Tillikum: the slave whale who chose to fight back
Orca whales 'in the wild' do not attack humans. But in aquariums, it is more common than we think
CALL HIM, just for now, Spartacus. He was two years when the slavers captured him in 1982 and hauled him off to the little town of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in the far Canadian west. And there he met his fellow slaves, Nootka and Haida. Day after day in slave school they learned their tricks. Day after day, they did their act for the paying customers. And then, on February 20, 1991, in the tank operated by Sealand of the Pacific, the three struck back at their captors.
Okay, not Spartacus, but an orca whale - Tillikum, the one who drowned 40-year old Dawn Brancheau this week in the Shamu tank at SeaWorld, Orlando, after grabbing her by her pony-tail.
Tillikum was caught off Iceland. Nootka and Haida, both female, were seized in the Pacific. In fact Nootka was the third orca by that name to be bought by Sealand. The first two died within a year of their capture. At that time enslaved orcas had a life expectancy in captivity of anywhere from one to four years. These days they do a bit better. In wild waters, orcas live to be anywhere from 30 to 60.
By the time of the 1991 slave revolt Nootka III already had a couple of priors back in 1989 when she'd attacked trainers twice. Then on February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 20-year old marine biology student, champion swimmer and part-time trainer, slipped while she was riding on the head of one of the orcas. Tillikum, Nootka and Haida took turns in dragging her beyond reach of trainers trying to hook her out with long poles.
As Jason Hribal, author of the forthcoming Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden Story of Animal Resistance, reconstructed the episode on CounterPunch: "'The whale got her foot,' an audience member recalled, 'and pulled her in.' We do not know which orca it was that started it, but all three, Nootka, Haida, and Tillikum, took their turns dunking the screaming woman underwater.
"'She went up and down three times,' another visitor continued. The Sealand employees 'almost got her once with the hook pole, but they couldn't because the whales were moving so fast.' One trainer tossed out a floatation ring, but the whales would not let her grab it. In fact, the closer that such devices got to the young woman, the further out the whales pulled her into the pool. It took park officials two hours to recover her drowned body."
As is typical with theme parks in the business of exploiting animals, whether whales or elephants or some other captive breed, Sealand tried to pass off the disaster as a one-in-a-thousand mishap - sort of a bad-hair day for orcas.
The citizens of Victoria didn't see it that way. Many said the whales had understandably mutinied against their ghastly imprisonment and exploitation and should be freed. They started picketing Sealand. The company trotted out the usual story that captive orcas actually like being slaves, forced to work 365 days a year, and, if freed, would swiftly die.
What is meant here is that slave orcas are worth a lot of money up to a cool million each, which explains why Russia has now lifted its ban on orca trafficking.
There are actually quite detailed Canadian laws governing the export of wild creatures. Sealand, soon to go out of business, got the permits by saying the whales needed to be sent south to the US for "medical reasons". Sold to the SeaWorld empire, Tillikum was shipped off under cover of darkness to Orlando, Florida. Nootka followed, and died there in 1994 at the age of 13. Haida and her calf Ky ended up in SeaWorld, San Antonio. Haida died in 2001, but imparted the spirit of rebellion to Ky, who nearly killed his trainer in 2004.
SeaWorld got its start in the mid-1960s, founded by four UCLA grads planning to run an underwater restaurant and marine life exhibit. After various ups and downs, in the late 1980s the three SeaWorlds passed into the hands of the vast brewing conglomerate Annheuser-Busch which pumped millions into upgrades, finally selling the theme parks to the Blackstone Group for $2.7 billion in 2009.
So there's a lot riding on the slave orcas toiling away (according to a SeaWorld official, giving as many as eight performance per a day, 365 days a year) as the star attractions in each of the Shamu stadiums.
Tillikum's asset value is enhanced by his duties as a sperm donor. He's a breeding "stud" often kept in solitary, away from the other orcas. One of his long-distance partners was Kasatka, at the San Diego slave facility. Kasatka was also captured off Iceland at the age of two, in 1978, and bought by SeaWorld, and has seen service for the company in Ohio, Texas, Florida and California, making three efforts in San Diego to kill her trainer, in 1993, 1999 and 2006.
Her official SeaWorld bio refers chastely to the 1999 episode as "an incident" where she got "a bit aggressive", whereupon according to SeaWorld's press release - she was sent "for some additional training and behavior modification".
As Jason Hribal puts it, "In order to see the world from Kasatka's perspective, three facts need to be considered.
"First, there are no recorded incidences of orcas 'in the wild' attacking humans unprovoked. This is an institutional problem. Second, Kasatka and other performers have a long history of attacking trainers. Resistance in zoos and aquariums, in truth, is anything but unusual. Third, the zoological institutions themselves have to negotiate with their entertainers to extract labour and profit."
The animal performers have clout as negotiators, Hribal says, "and zoos have always (privately, at least) acknowledged this. Therefore, the next time you hear about an orca attack, don't dismiss it from above: 'Animals will be animals.' But instead, look from below: 'These creatures resist work, and can occasionally land a counterpunch or two of their own.'"
All the SeaWorld shows should be shut down, as should all kindred exhibits. If it's judged by an independent panel that the artificially bred orcas simply couldn't hack it in the wild blue yonder, let them laze around in their pools and toss them an occasional corporate executive, perhaps starting with slave-owner Pete Peterson, co-founder of Blackstone, a public pest who richly deserves an orca jaw clamped on his ankle.
For those who think the references to slavery are excessive, remember the words of Frederick Douglass, quoted by Hribal. Douglass often made direct comparisons between the treatment and use of other animals and that of himself. "When purchased, my old master probably thought as little of my advent, as he would have thought of the addition of a single pig to his stock! Like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage. Indeed, I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I; Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken - such is life."
Maybe, in the wake of Tillikum's lethal onslaught on poor Dawn Brancheau, lover of orcas, in Orlando this week, they taped his whale talk to his seven fellow prisoners. Maybe one day they'll decode them. I doubt there was contrition. He was probably pointing out that although the act of rebellion was entirely justified, the aesthetics of orca exploitation by humans were such that he'd actually upped his remaining profit potential - he's 30 now - for Blackstone.
As one entertainment consultant pointed out, attendance will probably go up for Shamu shows. Orcas after all are "killer whales" and the public needs to be reminded of this once in a while.
Jason Hribal's 'Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden Story of Animal Resistance' will be published by CounterPunch Books/AK Press this autumn. ·
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