Liabilities in working with captive Orcas, copyright by the author, Frania Shelley-Grielen
Associated Press and Reuters among other media sources reported on the killing of a trainer at SeaWorld, Orlando by Tilikum, a five ton killer whale. The incident is currently under investigation by authorities. It is unclear how the trainer came to be in the holding pen with the orca where the event occurred.
Initial reports were of the trainer slipping or falling into the pen while an onlooker reported seeing the whale grabbing the trainer; it was not mentioned how the whale might have been able to take hold of the trainer. Nor can the motive of the animal be determined. Killer whales have a long history of working successfully with human trainers. While orcas are considered to be curious, intelligent and playful, natural play behavior for an orca may be fatally dangerous for a human.
The New York Post prominently featured the story for its New York readers including the name of the victim and featuring a photo of the covered body next to the killer whales.
SeaWorld in Orlando closed after the attack and SeaWorld in San Diego has currently suspended killer whale shows.
Fatal encounters with killer whales in captive situations are extremely rare but they do happen. Associated Press reported that a whale drowned a trainer last December at a Spanish zoo. Tilikum, the same orca involved in Wednesday’s accident, is believed to have drowned a trainer at another marine park in 1991 according to Reuters and was found with the body of a naked man in 1999 at SeaWorld, Orlando. The man apparently slipped by security and either jumped or fell into the whale’s tank. The cause of death was hypothermia although the man did have some bruising on his body. Tilikum is housed separately from the other killer whales at the park.
Although orcas have historically been respected by native peoples, many fisherman have long considered the animals to be competitors and are known to intentionally shoot them. Various “culling” periods have been instituted over the years to deliberately lessen whale populations. In addition to whaling operations, loss of habitat and pollution, orcas suffer from boat traffic as noise from the vessels disturb the whales’ natural ability to locate objects using sound and danger from too close an encounter with a ship moving at high speeds. Many living whales exhibit scars from passing boat propellers.
Public attitudes and perceptions about killer whales have shifted considerably over the years. This change in attitude and perception is largely due to the education efforts of aquariums and marine parks such as SeaWorld. Public support for these animals has come with better understanding of the species. Whale watching expeditions are now a popular pastime. Ironically, while such expeditions allow spectators the opportunity to observe the animals in their natural habitat, studies have shown that whale watching boats typically perturb the orcas and they expend great energy in trying to avoid them.
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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"Ironically, while such expeditions allow spectators the opportunity to observe the animals in their natural habitat, studies have shown that whale watching boats typically perturb the orcas and they expend great energy in trying to avoid them."
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copyright 2011 Frania Shelley-Grielen
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