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The Case of the Orca That Killed Its Trainer 395

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "There's an interesting read at National Geographic by Kenneth Brower that probes the case of Tilikum, the homicidal killer whale, who killed his first trainer, 20-year-old Keltie Byrne in 1991. Then in July 6, 1999, a 27-year-old man who stayed after the park closed and evaded security to enter the orca tank was found dead and nude, draped over Tilikum's back with his genitals bitten off. Tilikum's most recent victim was Dawn Brancheau, the SeaWorld trainer he crushed, dismembered, and partially swallowed in 2010. 'Almost all students of orca believe that they are deranged by captivity, some more than others. Tilikum's record puts him at one end of a continuum. There have been dozens of attacks on trainers by an assortment of orcas in the marine parks around the world. [The movie] "Blackfish" shows video from several of these episodes at SeaWorld,' writes Brower. 'What is remarkable about Orcinus orca in marine parks is not these rare episodes. What is remarkable is their monumental forbearance.' For its part SeaWorld is attempting to cast the filmmakers as the true villains, characterizing them as anti-captivity zealots. The company says '"Blackfish" is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues.'"
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The Case of the Orca That Killed Its Trainer

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:25PM (#44473157)

    First, I do believe it is entirely plausible that captivity is a negative thing for sea mammals.

    However, statements like "almost all students of orca believe" are not helping make their point. I assume they found all the "students of orca" (what does that even mean? Do you sit in a classroom with an orca at the board?) and polled them at a scientific level? Even if they did, what does "almost all" mean?'

    Let's have numbers here. Opinions of experts. Show your work. Until or unless you do, I'm going to dismiss that statement as really meaning "I believe this and some other people I know also do," which isn't close to a consensus.

    There is way too much crap like this in "journalism" these days, and I'm calling it out when I see it.

  • "Killer whale" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:28PM (#44473177)

    The name says it all, really. Orca are carnivores, their natural prey includes seals - which are of comparable size and, for all I know, tastiness to a human.

    The way the species has been rebranded as a "dolphin" is one of the triumphs of marketing over reality. They're whales, and they're killers. Get in a tank with one at your own risk.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:29PM (#44473189)

    You take a highly intelligent creature, put it in captivity and then get in its enclosure. What the heck do you think is going to happen? It's amazing more people are not killed and a testament to the tolerance of the orcas.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:29PM (#44473195)

    We are locking up intelligent animals for our amusement. Animals much bigger and stronger than humans. Of course some of them are going to kill us. That's what we get.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:33PM (#44473227)

    Why do the editors continue to approve submissions by " Hugh Pickens DOT Com"? It's clearly spam/advertisement for some crappy movie, but I've seen it a few times in submitted stories. C'mon now.

  • Dangerous! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:35PM (#44473243)

    These Orca things are dangerous! to stop people voluntarily getting into the tanks with them I suggest a name that's also a warning. Maybe 'Killer aquatic mammal'.

  • by VinylRecords ( 1292374 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:38PM (#44473267)

    Yes...orcas are killers. Seen the wild they will use a baby seal like a volley ball. Torturing it for quite some time before it dies. They are 6-ton predators who rule the waters. Evolved natural killing machines. It is a risk to swim with them of course.

    But for the most part they don't kill humans. In fact some of the deaths have been result of the orcas playing too hard and not fully understanding that their human companions are land based creatures not capable of being underwater too long. Some, I guess I'll call them 'water show entertainment' deaths, were because the whales kept a trainer in their mouths for fun but ended up swimming beneath the surface for two or three minutes. Drowning their human trainer.

    But the safety records are fine. If the Animal Right's Groups are saying that the wild animals should not be kept captive because they are dangerous to humans it is a terrible argument. The overwhelming majority of captive animals don't kill or harm humans. If these groups were against animal captivity they need to argue about the exploitation of animals and effectively animal slavery for corporate profits. Instead they are wasting time exploiting deaths, many accidental, many not even of actual trainers but of idiots who jumped over the fence to play with killer whales, giant monkeys, and fully grown lions.

    This is the same alarmist response the news media does whenever a shark attack kills someone. "Oh my god it was 20 feet long...fin those sharks....for the children". Sharks kill a few people a year and there are millions of sharks and millions of humans who swim in the ocean. No need to sensationalize.

    Personally I don't think that most zoo animals enjoy captivity. But most zoo animals are smart enough to know that they are at the mercy of their human masters. The humans provide them clean living conditions, food, and water. They can get a whale to swim ten laps and fly out of the water for a fish treat. But sometimes a killer whale remembers that animal instinct and forgets his training. The trainers know the risks. It's not like these whales are flying out of the stands like a NASCAR crash gone wrong and killing people in the crowd.

  • by multiben ( 1916126 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:42PM (#44473293)
    I've always been fascinated by people who keep dangerous pets or work with them. They often seem to hold the belief that their relationship with these creatures transcends their instinctive nature to kill. And for a time it seems that they are right. But you only have to piss off a grizzly bear one time, and all of a sudden you're on the latest episode of "People Who Domesticated Animals Which Shouldn't Have Been Domesticated."
  • Re:"Killer whale" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:50PM (#44473351) Journal

    Plus, 'Sea World' is pretty much a life term in Supermax, except with more gawkers, for something of the size (not well proportioned to live in a swimming pool) and intelligence (relatively high) of a killer whale.

