The tragedy of the trainer killed at Florida’s sea world was all over the news yesterday. 40 year old Dawn Brancheau was an experienced trainer who had worked with Tilikum, an orca captured from Icelandic waters when he was just two years old. The trainer’s death is a tragedy to her family and coworkers, but it also sheds light on the tragedy of orcas in captivity. This particular orca has been involved in two previous violent incidents with trainers, one in 1991 and another in 1999. All accounts of killer whale violence involving humans have occurred while the animals are in captivity. In their own natural environment orcas maintain a remarkably peaceful culture. The SRKWs have never been known to kill humans, kill each other, shun or make outcasts of their members. Their society seems to have achieved a peacefulness which we humans only dream of.
Like humans, they are sophisticated social creatures who need freedom, wide open space to move and the lifelong companionship of their family and community. This event serves as a reminder of just how important it is to preserve the orcas’ natural environment. If their natural world is depleted to a point that we feel we are saving them by keeping them in marine parks and they end up in captivity, they end up incarcerated in a way that is dangerous to the humans that dedicate their lives to them as well as to themselves.
In Listening to Whales, Alexandra Morton contemplates marine mammals in captivity and whether the ‘education for children’ argument holds up. In regards to children learning respect for and the desire to protect orcas, she says,
“More often, though I’d see a different kind of interaction. Some kids taunted the whales and pitched popcorn at their blow-holes…They argued over whether the whales were real. ‘They’re like rubber man. Look at ‘em: just like the dinosaurs at Disneyland. They’re stupid, fat, dead, fake…’
What exactly were these children learning? Before the advent of marine parks, killer whales had all too often been considered the wolves of the ocean, nomadic man-eaters, good for nothing…But thanks to parks like Marineland…public opinion had swung to the opposite extreme. They were considered obedient, cute, tongue-wagging performers, tame enough for petting, and the children I observed were learning that it was a human right to enslave, harm and ridicule another creature just for fun. In a single generation the human memory of orcas as dangerous predators had faded away-and with it the respect that predators command” (Morton 56).
It’s interesting to consider the difference between people’s desire to protect orcas they see in their natural world, where they are witness to their intelligence, resourcefulness and the complex and social way they live their lives compared to the anecdotal apathy for preservation when they think orcas are docile, cute and stupid.
This news comes just days after the first spotting of new calf L-114. L-114 is the first known calf born to 22 year old Matia (L-77) and the seventh orca born within the past year. This brings the population up to 89 orcas and marks the largest number of births since the 1980s. But of course, more orcas, means more mouths to feed, and even greater need for salmon.