Free Willy?

The news that an orca has killed a trainer at Sea World comes as a shock, but not really as a surprise. As has been widely reported, the killer whale, named Tilikum, grabbed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by her hair and pulled her under water, shaking her. The trainer apparently died of “multiple traumatic injuries,” although there hasn’t been much further on the cause of death since the incident. It sure looks as if she was just shaken to death. This all took place in front of an audience at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which was evacuated shortly after the whale started playing, or whatever it was he was doing. This is part of the problem, of course—it’s often difficult to interpret motives to animals whose facial and body expressions we think we can make some sense of. For whales and dolphins (and orcas are actually dolphins) this difficulty is compounded immensely. At the moment, no one has a clear idea what Tilikum actually had in mind.

This is clearly tragic for the trainer, who was one of Sea World’s most experienced, and one of the few who was allowed to work with Tilikum. And let’s be clear about this—Sea World trainers are generally pretty good at what they do. They’ve pretty much all been to college and studied animal behaviour. And it’s often an intuitive skill as well—there are people who can “read” animals better than others can—this is true for dogs, or snakes, or tigers, or dolphins. Animal training is a pretty specialized application of behavioural psychology, and the remarkable thing about it is that it works, and usually works wonderfully. It’s just with large predators, or really smart animals, that training generally becomes less certain. And when you combine “large predator” with “really smart,” you’ve got an orca. The first trainer to ever get in a tank with an orca probably had some expectations of the range of things that might have happened, but so little was known about orca behaviour then that it was still an extraordinarily brave thing to do.

There has been much comment on the fact that Tilikum has been involved in two other human deaths. He is also a cash cow of sorts for Sea World, being their most successful breeding male orca. Both of these facts are relevant in one sense, but irrelevant in another, although the latter fact probably means that Tilikum, unlike a dog or bear that kills a human, will probably not be put to death. But it’s clear that there a whole raft of ethical issues here as well. Not least of which is the fact that Tilikum was 30, and had spent most of his life in captivity.

This is not unusual. The majority of dolphins of various species in captivity at this point are probably born there. This is different from the aquarium world of 30 years ago, when I used to hang around Sea World in San Diego at their Research Institute (named after the late and great ichthyologist Carl Hubbs), when Sea World and other aquaria in the US had to get all sorts of permits and whatnot to capture a live animal. There is less need for this now. But it also has given the world a new generation of show animals who know no other existence, and are virtually incapable of surviving in the wild. We should just refresh memories here on the fate of Keiko, the star of Free Willy, who a lot of people thought should be set free after he was more or less abandoned by film-makers, and who was eventually sent to Iceland—where he died, after numerous attempts to get him to survive in the wild came to failure.

Because there is no question that for many types of mammals, particularly predators, being raised in captivity is a disadvantage, usually a potentially fatal one. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has programs to reintroduce predators into areas where they were previously removed, such as wolves—and it’s a process, with uncertain results, and not always successful. With marine mammals, this can be even more problematic. If the animal has been captured in the wild, it’s often impossible to find the pod the animal came from to return it to. And even that is no guarantee of success. And an animal raised entirely in an aquarium has, frankly, a dubious chance of survival in the wild. For one thing, it’s probably received its food from the human hand for most of its life—would it have any of the predator skills it would need for survival? Would it even have any idea what it was supposed to eat? For all dolphins, like other toothed whales, are carnivores, and they’ll eat lots of stuff, but still, it’s not necessary instinctual, as it is for fish.

There is a broader issue here too. As any dolphin trainer knows, he or she is dealing with a collection of individuals. Yes, trainers have training techniques that they use but they also know that some techniques work better on some animals than on others. Because most dolphin species are individuals—for all we know, all of them. It’s just that some have more, shall we say, personality than others. Tursiops truncatus, the North American Bottlenose dolphin, is the one we’re mostly familiar with from dolphin shows and movies (like Flipper). And leaving aside the issue of whether these animals are smart (and if so, what does that actually mean?), there’s no question, following fifty or more years of research and training with these dolphins, that they are individuals with their own personalities. Some are likeable, some are not—just like chimps, or people. And they have cultures as well—learned behaviours that are transmitted form one generation to the next.

