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.