What to do about a killer killer whale

the editors
FAME Pictures/KEYSTONE Press
FAME Pictures/KEYSTONE Press

Real life is a good deal more complicated than it appears in the movies. Consider the 1993 blockbuster Free Willy, which tells the story of a young boy who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a six-ton killer whale and helps him escape from an unscrupulous amusement park owner. The tale not only inspired several sequels, but an outpouring of affection for the lead actor—Keiko the killer whale.

With fact following hard on the heels of fiction, children and adults around the world raised millions of dollars to free Keiko from a Mexican amusement park. He was moved to a special tank in Oregon and was given remedial training in how to behave like a real killer whale. After several years of instruction he was released off Iceland and made his way to Norway. Unfortunately, he remained entirely dependent on humans. He lived on herring fed to him by handlers and spent his days swimming with local children as a tourist attraction. When he died of pneumonia in 2003, $20 million had been wasted trying to turn him back into an authentic killer whale. There was no Hollywood ending for Keiko.

Keiko’s fate is worth remembering with another killer whale now in the news.

Last week, Tilikum, a 31-year-old killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., made headlines when he performed for the first time since causing the death of his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, last February. Brancheau’s ponytail got caught in Tilikum’s mouth and he dragged her into the pool and eventually drowned her.

This was not the first time Tilikum was responsible for a human death. In 1991, 20-year-old trainer Keltie Byrne died when she fell into a pool with Tilikum and two other killer whales at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria. They tossed her about until she drowned. And in 1999, a homeless man was found dead, draped over Tilikum’s back, after breaking in to his pool after hours.

Of four human deaths caused by captive killer whales since 1961, Tilikum is responsible for three of them. Should such an animal be performing for tourists at SeaWorld?

To begin, it seems reasonable to argue that large, intelligent, highly social mammals such as killer whales should not be removed from the wild in the first place. Both Canada and the U.S. have bans on the capture of killer whales dating back several decades. That said, 41 killer whales currently live at amusement parks around the world (two are in Canada). Most of them were bred in captivity.

In the wild, killer whales do not attack humans. In captivity, most attacks tend to be triggered by accidents such as Brancheau’s unfortunate ponytail and may in fact be attempts at play. Nonetheless, Tilikum is clearly predisposed to aggressive behaviour. In a statement following his first performance last week, SeaWorld claimed that performing is “an important component of [Tilikum’s] physical, social and mental enrichment.” But it requires wilful blindness to ignore his fatal track record. If Tilikum were a pit bull or circus lion he would have been euthanized by now.

We are not suggesting that Tilikum should be put down. (In fact, no one has.) And the popularity of killer whale shows at SeaWorld and elsewhere suggest they are not about to disappear any time soon. But Tilikum should no longer be part of any tourist show. He is a dangerous and damaged animal unsuited to public performance. Putting a multiple killer on display in this way seems gruesome and deranged. So where should he go?

There has only been one successful Free Willy-style transfer of a killer whale from captivity back to the ocean. Springer was an immature and sickly killer whale who lost her pod in 2002 and began to associate with humans in Puget Sound near Vancouver. In a joint U.S.-Canada operation, she was captured, nursed back to health and returned to the wild quickly and with a bare minimum of human contact.

Having spent decades in close proximity to people, Tilikum is clearly not a candidate for a happy return to free-range ocean life. And given the social nature of killer whales, it seems equally cruel to keep him in the isolation of a breeding pen for the rest of his days. With performing out of the question, perhaps the best that can be offered is that he be retired to an open sea pen to live out his days under the care of humans. This is how Keiko lived before his disastrous trip to Norway.

No longer a wild killer whale, but too dangerous to be allowed in public, it may be the best ending we can offer Tilikum.