, trainers are taught to go limp if they are grabbed, so the whales will lose interest. The killer whales are taught to keep their mouths closed while swimming, and desensitized so they stay calm and circle the perimeter of the pool if someone accidentally falls in. They learn emergency recall signals—transmitted via a tone box and hand slaps—and are trained to swim to a pool exit gate if a net is dropped in. Scuba gear is always nearby. SeaWorld’s intensive regime helped its trainers interact with killer whales more than two million times without a death. But when a killer whale breaks from its training, all bets are off.
It’s hard to know exactly what triggers an incident. It could be boredom, a desire to play, the pent-up frustration of confinement, a rough night in the tank with the other orcas, the pain of an ulcer, or maybe even hormonal cycling. Whatever the motivation, some trainers believe that killer whales are acutely aware of what they’re doing. "I’ve seen animals put trainers in their mouths and know exactly what the breaking point of a rib cage is. And how long to hold a trainer on the bottom," says Jeffrey Ventre, who was a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando from 1987 until 1995, when he was let go for giving a killer whale a birthday kiss, in which he stuck his head into an orca’s mouth.
Of course the Orca that snapped had some other problems, in addition to being kept in bad conditions in his earlier home of Sealand.
If you’re a killer whale in a marine park, there’s probably no better place than SeaWorld. Yet no matter how nice the facility, there’s stress associated with being a big mammal in a relatively small pool. Starting at Sealand, Tilikum had developed the habit of grinding his teeth against metal pool gates. Many of his teeth were so worn and broken that SeaWorld vets decided to drill some of them so they could be regularly irrigated with antiseptic solution. And once again, he had to deal with the stress of hostile females, particularly a dominant orca called Katina. "Tili was a good guy that got beat down by the women," says Ventre, now a doctor in New Orleans. "So there are a lot of reasons he might be unhappy."
John Jett, who was a team leader for Tilikum, says he sometimes would suffer a beatdown bad enough to rake up his skin and bloody him and would have to be held out of shows until he healed. Jett had a term for the blood left streaming in the water: "sky writing." After a good thrashing from the other orcas, Jett says, Tili kum might be "off" for days, "splitting" from his trainer to swim at high speed around the pool, acting agitated around the females, or opening his eyes wide and emitting distress vocals if asked to get into a vulnerable position (like rolling over on his back). "It’s extremely sad if you think about being in Tili’s situation," says Jett. "The poor guy just has no place to run."
There was also an ugly incident in 1999
In 1999, Tilikum reminded the world that, at least when it came to humans, he could be a very dangerous animal. Early on the morning of July 6, Michael Dougherty, a physical trainer at SeaWorld, arrived at his office near the underwater viewing area of G pool. He glanced through the viewing glass and saw Tili kum staring back, with what appeared to be two human feet hanging down his side. There was a nude body draped across Tilikum’s back. It wasn’t moving. As in the Brancheau incident, Tilikum was herded onto the medical lift in order for SeaWorld staff to retrieve the body. Rigor mortis had already set in. It was a young male, and again the coroner’s and sheriff’s reports are telling. He had puncture wounds and multiple abrasions on his face.
The victim was Daniel Dukes, a 27-year-old with a reddish-blond ponytail, a scraggly beard and mustache, and a big red "D" tattooed above his left nipple. Four days earlier, he’d been released from the Indian River County Jail after being booked for retail theft. On July 5, he apparently hid at SeaWorld past closing or sneaked in after hours. At some point during the night, he stripped down to his swim trunks, placed his clothes in a neat pile, and jumped into the pool. Perhaps he was simply crazy or suicidal. Perhaps he believed in the myth of a friendly Shamu.
The coroner determined the cause of death to be drowning. There were no cameras or witnesses, so it’s not known if Tilikum held him under or hypothermia did him in. But it’s clear Tilikum worked Dukes over. The coroner found abrasions and contusions—both premortem and postmortem—all over his head and body, and puncture wounds on his left leg. His testicles had been ripped open. Divers had to go to the bottom of the pool to retrieve little pieces of his body. SeaWorld ramped up its security, posting a 24-hour watch at Shamu Stadium.
So SeaWorld brought in a whale with issues from another park despite being a far older male than what it was used to working with, it had a series of problems with the whale that resulted in two other deaths, saw that it had anxiety and abuse issues and still decided that it was a good idea to use it in it’s shows. The OHSA report is going to be a great read when it comes out.
Update: SeaWorld plans to return Tilikum to being in it’s shows. Apparently it feels that despite being involved in the deaths of three people, Tilikum is fine to be around other people. Is it just me or have we seen this movie before?