Take a highly social, intelligent, 12,000-pound marine mammal accustomed to traveling up to 100 miles a day. Capture him, haul him thousands of miles away from his family, then isolate and confine him in a small tank for 27 years. What do you have?
A recipe for disaster.
Just such a disaster played out horrifically this past week when a 30-year-old killer whale held captive at Orlando, Fla.’s SeaWorld killed his 40-year-old trainer by dragging her under water.
In the hours following the trainer’s death, CBS News ran a predictable online poll asking whether Tilikum, the male killer whale involved in the attack, should be put to death.
More than 77 percent of the respondents voted against the death penalty for the orca. I stand solidly in the let-Tilikum-live camp and go one step further.
After 27 years in captivity, Tilikum should be retired to his native waters of Iceland to live out the rest of his life with surviving family members or, if that isn’t possible, in an ocean sea pen that comes far closer to replicating his natural habitat than Orlando SeaWorld does.
He should not be punished or euthanized for his aggressive, lethal behavior. If humans weren’t so hellbent on capturing orcas for domination and profit, tragedies like this wouldn’t happen.
In the wild, there are no documented cases of killer whales attacking or harming a human. Compare that with orca behavior in sea aquariums and zoos, where they are known to become agitated, suicidal and, in Tilikum’s case, murderous. In fact, Tilikum has been involved in two other incidents that ended in human death.
In February 1991 at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B. C., Tilikum was one of three whales implicated in the death of a 20-year-old trainer who slipped and fell into the whale tank.
Shortly after that, Tilikum was shipped to Orlando SeaWorld, where he has been used primarily as a breeding male, viewed by trainers as a potentially dangerous animal and rarely included in whale shows. In 1999, a man hid in SeaWorld after it closed and somehow ended up in the water tank with Tilikum. He was found dead the next morning, draped over the whale’s body.
Has it occurred to anyone who has controlled this animal’s fate over the past 20 years that Tilikum does not belong in captivity?
Herein lies part of the problem: Tilikum is the primary breeding male for all three SeaWorld parks, in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio. He may be dangerous, but he also is a key asset for continued profiteering by those who keep killer whales in captivity and charge the public to watch them do tricks. His value has increased since captures of orcas in the wild have all but stopped. The last orca capture in Puget Sound occurred in Budd Inlet in 1976.
Over time, as we’ve learned more and more about these powerful and highly intelligent creatures at the top of the marine food chain, we’ve come to appreciate them in the wild. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s no need to go to SeaWorld. A summer trip to the San Juan Islands or other Salish Sea islands offers a great opportunity to watch killer whales from a respectful distance onshore or in a licensed whale-watching boat.
The three southern resident orca pods that spend part of their time in northern Puget Sound have struggled to recover from the loss of orcas to the capture frenzy of the 1960s and 1970s. Capture losses, combined with reduced salmon prey and pollution, landed them on the federal Endangered Species Act list in 2005. One encouraging piece of news was the recent discovery of a baby orca born into the L-pod, bringing the total population of the three pods to 89, still far below the historic population of about 120 southern residents.
Meanwhile, work continues by the nonprofit Orca Network to bring Lolita, also known as Tokitae, back to her home waters of Puget Sound after nearly 40 years of captivity in a small tank at Miami Seaquarium. She is the only surviving member of the southern residents still in captivity. For more information about that project, visit www.orcanetwork.org.
For many of these orcas, their time in captivity compares to the length of a prison term served by violent felons.
All things considered, Tilikum already has served his sentence for his lethal behavior.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444