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Animal activists call for changes at SeaWorld following trainer's orca death

February 27, 2010 |  5:05 pm

Animal advocates all over the country have been voicing their opposition to keeping orcas in captivity since a SeaWorld Orlando orca named Tilikum killed his trainer Wednesday.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, while expressing sympathy for the trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was quick to lash out against SeaWorld. "There are so many victims in this saga -- the trainers, the captive marine mammals, the children who watched people die -- but truth has been the longest-running victim of the lot," PETA president and co-founder Ingrid Newkirk wrote on the group's blog Friday. "If the only thing that SeaWorld understands is money -- and it has made millions off the backs of orcas like Tilly -- then one hopes that if public protestation doesn't do the trick in shutting it down, the lawsuits that are sure to arise will."

Newkirk & Co. have long argued that marine life parks that keep large animals like orcas in captivity are cruel to the creatures, which swim long distances in the wild and often perform tricks PETA considers unnatural. Newkirk wrote Friday that the "marine amusement park environment is rife with deaths, close calls and injuries," in addition to the cruelty she says the animals face in captivity.

A frequent PETA ally, former "Price is Right" star Bob Barker, was also quick to argue that Tilikum's confinement amounted to cruelty on SeaWorld's part. Barker -- who recently donated $5 million to the controversial anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd for the purchase of a ship -- fired off a letter Thursday to Hamilton James, the president of SeaWorld's parent company, the Blackstone Group.

Bob Barker Brancheau's death "did not have to happen, and I must appeal to you to take strong action now so that it never happens again. I know that the Blackstone Group was asked to close the SeaWorld theme parks when you acquired them last year," Barker wrote, referring to PETA's 2009 request that Blackstone send the marine park's occupants to sanctuaries that more closely resembled their natural habitats. "I urge you to make that humane move now and to start moving the captive orcas and other marine mammals to transitional coastal and wildlife sanctuaries" and replace them with virtual-reality exhibits.

Another animal-protection group, the Humane Society of the United States, didn't go as far as PETA in condemning SeaWorld but argued that conditions there were insufficient to keep an animal like Tilikum in a healthy mental state. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Humane Society, told the Orlando Sentinel that "[in] terms of his stress levels, his size is a factor," referencing the orca's much-publicized 12,000-pound frame. "He is so big, I don't care how big SeaWorld's tanks are, they are too small for him."

Edward O. Keith, an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center, echoed Rose's sentiments in an interview with the Sentinel. "We've proved in the past few years that putting people in solitary confinement makes them crazy," Keith said. "How can we expect anything different from marine animals? When animals get under stress, they act out; they do crazy things."

Ric O'Barry Onetime "Flipper" trainer turned anti-marine-mammal-captivity advocate Ric O'Barry (who wrote memorably about the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese village of Taiji for Unleashed last month) has also spoken out against SeaWorld this week. O'Barry and colleague David Phillips released a statement calling for "the immediate initiation of a federal investigation into SeaWorld’s possible negligence and violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act."

Along with sadness about Wednesday's tragic event in Orlando, O'Barry and Phillips said, "we can't help feeling anger toward those who insist upon exhibiting these wild creatures in habitats that can drive them to violence. Dependent on sonar/sound to navigate their vast ocean homes, dolphins and whales are in constant state of distress living in cramped pools, bombarded by noise, stressed by food deprivation and forced to perform."

O'Barry and Phillips also took issue with statements from SeaWorld implying that park officials haven't ruled out featuring Tilikum in future orca-show performances. Wednesday's incident "wasn't just a terrible accident, it was a calculated risk on the part of a billion-dollar captive dolphin and whale industry," the anti-captivity advocates' statement continues. "Facts suggest that SeaWorld was well aware" of Tilikum's history, which included other incidents that led to human deaths.

