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Sea World And Killer Whales

Today a woman died at Sea World. It’s terrible and shocking whenever there is a senseless death. My heart aches for the family of the trainer.

I’d like to discuss just a few things with you today.

Did you know that whales migrate thousands of miles each year? How would whales recreate that experience at a place like Sea World?

Did you know that whales (and many other ocean mammals you find at places like Sea World) communicate via sonar? Whale sounds travel hundreds of miles so one pod can communicate with another. Imagine being a whale at Sea World and making noises within the cement swimming pool that is your new home. Now imagine that sound echoing back at you. It’s the equivelant of putting your children in a mirrored room, for years.

I am told that whales and dolphins in captivity have wilted Dorsal Fins. I am looking for a reliable source to credit, please leave one here.

The dolphins? They’re not smiling, our anthropomorphizing of these fabulous animals has led us intro tricking ourselves into believing they are happy. They are not necessarily happy or unhappy. Whales, Orcas, Dolphins and other life under water do not smile. They are not us, and they do not belong to us.

My friend Holly at Ocean Futures Society was telling me about a dolphin trainer whose dolphin committed suicide. It happens, these are mammals who need to be social, to migrate, to hunt and to mate. I’m terribly sorry that anyone has to be hurt, much less die, but today should be a lesson for us all.

If your children need to see dolphins, whales and the like go visit Jean Michel Cousteau and find out how you can become an Ambassador of the Environment.


53 thoughts on “Sea World And Killer Whales”

  1. Thanks for the twitter debate earlier. I
    just want to add a couple things since The Ocra is one of my favorite animals.

    1. Do not confuse them with typical whales. They do not migrate unless they need food.

    2. They only use sonar to hunt.

    3. Typically pods don’t communicate with other pods since they speak their own language. Inter-pod communication is realitively quiet.

  2. Indeed, and those YOUR FAMILY GETS TO SWIM WITH THE DOLPHINS! exhibits in Hawaii and such, too.

    I’m torn, because I do think that there is a place for animals in captivity, especially when it comes to conservation efforts. But we can do a better job. (It’s an extension of how I feel about being an omnivore. I don’t like factory farming, but instead of becoming a vegetarian I try to support brands that are trying to humanely raise livestock to show that there is a market for such things.)

  3. It is so sad… as a sailor and lover of all things in the ocean (even the icky sea urchins – okay thinking sushi here)… it saddens me to see the captivity of all creatures, but nothing is more horrifying than knowing what it does to them.

    There are many reasons for the dorsal fin to bend while in captivity – lack of exercise – being forced to swim in circles (they would naturally swim in a straight line), lack of deep diving, exposure to chemicals and sun exposure, however, there are reports of the fin going back to being rigid when they are released from captivity…. HINT

    You point out several good things to think about – but if you haven’t seen The Cove, you need to. Remember Flipper? The trainer from that TV show from the 60’s realized what capturing and containing these majestic creatures truly did to them… and years later he regrets his part in bringing them to the Miami Seaquarim and making it a popular attraction. The Cove is a documentary that reflects on this and more – not for kids!!

    “We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged animal, only the shadow of its former beauty.” – Julia Allen Field (1937- )

  4. Thanks Jessica, for the insightful read. On a subject I confess, I’ve not spent much time thinking about. Henceforth, that will change.

    Great read – leaves you thinking, just as any good blog post will do. Can’t wait to read the comments this generates.

    V3 Integrated Marketing

  5. Tillikum and his son Ky have BOTH attacked humans in the past. Tillikum in 1991 and Ky in 2004. Humans should not have been part of their lives. This is just plain stupid. Bad animal management. These animals have no business being tortured for our amusement. Here is a link to an article written after Ky killed in 2004. Humans it seems have very short memories.

  6. All great points! We went to Six Flags this summer and it was SO depressing, especially the dolphin show, so that I couldn’t go back. I think there is a place for zoos, for conservation and rehabilitation, but not for shows like this and at Six Flags.

  7. You are so right and I am sorry someone had to die, but why don’t we hear about the aminals that die in places like this God meant for them to be free in the ocean’s not an attraction, for us .

  8. RobynElfie mentioned that she had a link to the previous articles on the prior incidents at SeaWorld… I don’t see them here in the post though.

