The Case Against Killer Whales in Captivity Part 2: A Profile on Tilikum

In my previous blog, I described the story of the famous killer whale named Keiko and explained the disputes behind his release. In continuing my analysis on marine animals in captivity, I will be focusing on another famous whale mentioned in “Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity” by David Kirby, named Tilikum. Unfortunately, Tilikum is famous for the wrong reasons.

As with Keiko, Tilikum was also captured from Iceland. The book presents a detailed narrative of the capture through two year old Tilikum’s eyes. The separation between the young calf and his mother was upsetting to read. And even though the personification of animals is not scientific, the distress and sadness portrayed was most likely accurate and even realistic. This is due to the strong bonds that young killer whales have with their mothers. Throughout their lives, killer whales are at the side of or in close proximity to their mothers. Killer whales live in a matriarchal society where females dominate the pods. As well, this strong bond has an impact with male killer whales after their mothers die, because male killer whales are three times more likely to die after their mother has died compared to male killer whales whose mothers are still alive. Now, imagine the anguish felt by poor Tilikum the moment he was taken from his mother to be brought into captivity.

After being captured in Iceland, Tilikum was transferred to another marine theme park named SeaLand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. At this theme park, he was placed in a pool with two female killer whales named Nootka IV and Haida II. Similar to Keiko’s experience, the females would rake Tilikum with their teeth to display their dominance. However, his cruel living conditions did not end there. At nighttime, Tilikum was also forced into a smaller pool, called a module, because the park was closed. If he made any resistance with going into the module, he would be denied food.  As he grew older, he bred with the females in the pool that fought him. Both of these females would later go on to carry his children. From this brief depiction of Tilikum’s life, it is clear that SeaLand was not a happy home for him.

Haida II (left) and Tilikum (right) performing at SeaLand of the Pacific

Haida II (left) and Tilikum (right) performing at SeaLand of the Pacific

Unfortunately, Tilikum’s unhappy life resulted in his first murder in 1991. Keltie Byrne, a part-time trainer at SeaLand, was killed by Tilikum after accidentally slipping into his pool. With this death, the theme park was desperately trying to get rid of their killer whales. There were many suggestions pooled from individuals of what courses of action to take with respect to these killer whales. Paul Spong of Orca Lab proposed that all of the whales be released back to Iceland. He suggested a similar release program as the one that would be done later for Keiko. However, SeaLand was looking into selling their killer whales to another theme park for profit. They were in luck, because around the same time, SeaWorld Orlando was looking to begin a breeding program. The one key item that they were missing was a fertile male killer whale to impregnate the female killer whales at SeaWorld. Initially, SeaWorld was considering Keiko as a candidate. However, due to his unattractive skin lesions, SeaWorld turned him down. Even with all the negative media surrounding Tilikum at the time, SeaWorld still wanted him for their breeding program. They would rather a male killer whale that had impregnated two female killer whales over an unattractive killer whale.

On November 7, 1991, SeaWorld filed an application with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to import these three killer whales from SeaLand. SeaWorld was spending approximately $5 million for this trade, since both of the females were pregnant at the time as well. Also, SeaWorld wanted to apply for an emergency permit for Tilikum to be flown to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida immediately. The reason for this was for him not to interfere in his calves’ births, bonding and nursing processes. However, the federal government did not grant this immediate import because there needed to be enough time for the consideration of Keltie Byrne’s death and the safety of the SeaWorld trainers. A meeting was held on November 22 of that year by the NMFS and the Department of Commerce about captive killer whales. The possibility of release and arguments towards keeping them in captivity were discussed. On January 3, 1992, SeaWorld applied for the immediate importation permit. This was due to the fact that Haida gave birth to her calf, Kyoquot. Haida II and Nootka IV would chase Tilikum in the enclosed environment menacing him every time he tried to leave. He was kept in this small pool to not interfere with the nursing or bonding of the calf with its mother. The immediate import was granted on January 8, 1992. This application was strictly for “medical reasons”, and SeaWorld had to still wait to get a display permit. This emergency permit had some conditions. First off, if the display permit was denied, SeaWorld would have to return Tilikum to Iceland at their own costs. Also, the NMFS was able to revoke the emergency import at any time. SeaWorld had accepted the conditions. However, this did not stop Brad Andrews, the vice president for SeaWorld’s zoological operations, from speaking to the Icelandic minister of fisheries, Thornsteinn Palsson. Andrews painted Palsson a picture of how Tilikum occasionally ate fish from British Columbia and that there could be some microorganisms present on Tilikum that were not from Iceland, biasing the minister’s point of view of the possibility of disease being transmitted. Andrews failed to mention to Palsson how the whales did not require medical quarantine or that these whales were behaving normally. Palsson finally agreed with Andrews and made a ban against captive killer whales returning to Iceland.

Tilikum was then transferred to SeaWorld Orlando in early January of 1992. Limited information was given towards the trainers about his past and the death of the trainer in Canada. As time went by, information regarding Tilikum became even scarcer. There were some trainers lower in the hierarchy of SeaWorld that had even been told that Tilikum never hurt anyone. While all of these lies were being told to SeaWorld employees, the company still made strict rules concerning work with Tilikum. While Tilikum was at SeaWorld, he did not fare well with the other whales. He was still being raked by a female killer whale in his tank, named Katina. However, just as in SeaLand, this abuse did not stop the two killer whales from procreating. From their mating, Tilikum and Katina had a male calf named Taku. Even though Katina was rough to Tilikum, the other females, Gudrun and Taima, were not. While Tilikum’s mating with Katina seemed forced, when he mated with Gudrun, it was done willingly. Together, they had a female child named Nyar. Sadly, Nyar had physical and mental problems. Gudrun had rejected Nyar, which rarely occurs in the wild. There were also several instances where Gundrun tried to drown Nyar. Conversely, Tilikum treated Nyar kindly and was often by her side. Later, Gudrun became pregnant yet again, however, when she gave birth, it was stillborn and the SeaWorld Orlando veterinary staff had to manually pull out the calf. Gundrun bled severely from this procedure and died four days after her stillbirth. In 1996, Nyar died after years of being constantly taken care of by a “special needs” team at SeaWorld.

Katina (far left), Gudrun (middle) and Taima (far right)

Katina (far left), Gudrun (middle) and Taima (far right)

Tilikum did not adjust well to life at SeaWorld. In his pool, he displayed many unusual traits. Some of these traits included mouthing the concrete stage, banging on the gates, crying out angry vocalizations, lunging at his trainers during sessions and purposefully performing incorrect tricks. Additionally, he developed stress after spending too much time with the other females, and even when he was away from them for too long. Furthermore, Tilikum also displayed an unusual physical trait of a completely collapsed fin. While in captivity this is common, in the wild this rarely occurs.

With evidence of Tilikum’s reproductive “success”, SeaWorld decided to store away some of his sperm to be sold to other marine parks. An account from former SeaWorld employees describes the process of how they trained Tilikum to donate his sperm. Like any other SeaWorld show behavior, he was receiving positive reinforcement, such as fish, for performing the procedure correctly. The first step in the process was for Tilikum to present his phallus. After it was presented, the trainers could masturbate it and collect his sperm in a plastic bag or bottle and freeze it. While this process does sound disturbing, it is a common practice with farming animals as well, such as turkeys. Regular mating between animals is not time efficient and this process would speed up reproduction. I am neither rationalizing nor accepting this method. As you can suspect, many people were appalled by this practice on Tilikum. One famous protester was Tommy Lee, the drummer from Motley Crue. He was extremely vocal about his disagreement and had made a campaign to “Free Tilly’s Willy”.

Less than ten years after Tilikum’s first murder, another killing occurred on July 5th, 1999. The victim’s name was Daniel P. Dukes. In this case, the victim did not slip into the pool, but sneaked into SeaWorld during the day and hid until the park closed. The victim decided to take a swim in a pool, however he did not realize that it housed a killer whale. He was found dead on the whale the next morning, with his scrotum ripped out, puncture wounds and many bruises. Various people argued that this death of David occurred due to the bored nature of killer whales kept in captivity. If any new stimulus comes their way, they may react to it. As this is a plausible explanation to Daniel’s death, this does raise a frightening point. If killer whales are so easily excited by something new in their pool that they could violently “play” with it, are these animals really safe enough to have in water theme parks with trainers in the water with them?

