How Killer Whales Become Killers

There is a reason why the killer whales who perform at Sea World are given the stage name "Shamu." It's a trick used to keep ...

There is a reason why the killer whales who perform at Sea World are given the stage name "Shamu." It's a trick used to keep patrons from realizing when one whale dies and is replaced in the show by another. Killer whales die quite often at Sea World. And sometimes people die, too. These passings are the subject of David Kirby's "Death at Sea World: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity."

Killer whales are neither killers nor whales. Orcinus orca is a member of the delphinidae family, a dolphin. Through all of recorded history—the first account of orcas comes from Pliny the Elder, circa 77 A.D.—they have presented little threat to humans. In fact, as marine biologist Naomi Rose explains to Mr. Kirby, "no killer whale has ever been reported to have killed a human in the wild, or even seriously injured a human in the wild, and no killer whale has ever been known to be killed in a fight with another whale. All three of those things have happened in captivity."

"Death at Sea World" hinges on a February day in 2010 when an orca killed Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at Sea World Orlando, in Florida, who was dragged into the water by her pony tail, scalped and finally killed by a combination of blunt-force trauma and drowning—all in full view of park patrons. But Mr. Kirby starts long before then, in the 1970s, and tells the story like a thriller, documenting a series of fatal incidents at Sea World and other marine parks.

Death at Sea World
By David Kirby
St. Martin's, 469 pages, $26.99

His chief protagonist is Ms. Rose, who fell in love with dolphins as a teenager. During her graduate studies she stumbled into work on a program in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, the world's epicenter of orca research. There she learned that the animals are highly social: They live in matrilineal groups—that is, small groups composed of a matriarch, her calves, her juvenile young and her adult sons. Several of these matrilineal groups form a pod, which is essentially a large extended family.

Orcas are highly vocal, and some of the researchers that Ms. Rose met in Johnstone studied their modes of communication. Others conducted surveys of orca communities, looking to see how the members spend their time. Male orcas, for example, remain close to their mothers for their entire lives. Literally: Up to 75% of a male's life is spent within a body length of his mother. Ms. Rose's own research concerns alloparenting—or group parenting: Orcas have a baby sitting system in which mothers often leave dependent calves with adult siblings, aunts or uncles for an hour or two so that the mothers can forage, socialize with other grown-ups or just rest.

Eventually Ms. Rose landed at the Humane Society of the United States. After Mrs. Brancheau's death, she became one of the leading voices in the call to remove orcas from parks such as Sea World.

Another of Mr. Kirby's characters is Jeffrey Ventre, one of the elite orca trainers at Sea World Orlando from 1987 to 1995. His duties ranged from the care and husbandry of orcas to performing with them in the water during shows at Shamu Stadium. Today he is a doctor and an advocate for the removal of orcas from theme parks. Through Mr. Ventre's eyes, we are given a back-of-the-house look at Sea World's operation.

The first Sea World opened in San Diego in 1964. It was the brainchild of four college friends who originally planned it to be little more than a restaurant with some aquatic viewing areas. Featuring dolphin shows as the main attraction, the park was popular from the start. But when the owners purchased the original Shamu in 1965 for $70,000 and began displaying her, revenues soared. Eventually Sea World would open locations in Florida, Ohio and Texas, and orcas came to be the parks' mainstay. Sea World is zealous in defense of its use of orcas for understandable commercial reasons: Mr. Kirby cites figures suggesting that orcas account 70% of the parks' revenues.

Sea World's first serious orca attack took place in 1971, when the original Shamu mauled a park employee during a publicity stunt. (The woman required 200 stitches to close her wounds.) Since then dozens of serious injuries have been reported. In 1987 alone, one trainer had her neck broken; another had his neck, back and pelvis crushed; a third suffered a ruptured kidney and lacerated liver. Sea World's official comments on the incidents bordered on the absurd. About one attack resulting in massive internal damage, the park told reporters sublimely: "These guys were playing and got a little carried away."

In 1991, Sea World bought the orca Tilikum from a failing marine park in Canada. It was a peculiar move because, just eight months earlier, Tilikum had killed one of his trainers during a show and was known for his unpredictable behavior. But it was a purchase of necessity: At the time, Sea World owned 12 orcas, only one of whom was male. International law was hardening against the capture of wild orcas, so the company was increasingly reliant on an in-house breeding program, and Tilikum was a proven breeding bull. Sea World desperately needed his sperm.

In 1999, Tilikum killed again when a man stowed away in the park overnight and jumped into the pool. The orca returned to performing, only to attack Mrs. Brancheau in 2010. Even as the incident spurred investigations and lawsuits, Tilikum again returned to performing a year later.

Something about captivity turns orcas into killers. The question, then, is what to do. The answer for activists such as Ms. Rose—and for Mr. Kirby—is to protect both man and orca by ending the practice of captivity. About two-thirds into "Death at Sea World" the thriller becomes a tract. This isn't a bad thing. Though Mr. Kirby occasionally leans too heavily on the complaints of disgruntled former employees and workplace gossip, his argument is, for the most part, fair and persuasive. It is acceptable, he argues, to keep some animals in captivity. But not orcas.

There are practical reasons—they are simply too large to be kept humanely, and they perish in captivity at an alarming rate. Despite Sea World's longtime insistence that captive orcas live just as long as orcas in the wild, Mr. Kirby contends that a captive orca is more than 2½ times as likely to die as an orca in the wild.

Then there are the moral reasons. Orcas possess a striking level of sentience. It's not just their sophisticated communication and behavior—it's that their socialization rises to the level of culture. Pods perform elaborate greeting ceremonies when they meet. Different pods use different hunting techniques because the behavior is not instinctive but is learned and has been passed down through generations. Orcas are not people; but they are closer to us than they are to nematodes.

Toward the end, "Death at Sea World" becomes increasingly radical, suggesting that we spend enormous sums of money repatriating captive orcas to the wild. It would seem more practical to change the laws concerning the breeding, buying and selling of orcas. We probably can't free the orcas in captivity today; but we could make the current group of captive killer whales the last.
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WildLife_Rules!: How Killer Whales Become Killers
How Killer Whales Become Killers
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