Killer Whales Can Be Killer in Captivity


Published: March 4, 2010

On Feb. 24, Dawn Brancheau was killed. The 40-year-old trainer was doing a show at SeaWorld when a whale, Tilikum, grabbed her ponytail, dragged her into his tank and refused to let go. By the time Tilikum was airlifted out of the tank, Brancheau was dead. Tilikum was charged as the perpetrator in the homicide, but is he to blame?

Animal activists groups are taking advantage of the event to draw attention to aquarium cruelty, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). While PETA may frequently overshadow their intentions with ridiculous antics (remember the beer is better than milk for your baby ad campaign?), they have a point here. In a press release, PETA reminds the public that they have, “long been asking SeaWorld to stop taking wild, ocean-going mammals from their families and ocean homes and confining them with no semblance of a life to an area that, to them, is the size of a bathtub.”

Tilikum is racking up a record—this is the third death to which he has been directly connected. He was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. Eight years later, he was one of three killer whales that drowned a trainer during a performance at a Vancouver aquarium. Eight years after that, in 1999, a man who apparently snuck into SeaWorld after closing was found dead floating on Tilikum’s back the next morning.

Wild killer whales, or orca, travel in two kinds of groups. Resident whales travel in groups of as many 50, while transient whales travel in smaller groups and are less social. Tilikum was classified as transient at the time of his capture. Less social and more aggressive, transient whales feed almost exclusively on marine life—seals, dolphins and other species of whales.

Yanked out of his native waters, Tilikum was emerged in a world where every aspect of his environment, diet and social interactions changed radically. He was forced to learn tricks and perform for treats in crowded and brightly lit arenas.

He has lived in captivity for 27 years and may not be able to survive in the wild without human care. However, isn’t it worth a try? Keiko, made famous by staring in his biopic, “Free Willy,” was released near Norway, very close to where Tilikum hails, swam to Iceland and lived in a bay with human interaction until he died. And Keiko never killed anyone.

While many whales live in captivity, few kill. Perhaps Tilikum suffers from neurotic tendencies and would probably be happier, and further from humans, back in his home of the ocean.

Keeping Tilikum as a performer, in an environment he is clearly not happy in, is cruel and dangerous. Capturing him in the first place was malicious, but it was also almost 30 years ago. By fitting Tilikum with a tracking tag, marine biologists can keep tabs on Tilikum’s activity. Let’s correct past transgressions, ensure the safety of trainers and make a whale happy by releasing Tilikum from whence he came.