Captivity bites

The disturbing truth behind the killer-whale shows at SeaWorld and other parks

The author is a local animal activist and host of Sentients on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on Chico’s community radio station, KZFR 90.1 FM.

As a kid, I loved SeaWorld. I loved watching the trainers interact with the whales and dolphins. As I got older, I started to feel uneasy about my visits there. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that these majestic creatures do not belong in tanks, forced to perform silly acts with trainers. They belong in the ocean, with their families, to which they are bonded to for life.

In February 2010, Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca (killer whale), killed the much beloved trainer Dawn Brancheau. The news of her death shocked the country. Americans thought of “Shamu” as a lovable icon, not a killer. But the truth is he’d already contributed to the deaths of two other people.

Tilikum figures prominently into a documentary film called Blackfish, which features shocking footage and heartbreaking interviews with former trainers. It also includes a heart-wrenching conversation with a former whale hunter, diver John Crowe. He tearfully recalls the capture of whale calves nearly 40 years ago while their mothers howled mournfully for them. He says in the film, “We were only after the little ones.” To this day, Crowe seems haunted by the sounds of mother and calf being separated.

Passed in 1972, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the capture and removal of marine mammals in U.S. waters, but SeaWorld Orlando, where Tilikum still lives, continued to obtain killer-whale capture permits under an exception for educational display.

In November 1983, Tilikum was captured off the east coast of Iceland at around 2 or 3 years of age. If you do the math, it means that he’s been in captivity for about 30 years.

It is widely believed that Tilikum kills (not necessarily on purpose) because he is frustrated, bored and, most of all, lonely. He has no outlet for these feelings, and no other whales to bond or connect with.

SeaWorld owns 26 of the 42 orcas in captivity. Killer whales have been performing at marine parks since around 1965. One-hundred-thirty of them have died in captivity. Mental distress runs rampant at the facilities—from stomach problems to gnawing on their enclosures.

Tilikum and the hundreds of other animals held in captivity at SeaWorld facilities do not belong there. There are no sound arguments to defend these practices. If you want to help, don’t support these facilities, and in Chico you can watch Blackfish, opening at the Pageant Theatre on Friday, Aug. 9.