Less than twenty years after the first incident, and a little over a decade after the second, Tilikum’s third murder took place and it started the rise of a media frenzy on the topic of killer whales in captivity. On February 24, 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer at SeaWorld, performed two of the “Believe” shows and the “Dine with Shamu” tour. During the “Believe” shows, the whales were displaying rowdy behavior and were not behaving properly. This behavior still continued during the “Dine with Shamu” show. Dawn was in the water with Tilikum during this performance when he grabbed her quickly and took her down with him in the pool. After pulling her down the pool, he displayed violent behavior by ramming her against the pool. It took a lot of time for SeaWorld employees to separate her from Tilikum, but finally, she was taken out of his mouth. At this point, unfortunately, she was dead. There was a lot of media coverage surrounding her death. One of the main questions asked was how and why did she get pulled into the water? At the time, SeaWorld Orlando claimed Dawn got pulled down because she laid down in the water and let her ponytail drift, which caused Tilikum to grab her ponytail and drag her down to the bottom of the pool. While using this excuse, it would seem that it was the trainer’s fault, and not SeaWorld’s. Trainers were told to never let their ponytails drift in the presence of a killer whale. However, if this actually occurred and a killer whale was so easily distracted to a pony tail, then why would someone be told to get in the water with it? However, this account from SeaWorld was false because there were several eye witnesses that recalled Tilikum grabbing Dawn by the arm. As well, instead of just preventing Dawn from coming to the surface of the water, Dawn’s death was more violent since Tilikum had slammed her, which caused a significant amount of trauma, as well as her breaking her neck, severing her spine and breaking other bones.

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau

Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau

While SeaWorld has no excuse in not performing preventative action after Tilikum’s two previous deaths, another reason why the death of Dawn Brancheau could have been avoided was discovered after her death. About two months before the death of Dawn Brancheau, there was a death at a marine park on the Canary Islands, named Loro Parque. At this park, SeaWorld had loaned a couple of its killer whales. One of the killer whales, named Keto, killed one of the trainers at the park named Alexis Martinez. This death was not covered publicly by the media until the death of Dawn occurred. This should have sparked some actions in creating new, and stricter regulations towards trainers working in the water with killer whales. However, no regulatory action was performed.

After the death of Dawn, Tilikum was kept in his cage alone and with no physical contact from trainers, because they were not allowed to touch him. Tilikum also did not have contact with many other killer whales. The only killer whale he was ever in contact with was Taima, who was also not allowed to perform water work. In previous years, Tilikum was a father to many children of Taima. Many of her children died at young ages or were born as stillbirths. However, one stillbirth occurred on June 6th, 2010, which resulted in Taima passing away shortly after. On March 29, 2011, Tilikum returned to performing shows, however it was said by park goers that he looked “lethargic”. SeaWorld representatives claimed that there would be no trainers put in the water with him. However, in September of that year, there were renovations done to Tilikum’s pool. These renovations consisted of devices resembling air bags that would fill up and lift the bottom of the pool in seconds. These renovations demonstrated that SeaWorld was planning on putting trainers in the water to work with him. At this time, Tilikum is still in SeaWorld, occasionally performing. While he is not performing, he is in isolation.

When the death of Dawn Brancheau occurred, many different groups had various reactions and opinions towards it. SeaWorld had decided to keep Tilikum, and many say that this was due to the economic benefit of his contribution to the breeding program. On the other hand, animal rights activists thought that Tilikum should be set free. One of the most interesting opinions was from the American Family Association (AFA), a fundamentalist Christian non-profit group. Their view was that Tilikum should be killed with this verse from Exodus 21:28, that states: “If an ox gores a man or a woman so that either dies, then the ox must surely be stoned and its flesh must not be eaten”. As well, they claimed that SeaWorld should be punished by stating: “if one of your animals kills a second time because you didn’t kill it after it claimed its first human victim, this time you die right along with your animal”. Even though this organization holds an outrageous view on the death of the trainer, there is some truth to it. I am not saying that Tilikum should be killed, as it is not his fault that he was placed into captivity at such a young age, destroying the maternal bonds that are extremely important to killer whales and causing him to be mentally unstable. The truth lies in their second statement. Why is it that an animal known to have killed someone in a theme park in Canada was transferred to another theme park where it had claimed two more victims? SeaWorld should have repercussions for the act committed by the killer whale. It should not be able to still keep Tilikum, where he will only become increasingly neurotic and a sociopath.

Overall, all three of Tilikum’s murders were preventable. Just as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, a monster was created in Tilikum, due to his 32 years in captivity. SeaLand of the Pacific, as well as SeaWorld Orlando contributed to his increasing neurotic tendencies. How many more excuses will marine parks create in order to keep animals in their parks? I hope that, in the future, these parks will admit to the increasing harm that they provide to their animals. We can collectively provide awareness of these issues until this imprisonment comes to an end.