Another colleague of O'Barry, director Louie Psihoyos (who helmed last year's much-heralded film "The Cove," which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best feature-length documentary), also spoke out against keeping orcas in captivity in a statement released Thursday. In the statement, Psihoyos addressed the notion that keeping such animals in captivity promotes conservation. His recent documentary, which depicts the Taiji dolphin slaughter and prominently features O'Barry, "reinforces this notion that placing dolphins and whales in captivity is not an acceptable method of educating the public about these magnificent and normally peaceful animals," Psihoyos said.

Keiko the orca Another famous captive orca, Keiko, who portrayed the title character in the movie "Free Willy," was eventually returned to the waters off Iceland where he was captured in 1979, when he was approximately 2 years old. 

"Free Willy" told the fictional story of a troubled young boy who befriends a captive orca and eventually frees the animal. The film struck a chord with many who believed that the real-life Willy's story should take a similar turn. Eventually, Keiko was moved from a marine park to an aquarium in Oregon, where he recovered from health problems and was taught behaviors necessary for him to make the transition from captive animal to wild animal. From the Oregon facility, he was moved to a pen in Iceland, after which he eventually migrated to Norwegian waters.

He lived out the remainder of his life in Norway with a large degree of freedom but continued to receive care from trained professionals until his death.

The movement to free Keiko was heartily supported by many animal lovers, but Malene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who was involved in the effort to return him to the wild, told the New Scientist last year that the project may have gone too far in its efforts to help the orca return to his wild state.

"We believe the best option for [Keiko] was the open pen he had in Norway, with care from his trainers," Simon said, referring to his final living arrangement. "He could swim as much as he wanted to, had plenty of frozen herring -- which he was very fond of -- and the people that he was attached to kept him active."

Keiko never became fully integrated with wild orcas, despite the fact that he was born among them. He died in 2003. "The most likely cause of death is from acute pneumonia, though it must be noted that at age 27, Keiko was one of only two male orca whales ever to have survived past 25 years in captivity," his lead veterinarian, Dr. Larry Cornell, said shortly after his death. "We have monitored Keiko's health very closely, and until only [the day before his death] his appetite, activity and blood tests were all excellent."

Orca Jeff Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who worked with Tilikum for seven years, told CBS News that a program similar to the one used for Keiko wouldn't work for Tilikum. "He's not releasable for a couple reasons," Ventre told CBS. "Number one, he spends as lot of time surface-resting -- a wild orca swims pretty much its entire life."

Another reason Tilikum couldn't survive outside a captive environment, Ventre said, is that "he doesn't have any viable teeth left. One of the [things you do when] putting orcas in a facility is that you have to separate them with gates, and what they tend to do is threat-displays at each other to establish dominance."

Orcas live in matriarchal, rather than male-dominated, groups, meaning that Tilikum "is a sub-dominant animal in that society. He has a little bit less room to maneuver because of his massive size. He might be the largest animal in captivity.... So, consequently, his teeth have broken off. And that's why you'll see the trainers every morning and evening using a water pick to flush out the impacted fish that gathers in the remnants of the teeth ... so it doesn't lead to something like an infection." 

Of course, in addition to the difficulties inherent in releasing an animal like Tilikum, he's incredibly valuable to SeaWorld and Blackstone. He's fathered a number of calves during his stay at the Orlando facility and, according to SeaWorld's chief of animal training, Chuck Tompkins, his companionship is important to the seven other orcas at SeaWorld Orlando.

RELATED:
SeaWorld faces public relations challenge in wake of trainer's orca death
Orcas perform at SeaWorld Orlando in the park's first Shamu show since trainer's death
Colleagues, family remember SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: Tilikum performs a "waving goodbye" trick during a 2007 SeaWorld show. Credit: kamisch42 via YouTube

1st photo: Bob Barker interacts with the audience during a 2006 taping of "The Price is Right." Credit: Ric Francis / Associated Press

2nd photo: Ric O'Barry. Credit: Oceanic Preservation Society

3rd photo: Keiko the orca at an Oregon aquarium in 1998. Credit: Jack Smith / Associated Press

4th photo: Jim Atchison, president and CEO SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, speaks during a news conference Feb. 26. Credit: Red Huber / McClatchy Tribune News Service

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