  9. This is sad, indeed.
    I also reccommend “The Cove” ~ though it was hard for me to watch. I’m a total whimp though when it comes to animals and kids. in movies.
    Thanks all for responses here and on Twitter.

  10. Several commenters have brought up the “Cove” documentary, I’ll lend my voice to the chorus. It’s one of the most disturbing and profound things I’ve ever seen — and the remark from another commenter about a dolphin trainer recounting how one of his dolphins committed suice — that’s true and is actually retold in “The Cove.” It was Ric O’Barry in whose arms one of the Flipper dolphins died. Ric has been spending the rest of his life atoning for the dolphin craze he feels he helped create via the Flipper series. What he and the filmmaking team document in “The Cove” is must-see viewing. I actually have been swimmng with dolphins in captivity and have enjoyed many Sea World shows — as a kid and with my own child. I grieve to think that what I took such pleasure from was at the expense of these magnificent animals in any way. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to set foot in a Sea World after what I saw in “The Cove.” I realize the trainers and staff at Sea World parks must adore the animals in their care — which make the orca attack doubly tragic — but the reality is, dolphins and whales were just not meant to be put into captivity.

  11. I know several people who work at SeaWorld and it drives me crazy to hear and read the pure ignorance of those who know nothing about the park, its animals, and the people who work with them. They are not just a bunch of surfers in wetsuits, swimming around with the fishies. Most of them are highly trained marine biologists, who happen to work for one of the world’s largest marine research and conservation centers. Thousands of marine animals have been saved by SeaWorld’s rescue programs, including several highly endangered species like the manatee. And the research by SeaWorld’s scientists will probably help save many other species in the future. SeaWorld is not just there for people’s amusement, as has been suggested above. The people who work with the animals are not only among the most knowledgeable in the world, but are also the most concerned for their well-being. They would do nothing to harm the animals – they treat them like they are their children.

    Claiming that the animals are mistreated or somehow harmed by living in captivity based on some incorrect facts you thought you knew is ridiculous. If you have some scientific evidence to present, that’s one thing. But making crap up in order to justify your “feelings” is disrespectful to the animals and the people who’ve spent years of their lives studying them. It’s inept libel.

    The truth is, research shows the animals at SeaWorld are quite happy and well-stimulated, both physically and mentally. And while every precaution is taken to ensure a safe environment for both the animals and trainers, accidents will happen. Just like they do with every other aspect of life on Earth.

    Finally – as for flaccid-fin syndrome (which affects orcas, NOT dolphins), no one is quite sure what exactly causes it. But it is also found in wild orcas, and poses no health problem. And if I were to wager any money on it, I would bet that it’ll be one of SeaWorld’s scientists who discovers exactly what does cause it.

    1. And I would bet that it was one of SeaWorld’s scientists who provided research that
      “shows the animals at SeaWorld are quite happy and well-stimulated, both physically and mentally.”

      A 12,000 pound Orca like Tilicum, taken from the ocean at roughly two years old and tossed into a giant tank to put on clown shows and provide data to help human beings learn more about the species?? Happy?? Not the word I would use, but hey, if the “researchers” say so.

  12. Hey Jess!

    This post really made me think.

    I love nature and we’re sailors. There’s nothing better than watching animals in their own habitat. This saddens me to think what they go through being in captivity.
    On the other side, I’ve taken my children to zoo’s, aquarium’s, and we’ve even swam with dolphins. I enjoy that they can see the animals up close and to see their reaction.
    I will think a little differently next time.. (I think)

  13. I mean no disrespect to the trainers at Sea World. I have read before that they are highly educated marine biologists and that Sea World is one of the foremost marine research facilities. It’s just difficult not to get emotional. Wild dolphins and Orcas spend their days eating, playing and having sex. Of course there are other hazards. I just have to wonder how they cope with captivity. Yes, there are enrichment programs. They do things to keep their minds active. Yet these creatures are still captives.
    As someone who has an avian companion (A 13 year old Umbrella Cockatoo), I wonder how many of these creatures go insane. Not necessarily the ones at Sea World…but what about the ones at other parks that may not be as well-cared for?
    Dolphins, Orcas and parrots share the same level of intelligence. Neglected birds have been known to go insane. Do they? Is it possible that these Orcas who have attacked their trainers have mental issues?
    Having never heard of a dolphin committing suicide, I did a little bit of digging and found this article:
    I was sickened by the story that the dolphin I watched EVERY DAY as a child had died in such an appalling manner.
    Many people have suggested watching “The Cove”. I don’t think I can. I don’t know if I can watch a marine mammal show again.
    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  14. what a wonderfully thought provoking post. It is awful i hate to see any animals contained in too small areas and forced to live out there lives at the whim of humans. Why can we not leave well enough alone?