This constantly gets borne out by various studies that come along from time to time, and over the past decade, more frequently. Most recently, some clever research by Diana Reiss of Hunter College has shown that dolphins, like any number of other mammals (mainly primates), can recognize themselves in mirrors. (I had the same idea years ago, but with penguins, which I tried out at the penguin house at Sea World in San Diego—and guess what? Penguins don’t respond to mirrors at all. Who would have possibly guessed? I was trying the wrong species, obviously, but it’s not likely that the folks who ran Sea World at the time would have let me drag a mirror into one of the dolphin tanks.) We now have all sorts of evidence, both anecdotal and more recently experimental, that when we deal with many species of dolphins, particularly the Bottlenose dolphin and the killer whale, that we are dealing with individuals with personalities and cognitive skills and shared (but probably species specific) cultures. We’re not quite at the level of ethical complexity as we have gotten to with chimps who have been taught (or more properly, have learned) sign language, and in that respect may no longer be just “chimps”—but if that’s true, just what are they? But for dolphins and orcas that have been in training with humans for years, if not decades, are they really still “just” dolphins and orcas? Or something else?

So now we get to the nub. Are these animals that should be kept in captivity? These are two arguments here. The first leads to “no.” And it relies on some of what we have discussed—these are intelligent and highly social animals, and keeping them in captivity deprives them of that sociality that they have evolved. And the more we learn about them, the more unjust it seems to keep them trapped in these small enclosed acoustically barren spaces. This last point is critical—these are highly acoustic animals, who live in an acoustic world that we can only try to imagine (the blind among us probably have a better idea than the rest of us), in a world hat is three dimensional in ways we can only try to imagine as well. And we confine them in environments that are shallow, and bright, and small, and probably quite sterile compared with what their natural environments would be.

The counter argument is the educational one—this is the only real opportunity to study these animals, who are extraordinarily difficult to study in their natural environments. And the educational advantages of bringing these animals in contact with large portions of the population (as they traipse through the gates of the various Sea Worlds around the country) does much to raise public awareness of the natural world, and of the various threats that are posed to the survival of marine mammals.

To some extent I want to believe these arguments. I still remember wandering around the petting pool in the San Diego facility, where there were five separate species of dolphins and porposies, and they would swim together, and chase each other, and do what in any other context was classical play behavior in an enclosed setting. But this was inter-specific play, which was (and still is, for that matter) quite rare in the academic literature. And, yet, there it was, day after day, just there, providing delight to thousands of children a day. And to the occasional itinerant scholar who was sufficiently unencumbered by baggage to notice what was actually going on.

But, frankly, I’m no longer persuaded by these arguments. The American public appears completely unable to understand scientific arguments any more, and appears completely uninterested in the health and survival of the oceans. Yes, kids love Free Willy, but that hasn’t translated into a deeper understanding of the importance of marine ecosystem protection. As sad as it is to admit it, the American public looks unlikely to be able to view these animals as anything other than entertainment—much as it regards the rest of the natural world. Yes, there are worthy organizations out there still trying to save what’s left, and yes, I support them, but I’m not optimistic, frankly.

So we have a problem. What do we do with these animals (and there are a lot of them) even if we should decide that they should no longer be kept in captivity? Well, since it’s pretty clear that many of them would not actually survive in the wild, it seems like a cruel fate indeed. But what then? I’m not sure that I have any reasonable answers here. But I imagine that if we don’t come up with some sort of solution this time around, there will undoubtedly be another incident at some point in the future, and we can go around the same set of questions again.

The above stamp is from the Faroe Islands, way up there in the North Atlantic where there are lots of whales, and was issued in 1998.

