By Angela Beswick
here to launch the photogallery
Calls for an end to the captivity of whales have been
reignited following the death of an orca trainer at a SeaWorld water
park in Florida Wednesday.
A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
(PETA) has labelled the death of a whale-trainer at Shamu Stadium a
“tragedy that didn’t have to happen”.
Dawn Brancheau, 40, was playing with the park’s largest male
orca Tillikum, in knee-deep water, when he grabbed her by her ponytail
and pulled her underwater around 2pm yesterday.
Trainers had to coax the 29-year-old orca, understood to have
an “aggressive nature”, into a smaller pool and use a platform to lift
him out of the water before they could free Ms Brancheau from his
An autopsy today determined the probable cause of Ms
Brancheau’s death was multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.
The incident has raised questions regarding the confinement
of oceangoing mammals, and sparked outrage amongst those who label
their captivity “unethical”.
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PETA spokesman Jaime Zalac said the tragic accident was one that could have so easily been avoided.
The organisation had called on SeaWorld to stop confining
whales to an area that, to them, “is like the size of a bathtub”, she
“Plus we have been asking the park to stop forcing the animals to perform silly tricks over and over again."
The organisation has launched a campaign 'Help Animals Imprisoned by SeaWorld',
asking supporters to write to the park's owners and urge them to
release the mammals to sancturies that can provide them an environment
that is more natural to them.
“The only thing people learn from visiting a SeaWorld theme
park is how miserable life is for animals held there," reads a
statement on PETA's website.
"It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out," says Ms Zalac.
American whale expert Richard Ellis says killer whales don’t
do things accidentally, and has no doubt the whale intended to attack
Ms Brancheau. He even goes so far as to label the attack “intentional”
In an interview with 3 News, Dr Ingrid Visser - the only New
Zealand marine biologist who specialises in orca - says the highly
modified, highly structured behaviour of orca in captivity is not
“They have to be kept under control in order to it to be safe
for humans,” she says. “But they shouldn’t be kept under control,
they’re an apex predator – they’re the top predator out
Dr Visser, founder of the Orca Research
Trust, likens the captivity of whales to taking a human and
“putting them in a telephone box for the rest of their lives”.
“To me it’s just not right to have these whales in captivity
full stop. I don’t think it’s right for us to breed more of them [in
captivity] for our entertainment,” she says.
SeaWorld Animal Care Curator, Chuck Tompkins told reporters
SeaWorld has a tremendous record with orca, and a very small percentage
“It’s useful to have animals in the park,” he says. “It gives
scientists a chance to study them and members of the public an
opportunity to see them and learn about them.”
But Dr Visser says accidents and attacks like that which
claimed Ms Brancheau’s life show there is an underlying problem with
having the animals in captivity.
“I don’t think it’s fair on the animals. We have perfectly
good technology to teach people about these animals without having to
keep them in this unnatural environment. They say it’s for education –
but what are we learning?
“We’re teaching our kids that this is okay. We really have to take a technological leap forward,” she says.
Having spent hundreds of hours swimming with orca in the wild,
Dr Visser says she has never seen any sign of aggression.
By New Zealand law, any individual swimming with orca must
have a Department of Conservation permit, which Dr Visser says is as
much for protection of the animals as it is for people.
“There’s never been any record, anywhere in the world, of a
human being taken by an orca in the wild. Surely we’re getting an
indication of why this tragic event happened – they’re in captivity,”
“Why have we got these highly intelligent marine mammals
living in a blue box? It’s unnatural. They don’t echo-locate anymore or
make noises and squeaks. It’s morally wrong, unethical for us to be
treating them this way. We profit from the distress of the animal, and
are quite comfortable putting them in situations where they’re
American marine biologist Nancy Black agrees the whales need more space than that which captivity offers.
“Situations like that do cause a lot of stress for them,” she says.
Ms Black says orca live in the wild in family groups, and
males stay with their mothers their entire lives. Family members rely
on each other for social structure and play, and they cover hundreds of
miles of ocean, she says.
Orca culture is defined by the type of food they eat, the way
they hunt, the social dynamics and their structure, Dr Visser says.
“They have their own culture just like humans do, yet we take
them from different parts of the world, shove them in a tank together
and expect them to get on. Someone who doesn’t speak your language,
doesn’t share your culture – you’re just shut up in a tank with whales
you’ve never met and probably don’t get along with,” she says.
“It’s no wonder these animals are trying to communicate with us in ways which we don’t like.”
Mr Tompkins said Tillikum wouldn’t be euthanised, nor will he
be isolated from other orca at the park. He plays an important role in
the social group of Shamu Stadium’s eight whales, has fathered some
calves and will continue to mate with the park’s female orca.
Although a review of the park’s orca protocol has been
launched, Mr Tompkins says he does not expect changes to the way staff
deal with Tillikum to be drastic.
However Dr Visser says no matter what the changes, the situation for Tillikum is unlikely to improve.
“I suspect he will become more aggressive - this is his way of protesting,” she says.
Officials have confirmed trainers will continue to interact
with the orca, but procedures for doing so will change following Ms
Brancheau’s death – the first death of a SeaWorld trainer in 46
President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld Parks and
Entertainment, Jim Atchison, released a statement Thursday announcing
the launch of an investigation into what occurred.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees,
guests and the animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard
operating procedures will come under review as part of the
investigation,” he said.
Orca shows at all SeaWorld parks were suspended following
Wednesday's incident, however Mr Atchison announced today they will
resume with "precautionary measures in place".
He described Tillikum as a "wonderful animal" and said the
whale will remain an active member of the team despite what had
Tillikum is the largest orca in captivity. Measuring more than
six metres and weighing around five-and-a-half tonne, he is more than
twice the size of the typical orca whale.
Tillikum was one of three whales involved in a drowning at a
marine park in British Columbia in 1991. It is believed a trainer fell
into the whale tank at the Sea Land Marine Park in Victoria, and
dragged her underwater as visitors watched.
In 1999, a 27-year-old man was found floating in a tank at
SeaWorld. It is believed the man had hid in the park until after it
closed, then climbed into the water with the orca. Authorities said it
was apparent the man had become a victim of Tillikum’s “horseplay”, and
the whale would not have realised he was “dealing with a very fragile
In the wake of Ms Brancheau’s death, author of award-winning
nonfiction book Leviathan, or the Whale, Philip
Hoare, wrote about keeping whales in captivity.
He says humans have exploited whales for centuries, “sometimes in the most extraordinary ways”.
“Since killer whales were first held captive for the purposes
of entertaining humans in the 1960s, 200 killer whales have died in
captivity,” he wrote. “At SeaWorld, each dead whale is replaced with
another of the same name.
“Shamu thus becomes the eternal performer, a perpetual brand. This week, he turned.”
He points out that killer whales do not kill humans, but
rather were given the nickname when whalers noted they hunted other
“The terrible incident at SeaWorld only serves to underline
the fact that even in the second decade of the
21st century, we have yet to sort out what we
really want from whales,” Mr Hoare wrote.
“What they want from us is more clear: they want to be left alone.”