Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer
The film Blackfish probes the case of an orca that killed its trainer. Blame is assigned to SeaWorld—rightly so, in my view.
Published August 3, 2013
The documentary Blackfish opened around the country on July 26, with more splash than usual for a small-budget production, thanks to a preemptive attack on the film by SeaWorld, the marine-park franchise, and the free publicity of the tempest that followed.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the homicidal killer whale, and his most recent victim, Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer he crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed in 2010. The film is an indictment of SeaWorld, its safety practices, its animal husbandry, its mendacity, and its whole reason for being.
In the week before advance screenings in Los Angeles and New York, SeaWorld sent out a “Dear Film Critic” letter that castigated the documentary as “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” Journalists and bloggers around the world, never averse to controversy, pricked up their ears. If the film’s producers ever worried about insufficient funds for advertising, they can lay that fear to rest.
In a theater a month ago, toward the end of a long series of trailers for movies my girlfriend and I resolved not to see, the Blackfish trailer began. I sat up in my seat. Within the first few frames, well before the identity of this particular “blackfish” came up on the screen, I knew which orca he would be. Tilikum is a whale whose career I have followed for 13 years. Like many familiar with his history, I had not been surprised by Dawn Brancheau’s death. We all had wondered when Tilikum would kill again.
Good Twin, Evil Twin
Blackfish and its themes set me to thinking again about Orcinus orca, the killer whale, the sea’s supreme predator, and our strange, ambivalent view of this animal and the narratives we impose on it.
Here’s one: Tilikum had a sort of twin, Keiko, the killer whale who played "Willy" in the movies. Both were captured as two-year-old calves off Iceland, Keiko in 1979 and Tilikum in 1983; both were motherless males abused by other whales in Canadian marine parks; both were moved to facilities farther south; both, on maturing, suffered the collapse of the dorsal fin, the floppy trademark of all captive bull orcas.
One twin grew up to be the most famous whale in history, if you rule out Moby Dick and the whale that swallowed Jonah. This twin gave daily audiences to thousands of human pilgrims, played himself in his own documentary films, and was a regular on the television news. He was beloved by children all over the world, who sent him great stacks of misspelled mash notes, get-well cards, valentines, confidential personal updates, and whimsical, anatomically incorrect killer whale illustrations in crayon and poster paint.
Through intermediaries on his staff of 22 humans, this whale franchised “Free Willy” dolls, trading cards, music tapes, storybooks, and vinyl magnetic products. For sale in the gift shop of his $7.5 million Oregon facility—a palatial tank with adjoining offices, all built just for him—were Keiko toys, Keiko games, Keiko postcards, and Keiko clothing. A pilgrim, after shuffling in long lines up to the tank window for 10 or 12 minutes in the whale’s presence, could buy Keiko Blend Coffee and Keiko clothing. The pilgrim’s four-year-old, if she insisted, could finagle a “beautifully illustrated 100% cotton T-shirt with special ocean habitat pocket and an adorable, realistic, soft toy Keiko that lives in the pocket habitat or comes out to play!”
The other twin grew up to be the protagonist in a saltwater Othello, a tragedy in which the Moor weighs 12,000 pounds and Desdemona gets eaten.
I first encountered Tilikum, the evil twin, while doing fieldwork on the good one. I am Keiko’s biographer. My 2005 book, Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild, is an account of Keiko’s life from his capture as a two-year-old through his Hollywood triumph to his semi-successful release to the wild. In the book I touch briefly on Tilikum.
Signs of Trouble
"Only once in history has a killer whale killed a human," I wrote. "That incident, in which Tillicum, a captive whale in British Columbia, pinned his trainer to the pool bottom, drowning her, is generally deemed to have been horseplay, just a misunderstanding, a simple failure of the whale to appreciate the difference between human breath-hold capacity and his own."
This was the explanation put forth by SeaWorld, which had bought Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific after he killed that first trainer, 20-year-old Keltie Byrne. (Sealand, which immediately went out of business as a consequence of Keltie’s death, needed to liquidate its assets. Its orcas Haida II and her baby Kyuquot went to SeaWorld San Antonio. Nootka IV and Tilikum went to SeaWorld Orlando.) I had sense enough to question the horseplay theory. SeaWorld is a multibillion-dollar enterprise entirely dependent on the draw of its killer whales—orcas with reputations as playful and lovable, not murderous. I had little doubt the story had heavy spin.
"There is strong circumstantial evidence that Tillicum may have killed again," I went on. "He was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where a drunk climbed in over the wall one night and was found drowned in the whale’s pool the next morning."