  15. You are always bringing me to be aware of things I had no idea happened.

    Like when you told me about the chickens with the breasts that couldn’t walk. I had NO idea.

    I am not an animal fan to any extent but this breaks my heart.

  16. I have found this blog after looking about the whale that killed the trainer. We watched “The Cove” a few weeks ago. I know that dolphins have saved the lives of humans, have participated in natural water births in the oceans where they live, where the humans chose to bear their infants in the water, and the dolphins came in curiosity and were part of the process. I also know that a researcher whose name I forget was attempting to establish communication with dolphins many years ago, in the 60″s and became aware of the wrong he was doing to the animals by keeping them in captivity. Without notifying staff of his decision to stop the research, and release the dolphins, his dolphins also began committing suicide. The question? Did they begin to commit suicide due to their telepathic connection to the man, and their desire to remain in captivity and participate in the research? By the way, I believe by then, they were not entirely captive, but able to come and go as they please. I must look it up and see if I can find information and post it here. There are so many questions. Why did they begin to commit suicide. It is clear why Kathy, the lead dolphin committed suicide, from the url above, and O’Barry’s response. Her life as a useful animal was over, and rather than release her, she was allowed to be sunburned in a tank, and denied the stimulation that her ‘work’ provided her. Perhaps she held on until he returned, to let him know in the only way that she could, by dying in his arms, of the wrong that the entire process was to the animals that were used. This committed him to his campaign to free all of the dolphins, to end the murder and suicides. We, as humans who either love animals, or do not have any in our homes, buy their meat in cellophane packages, or grow them in humane, not factory farms, ways to use them for our nutrition, have a long way to go in our understanding of the true meaning of our relationship with them. I know a woman who keeps a chimpanzee and has proven to her satisfaction that he has a complete understanding of language spoken by humans. She is a good woman, who means well in her research, and I have a desire to communicate with him, to ask him what he feels about his captivity, and if he wants to participate. I know a woman who developed a way to study the intelligence of horses, to test their intelligence. She has a foundation in California, and her horses have the choice in the morning, to go out with their buds to the pasture, or come into the work area to play with the humans and demonstrate their intellectual abilities. My contact with animals is necessary for my sanity. I have trained in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, and have used it with children and adults, and have watched the interest that the horses have shown in participating. There are ways that it is done that respect the dignity of the horses, and those are the only ways I ever have used, and the horses were all volunteers. If they chose to participate, they did. A young teen, sexually assaulted by her stepfather after her mother died, came with her sister. While her sister and I discussed what happened, I watched the girl go into the paddock. I watched three horses come up to her. The hugged her with their heads, she wrapped her arms around the neck of one of them. We heard her talking and weeping, and the horse stood still, with it’s head gently embracing her as two other horses, gently, pressed their heads around her, so she was being held by them. All stood perfectly still for over fifteen minutes, while she wept and talked to them. These horses, one over 30 years old, around whose neck her arms were wrapped, the others, younger and untrained in riding yet, active playful horses, kept still with her and never moved until she released the first horse and walked back to us. They walked quietly with her……
    The questions will always be there………..but some things are known. Animals are capable of empathizing with humans, they heroically save lives, as rescue animals and family pets who smell the gas that is rendering their humans unconscious, and while this particular cat could have escaped from the open window where she had breathed the fresh air, she went up the stairs, and howled and pulled the hair of her unconscious owner, who had rescued her from a shelter years before, until the woman could call 911, and dropped the phone. Rescue came, the cat found hiding in a closet, the people saved by her. What can we do to let the animal kingdom, that we are to be stewards of, be a decent home for all animals, the right kind of home for all of them?