11 replies »

  1. The whole animals in captivity issue has bugged me for a very long time. As a rule, I feel like if the captivity serves the good of the animal, it’s one thing, but if it’s there for entertainment, that’s another entirely.

    And most aquariums and zoos are really about entertainment, aren’t they? Now some would argue that these facilities educate the public. Maybe to some degree, but I’d say that mostly they’re just novel alternatives to TV or the movies. What do we learn that benefits the species at a dolphin show?

    I guess if you really cared about the animals, you wouldn’t have written a blog. You’d have written a screenplay….

  2. Thanks for the interesting look at the events surrounding Tilikum. He was never meant to be a display animal – the terms of his sale from Canada were clear, he was to be a breeding animal. Seaworld has some explaining to do.

    Sam – I would like to add some texture to your statement that zoos are really for entertainment purposes. There most certainly is an element of entertainment involved in a trip to the zoo. It’s a bargain in exchange for your money. Zoos are expensive to maintain.

    If I may share from my person experience – I spent a number of years as a docent at the Smithsonian National Zoo. I gave tours, worked in the learning labs and provided the grunt level volunteer research time needed by the behavioral scientists and veterinarians. (Yes,I was the person standing outside the enclosure with the clipboard recording behaviors every weekend for months.) One of the biggest lessons I learned was that people value things when they take the time to understand them. There is not question that seeing an animal in the wild is a thrill, but most people will never be that lucky. They can however gain a new appreciate for saving Amazonian habitat after spending time learning about the Golden Lion Tamarin. If we have any hope of saving our planet and it’s inhabitants we must value them first.

    Good zoos and aquariums participate in species survival plans. These SSP register and maintain the genetic information of the captive populations. Breeding plans are created between facilities designed to secure the greatest possible genetic diversity. Veterinary research is another important contribution zoos provide. Exotic species are a unique challenge – there is a 3,600 acre research facility that belongs to the National Zoo out in Front Royal Virginia. It used to be entirely off display – a place for research and for sensitive collections to be away from the public.

    It was a pleasure to work with the staff at the National Zoo. These folks loved what they did, devoted is not too strong a word. So, next time you go to the zoo – look around at how the whole place functions. Talk to the horticulture folks, bet they are cutting browse for the herbivores. Ask if you can get some zoo-doo for your garden. Take an organized tour and ask about the animal management plans. Just because it’s entertaining doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable too.

    Be well.

  3. Excellent article. Thanks!

    In a lot of instances, confined animals exhibit a lot of the same behaviors as observed in human prison populations: nervous, repetitive behavior, frequent pacing, etc. As you mention at the beginning of your article, it’s tough to know what’s going on in their minds. One should be careful when extrapolating human behavior too much, but given what we have to go on, I’m currently siding with Occam’s razor.

    If we as a society ever get to the point where we acknowledge that these places are purely for our entertainment, we’ll unfortunately get to a point where we will likely have to euthanize these animals. I’ve run into this situation in helping out wildlife rehabilitators. Someone keeps a baby animal as a pet, but releases the animal once it fledges. We find it, bring it to the rescue, and the rehabilitator tries to condition it to a life of searching for its food and avoiding its predators. More often than not though, there’s no hope for the animal and no available resource to continue to care for the animal. It’s sad.

  4. I can’t visit zoos or aquariums without becoming physically ill. I don’t visit mental institutions or prisons for amusement, either.

    Thank you for writing this.

  5. Correct me if i’m wrong, but don’t dolphins have some tendencies towards violence in the wild…and i don’t mean predation violence. Groups of males are known to keep a female as a “sex slave” and basically gang rape her…or at least that’s what i’ve heard. I’m not suggesting that Tikkum was trying to rape the trainer. But as dangerous as it is to anthropomorphize animal behavior it is just as dangerous to think that they’re “just simple animals”.

    They are complex creatures, and behaviorism (which is what animal training is) only goes so far…no matter what Skinner thought, it does not encompass human or animal thought.