This second case, the 1999 death of Daniel Dukes, was more ambiguous, because there were no witnesses. The facility had cameras above and below water, but SeaWorld claims none captured the event. The SeaWorld theory was drowning and hypothermia. More details have come out since. This was a case of hypothermia in which the deceased was found the next morning draped over the back of Tilikum with his genitals bitten off.
The Veterinarian’s Role
Most of what I know about the care of killer whales in captivity, and many of my insights into the culture at SeaWorld, I learned in interviews with Dr. Lanny Cornell, Keiko’s physician. Back then, at the turn of the millennium, Cornell was in his mid-50s. For 14 years he had worked at SeaWorld, beginning as a veterinarian and rising through the ranks to senior vice president and zoological director, with responsibility for the entire animal collection in all of SeaWorld’s parks. At the time, SeaWorld owned half the captive killer whales on the planet, and Cornell, until his departure in 1987, ministered to that flock. It was Cornell who, by intuition and experiment, had discovered the conditions and circumstances that would persuade orcas to breed in captivity, and he was obstetrician for the first birth. It was Cornell who had supervised SeaWorld’s capture of orcas in Iceland.
Cornell had no love for the press, which swarmed all big Keiko events. No reporter’s question irritated him more than a recurrent one: the suggestion that Cornell, as veterinarian, in restoring Keiko’s health and fitness for a return to the wild, was doing some kind of penance. Was he making up, the reporter would ask, for all the orcas he had captured, all the orca families he had broken up? Cornell’s features would freeze, and he would curtly dismiss this penance possibility and call for the next question.
But I wonder if it wasn’t true. I can testify from listening to the deliberations of theFree Willy-Keiko Foundation that no one was more dedicated to the goal of returning Keiko to the wild than Dr. Lanny Cornell. The vet, who began as a horse doctor, is a strong, stocky man, handsome in an aquiline, weathered, Marlboro-cowboy sort of way, tough and gruff and sardonic and opinionated.
His opinion of public relations at SeaWorld was low. He was baffled by how poorly his former company—under siege, even then, by a large segment of the press and public—went about representing itself to the world. SeaWorld, Cornell pointed out, did good, altruistic work in sea-mammal rescue and rehabilitation. But nobody knew. Somehow the PR people never got the word out.
SeaWorld had helped Cornell save Keiko’s life. In the Mexico City theme park where Keiko lived and Free Willy was filmed, the whale was confined to a tank too cramped and warm. He was in terrible health, scarcely moving so as not to overheat, his pectoral fins warty with papilloma virus. SeaWorld experts advised that chillers would help solve the problem, and they sent those down. From SeaWorld San Diego, on hearing Cornell’s report that Keiko’s diet was poor, they trucked down high-quality fish. “He was eating fish that were not really stored properly,” Cornell told me. “They would cut the heads off and gut the fish and feed him the fillets. What he was missing was bone and all the vitamins and minerals that come from the liver and the organs of an animal. It’s very important for a wild predator to eat everything.”
Keiko was not SeaWorld’s whale; there was no profit for them in their good deed—not even as a public-relations coup.
SeaWorld’s Letter of Denial
Public relations at SeaWorld remain dismal. In the case of Blackfish, the PR sin has been not been omission, but commission. SeaWorld must have known the content of Blackfish since at least January, when the film screened at the Sundance Festival, but for months the company simply kept quiet—the smart thing to do, obviously. Why risk the “banned in Boston” effect? Why publicize the efforts of the enemy? Then at the last moment the company changed course, sending out its letter to film critics (“In the event you are planning to review this film, we thought you should be apprised of the following.”).
This letter, SeaWorld’s defense of itself and its attack on the integrity of the Magnolia Films documentary, is a tissue of obvious lies, detailed below.
Bullying: In its letter to film critics about Blackfish, SeaWorld challenges the implication that unlike killer whales in the wild, killer whales in zoos or parks—and specifically Tilikum, the whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death—are routinely bullied by other whales. The word “bullying” is meaningless when applied to the behavior of an animal like a killer whale. Whales live in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy, both at SeaWorld and in the wild. They express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.
Tilikum, for starters, was not just a whale involved in Dawn Brancheau’s death. Tilikum was the whale that killed her. “Bullying” is not meaningless when applied to the behavior of killer whales. “Bullying” is the correct term to use whenever one animal “in a social setting with a dominance hierarchy” (whether that hierarchy is orca, wolf, chimp, or human) asserts dominance over another. The term, indeed, is used only in those circumstances. And there is an obvious difference between the bullying and tooth-raking by wild whales in the ocean and tooth-raking by captive whales in a tank. Every killer whale expert I consulted, when I recited this SeaWorld claim, laughed sourly and pointed out the obvious: In the ocean a whale can get away.
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