  17. I’m not an activist and it is much easier to drive an hour to San Antonio and Sea World than it is for my family to do a Cousteau deal out on Catalina.

    That being said, the point was made yesterday on a radio talk show that echos your sentiments, Jessica. One researcer suggested that “Tilly” was depressed or angry. Well, when a Yorkie gets angry, it bites your ankles, when a 13,000 pound wild animal (i.e. a “killer” whale) gets angry, it will EAT you! Say what you will, but this particular orca has killed before and it was noted that it was in a tank that was too small for it.

    I’m not a biologist, much less a marine biologist, and I do believe that there are some valid reasons for studying these animals in captivity and learning from them. That being said, I cannot think of a single creature, human, marine, mammal, reptile, or otherwise, that prefers life in a cage or tank.

    The researcher in dolphin/human communication was John Lilly, who also invented the isolation tank, as I understand it, (which I have enjoyed using in the past), and studied LSD. I may have gotten the dates of studies and behavior of dolphins wrong, but I distinctly remember his writing about the apparent suicides of the dolphins in one of his books that I read. This behavior was the same that O’Barry witnessed in the death of Kathy, (“Flipper”), the conscious choice not to breathe. I am on dial up, waiting for the video to complete downloading by the curator at Sea World regarding the tragedy that I personally believe should not have happened, had the whale been released back into the wild after the first human death. As I said before, and I am so glad, Ms. Gottlieb, to have found your blog, this entire issue raises many questions, and I believe that we are responsible together for looking at them, ALL the questions about our relationship to the animals in the world. Perhaps if we fail to sincerely ask the questions and seek the answers to these questions, we could lose our lease, and the world be left to the surviving animals. This is a question.

  19. Thank you for writing this!!! I would love for there to be no more zoos or theme parks, which I refer to as ‘animal jails’. To suggest that the animals are ‘happy’ is as ridiculous as claiming the moon is made of cheese. It is wrong to hold captive a living being for the sake of human entertainment.

  20. To suggest that the animals are ‘happy’ is as ridiculous as claiming the moon is made of cheese.

    How do you know? Hard to make blanket statements. My dog lives in captivity. He isn’t allowed to just come and go. If you open the door he’ll run outside and hang out. But he always comes back.

    I think that it is an important discussion and worth a lot of thought. But I wouldn’t start jumping up and down because of a few deaths. I am not saying that it wasn’t tragic. I am not necessarily saying that orcas and dolphins should be kept in captivity either.

    But let’s catch our breath and look at a bigger picture. I can remember going to Seaworld and Marineland as a kid, more than 30 years ago. The parks have been around longer than that. How many accidents have there been? How many were due to the behavior of the animals? How many were as a result of human error?

    Maybe they should be set free, but I am not convinced one way or another. And the commenter above who mentioned that marine biologists are working with them is correct. It is not like you have some unskilled yokel working with them on a regular basis.

    1. Making the comparison to your dog isn’t really accurate. First, your dog is a domesticated animal, one that has been bred specifically to live with humans for thousands of years. Second, your dog is not being kept in a small cage (I hope).

  21. I am not sure if someone mentioned this, but whale watching trips are a great way of viewing whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. It is also a lot of fun! I used to be a docent volunteer for the American Cetacean Society. They offer day trips Winter through Spring and I used to see many happy families on my outings.

    There are many other places that offer whale watching trips up and down the west coast (I am not sure about elsewhere, but I am sure they exist if you Google!)

  22. Binary Blonde~ Well said. If we want to see wild creatures it seems only fair that we should be willing to go to their environment to observe.
    Let’s all read Daniel Quinn’s books again and get straight.

  23. This was so sad. I can’t imagine being there to see this, let alone being a friend or family member of the trainer. I couldn’t believe when I heard that this whale had killed two times before. Why do they still have him in Sea World? Unbelievable.

  24. What amazes me is that people are so shocked. To me what is shocking, is that it hasn’t occurred more. Sad yes, but senseless? I’m not so sure. These animals are at the top of the predatory food chain.

  25. LA Stylist Mom,
    “What amazes me is that people are so shocked. To me what is shocking, is that it hasn’t occurred more. Sad yes, but senseless? I’m not so sure. These animals are at the top of the predatory food chain.”