    If you are a lifer anyway, and the guard is dumb enough to come into your cell, why not shiv him just on principle?

  • Re:"Killer whale" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NIK282000 ( 737852 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @08:58PM (#44473423) Homepage Journal

    More so now that it knows that it's situation does not change when it attacks people. They aren't stupid animals and this one figured it out quick.

  • by cheater512 ( 783349 ) <> on Sunday August 04, 2013 @09:06PM (#44473477) Homepage

    Mind you if you divide the attacks by the number of people in close contact with Orcas in both situation, the wild Orcas would look like human eating machines.

    The number of people with the opportunity to come within 100 meters of a wild Orca would be extremely small, let alone within biting range.

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @09:08PM (#44473489) Journal
    And even then, if your pet tiger really likes you, but takes a nip at you, or tries to wrestle with you like he does with his siblings (that he also likes), you're not strong enough to handle it and you die.
  • by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @10:15PM (#44473815) Homepage Journal
    any human contact with wild Orcas is extremely rare,
    Not to mention the chances of anybody making it back to complain of a wild Orca attach is pretty low.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 04, 2013 @10:27PM (#44473881)

    But the safety records are fine.

    They're acceptable, but they're not fine. One of the points made by a former trainer when talking about the movie is that being an orca trainer should be classified by OSHA as a dangerous job, which I gather would cost Sea World a bunch of money in extra pay, safety precautions and insurance. But because of lobbying by Sea World, it's still classified as being no more dangerous than office work.

  • by Camael ( 1048726 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @11:05PM (#44474079)

    From TFA:-

    In the week before advance screenings in Los Angeles and New York, SeaWorld sent out a "Dear Film Critic" letter that castigated the documentary as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate." Journalists and bloggers around the world, never averse to controversy, pricked up their ears. If the film's producers ever worried about insufficient funds for advertising, they can lay that fear to rest.

    I don't think free publicity was what SeaWorld had in mind. I have not even heard of this movie before this, now I have to admit I'm curious.

  • by Camael ( 1048726 ) on Sunday August 04, 2013 @11:27PM (#44474169)

    Number of attacks on humans by Orcas not in captivity: 1 documented.

    Number of attacks on humans by Orcas in captivity: > 27 documented (3 fatal).

    I would be more impressed by those figures but for these facts :-

    1. Orcas not in captivity roam free in the ocean. They are not being tracked/documented. If they attack/kill a human in the ocean, who's gonna document them?

    2. Free orcas have substantially less contact with humans. Less contact means less opportunity to harm humans.

    3. Captive orcas are invariably held in aquariums, where most of them put on public performances and come into close contact with their trainers and the public. Of the 46 captive orcas today, 22 are held by SeaWorld [] . More contact means more opportunity to harm humans.

    Those figures you quoted do not lead to any conclusions except that increased contact between two parties gives rise to increased chances for accidents/incidents to occur involving both parties. Which is true for pretty much everything.

  • by Kagato ( 116051 ) on Monday August 05, 2013 @12:50AM (#44474469)

    First off Orca's don't kill humans in the wild because they swim in cold waters that don't have humans. It's not like they are native to the coastal Florida beaches. The bit about animals being smart enough to know who the human masters are. That is factually untrue. In most zoos the protocols are all about keeping the zoo keepers out of harms way of the animals. Feeding the animals is one of the most dangerous parts of the job. Making a grab for a keepers during feeding time is quite common and equipment and protocol are designed to reduce the risks.

    Make no mistake, most real zoos wouldn't even fathom having an Orca show with close trainer interaction. There's a night and day difference between non-profit zoos and a multi billion dollar entertainment company.

  • Re:"Killer whale" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by leereyno ( 32197 ) on Monday August 05, 2013 @03:59AM (#44475057) Homepage Journal

    So they're Killer Dolphins then.

    You can call them Killer Butterflies if you want. The point is, they're PREDATORS. You can train them, but you can't tame them. Sooner or later, they're gonna decide you look better than the fishes you're tossing at them, and have themselves a little snack.

  • by Xest ( 935314 ) on Monday August 05, 2013 @07:15AM (#44475621)

    This isn't really at all true. Orcas are whales, that particular suggestion otherwise is completely false.

    But regarding feeding habits, they vary greatly in this species, some groupings dine entirely on smaller fish and hunt in packs to circle them, herd them up, and eat them, whilst others, particularly those in the Antarctic are solo hunters and hunt larger prey like seals and penguins. I believe Orcas off the coast of California work together differently again to attack calves of larger (Grey IIRC?) whales.

    Whilst the example you give is a local population it cannot be extrapolated to the species as a whole which has very distinct populations with very distinct traits.

    They're a versatile species with differing and complex feeding habits depending on where they live so it's not something that can be trivially generalised as to the habits.

    If anything I'd wager this scenario as in TFA is an example of killer whales adapting their habits to another new habitat we've created for them - the artificial living area in which they're dependent on us for food and entertainment and if we can't fulfil that then it's not surprising they've decided to use us as food/entertainment.

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