    I”m of two minds about zoos/aquariums. I love them, but only when they’re done right. I’m not disappointed by stepping up to the viewing area of a good enclosure and not seeing the animals. I’d rather that then see wild animals trapped in a prison like cell for me to ogle. There is nothing more terrible and depressing than a bad zoo. And i do not believe that one-way glass means animals have no idea that crowds of humans are watching.

    Actually, i know that. Once i was at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. A big, male gorilla was sitting with his back to the glass. Two little boys were in front of me, taunting the gorilla. (including some tapping on the glass) In a flash the gorilla was up on his hind legs, turned around, baring his fangs and slammed both fists on the glass. I nearly shit myself…i’m pretty sure both little boys actually did shit themselves.

    Good zoos and trips to the zoo are about education and wonder. Treating animals as entertainment is not much better than dog fighting as sport. (I’ve seen plenty of dog fights, they happen. I was pretty much raised in a kennel – not forced, but i was known to take naps in the crates and partake in the dogs’ foodstuffs – and was probably socialized almost as much by dogs as by humans. So there’s nothing lower in my book than dog fighting.)

  6. Thanks all for the comments.

    Dawn–yes, I agree completely, zoos and aquariums have an important educational aspect. And zoos are now critical for the maintenance of breeding populations for species that are threatened. And they can be fun. And they need to be good. I till remember some aquariums in Florida n the 1970s that should have been closed–and were, eventually. They just need a lot more money and space than they currently have in most cases. But I’m all for that.

    In most cases. Higher primates and certain marine mammals are a problematic class of exceptions, for a variety of reasons. This needs resolution.

    Lex–yeah, there’s a whole lot of aggressiveness in cetacean societies, especially when it comes to sex. I haven’t heard that aspect of it, but I haven’t been keeping up on the literature that much recently. But play, which is constant, can often be aggressive, sexual play even more so. If you’re trying to sex a dolphin, look for the scars–that means it’s probably female.

  7. Bob, a wonderfully thoughtful take on what we need to think about as both a human and animal tragedy – or maybe a tragedy of two species of animals whose understanding of each other is all too imperfect.

    I was truly struck by this observation: “The American public appears completely unable to understand scientific arguments any more, and appears completely uninterested in the health and survival of the oceans.”

    For all the sadness of the situation of a trainer’s sad death and our relationship with animals, this observation probably troubled me more than anything else in this article.

    I’m reminded of Bill McKibben’s great writing about the difference between our experience of animals in the wild and animals in TV documentaries about them. Zoos and aquaria, defend them as we will, are as artificial as TV documentaries about animal behavior. Encountering a timber rattler in the wild, as I did fly fishing last spring, is a far cry from any viewing of the same animal in a herpetarium. As McKibben observes about encountering bears in the wild v. watching a documentary on bears on the Discovery channel (forgive my paraphrase) – the encounters are fleeting – yet intensely experienced because they reinforce nature’s reality – all its beauty and danger – for us.

    Only when something horrific happens, as in this case with Orca and trainer, is an audience forced to confront that truth about nature.

    Thanks again for this fine piece of analysis of this issue.

  8. Jim–My pleasure. McKibben is a smart guy. I’ve had two bear experiences, and decades later I still remember them with absolute clarity. Amazing how we’re wired.

    • Charles Wright has a poem in “The Other Side of the River” where he describes something that happened on a camping trip when he was kid. He apparently sleepwalked, and in the middle of the night got up and started wandering around. It turns out he was headed straight for the side of a cliff when his hands bumped into something. He awoke to find that he’d bumped into a bear. Which interestingly enough, seems to have saved his life.

      He backed away, went back to camp, and never said anything about it for years. I imagine that’s the sort of wildlife encounter that would really leave an impression on you.

      This passage is probably the single biggest reason why I have a portrait of Wright on my wall at work (alongside Eliot, Yeats and Thomas).