    Spot on! (deep bow)

  26. This is all very tragic, and I mean that… but, you’ll have to put me down as someone who has annual passes to SeaWorld, Orlando, and loves the Shamu show. We go at least twice every summer.

    I feel so terrible for the trainer’s family… her’s is a noble profession, dangerous, but noble indeed.

  27. I’m sorry, but I strongly disagree with this article.

    SeaWorld is the world’s greatest place for sea life conservation. They spend countless hours researching, observing, and helping a wide variety of sea creatures each day.

    The trainers and performers know exactly what is at stake when they take the job. I’m sure they also had to sign multiple disclaimers and waviers ahead of time. I look at it this way–at least the trainer died doing what she loved. I’m sure she knew what the amazing creatures are capable of.

    When some mindless fool sneaks into the tiger exhibit at the zoo, do we criticize the zoo for the incident? No. I don’t think SeaWorld should suddenly be the targeted enemy here. Accidents happen all of the time! The whale only did the natural thing to do.

  28. I disagree with the article and several comments that have been made as well but fully respect everyone’s opinion. Sea world does so many great things through the extensive research of their marine biologists. I understand that accidents do happen and they are not perfect, but should we expect them to be? Are you perfect at your job?

    So many sea life conservation efforts are started and carried out through this institution and it employees some of the best scientists in the industry. Some of these discoveries help prevent us from making seflish human mistakes that affect their natural habitat. We can’t project exactly how the mammals feel, but I believe that if they knew the research on their behalf helped preserve and protect the species they wouldn’t mind so much.

    I would let myself be brought into captivity and researched for the benefit and preservation of the human race. Especially if I was praised and treated as child by my master. Are not these mammals as close as they come to human intelligence? I also don’t believe every human being would do this, nor would every mammal. They can’t communicate to choose for themselves either, therefore I can see both sides of this arguement.

    In the end I fully support the efforts Sea World undertakes today. They have made mistakes in the past and have never been perfect, but I truly feel they have learned from them. The way animals are treated today is a vast improvement of what it used to be 30 years ago. I will continue to take my children to the park to learn about these great animals, and I hope that Sea World continues this important research while providing the whales with the best possible life they can.

  29. Yes, Cory, perhaps you should go into captivity to serve the human race, if that is your choice. How is it ever the choice of an animal to be put into captivity to help us study them for the benefit of mankind? I would like to know. Now you say that they cannot communicate, but once again, I do not think it is true. They communicate very effectively, we do not understand their communications. There are animal psychics, trained and gifted, who are able to communicate with the animals, and they were not consulted. No one asked such a specialist to communicate with these orcas and ask how they felt about being confined and made to do tricks for the mindless entertainment of people who want to pay to watch their ‘antics’. These tricks are trained behaviors, and they do it as will any animal who has had operant conditioning used on them. I use it on my dogs and horses, and any psychology student will tell you how it works, you take an instinctual drive, the drive to eat, and you shape it by rewarding the behavior, with a bridge signal that tells the animal that the most recent behavior produced the reward, and you continue it until that animal will provide that behavior with or without a cue. Watch Alexandra Kurland’s videos of clicker training horses, and you will see her working with one horse, while two horses observing offer a default behavior, a specific pose with their head in a certain position, standing perfectly still in the hopes that this behavior will produce the food reward. The animal is motivated by food and thus will cooperate with most of the training, all else being equal, such as that they are not beaten by their captors/trainers between sessions, although some elephants still produce the selected behaviors after beatings, but notice that we do see elephants, trained and working in circuses and parades for years, suddenly go rogue and trample their trainers to death. In videos I have seen, it is clear that the elephant is quite deliberately trampling the person, effectively murdering them, and perhaps with good cause. We did not see what that elephant endured that morning while preparing for the parade. Questions, and we should start seriously asking them, instead of saying that we will always go to sea world and the other “parks/jails” for the animals. We have no right to capture and imprison them, just as we have no right to capture and imprison primitive people in the south american jungles that have never learned to speak english, use cash, buy oil, or love Jesus, but we do that and worse things, so it is no surprise that we are not yet out of kindergarten on the topic of animal rights.
    Have a good day, and keep asking the questions.

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