Killer Whale Tilikum Returns to SeaWorld Shows After 3rd Death
Tilikum, the 12,000 lb killer whale at the center of a controversial debate on orca captivity and safety, returned to performances today in Florida– a little more than a year after brutally killing veteran orca trainer Dawn Brancheau. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President Jim Atchison signed off on the decision earlier this week according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.
This is seen as a risky public relations move as details have emerged that implicate the marine park for knowingly allowing their veteran trainer to come in close contact with Tilikum, who had already been involved in the deaths of two people including trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific.
In less than a month the Orlando theme park will square off against OSHA as they contest citations for “willfully” placing their employees at risk. In the interim, SeaWorld has attempted to placate the safety issues with several unrealized and unproven systems intended to keep trainers out of harms way but only time will tell if SeaWorld’s calculated risks will be “profitable” enough to avoid the cost of future deaths.
Why put him back in the show only three weeks before they are going to debut the new show “One Ocean” of which he is so far not scheduled to appear? Perhaps they’ll just say it’s because he’s not ready to perform in that one. And why didn’t they put him back in the show earlier, when they’ve had their “new safety protocols” in place for a while now? Could it be because they want to be able to show the judge that Tilikum is safe to work with, minimizing the risk that he will harm someone else? The timing is very suspicious just ahead of the OSHA hearings.
Dawn’s death has also reignited the debate over housing the ocean’s top predator in captivity, a socially dynamic, intelligent, social mammal and forcing it to perform tricks for food… and for the paying public.
Below is a clip from Tilikum’s debut performance in the 11:30 a.m. “Believe” show on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 before a crowd of “Shumu” chanters:
“Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment,” said Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld Orlando’s animal training curator, in a prepared statement.
Ms. Clark’s words speak volumes in the marine parks care of the world’s largest orca in captivity since that tragic day. Following last year’s incident, Tilikum has essentially been kept in isolation, has not performed publicly and has been without a companion since Taima died. This has been widely viewed as a cruel departure from the strong social bonds that are formed by orcas in the wild and serves to substantiate the claims that Tilikum’s social interactions have been neglected over the past 13 months. The long hiatus may prove to be difficult for Tilikum, creating a more unstable situation for him and increasing the risk to trainers.
And these are not the only tragedies to have befallen the multibillion-dollar entertainment giant this past year. In just 9 months, four orcas have died in SeaWorld Parks, including the October death of the “Original Baby Shamu” Kalina… the first “successful” orca born into captivity that died at the age of 25. In September, 12-year old male orca Sumar died at their San Diego park. And just 3 months earlier, Sumar’s mother Taima died at the Orlando facility along with her 4th calf. Tilikum was the father of the unsuccessful birth.
In the wild, male orcas live an average of 30+ years and females 50+ years. Many also live well into their 80s or 90s. In captivity; orcas rarely make it out of their teens and suffer from the extreme stresses of captivity. Tilikum, at age 31, remains an anomaly amongst captive orcas, of which there are only 42 worldwide.
For more on Tilikum’s return:
Read an AOL News interview with former SeaWorld trainer Dr. Jeffrey Ventre <HERE>.
UPDATE: Three weeks after Tillikum’s return to performing, SeaWorld rolled out its new “One Ocean” show to replace the “Believe” show. On day two of their new extravaganza, Tilly seems less than thrilled— and visitors begin walking out of Shamu Stadium as Tilikum refuses to perform. After splashing the crowd a couple of times, he appeared to lose interest and just swims around the pool for several minutes. After what was already a rather lame show, the guests have seen just about enough and begin filing out— annoyed with the music and lack of “entertainment”. Other than numerous water jets that squirt into the air and into the pool, the new “One Ocean” show appears more pathetic than its’ predecessor the “Believe” show. Watch Tilly’s day 2 performance of “One Ocean” below: