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

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.

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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Before they say Sea World treats animals with cruelty, let's show some proof of that. I love sea world and wonderful work it has done. I do not want it to close

awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww how sad

I saw some footage a minute or so before the attack, and personally I was disturbed by the way Tilikum was treated. First, all the whales are living their entire lives in the equivalent of a swimming pool. No offense to the trainer, who I know loved the whales, but she's pounding on something trying to get his attention over and over in the most annoyingly loud way, that may not have bugged Tilikum, but sure bugged me. Then she kept splashing the whale head-on in the face over and over with buckets of water - I mean really slamming that water at him. Then she holds his nose and that's a cue for him to nod his head sideways. She also gave him a cue to stick his tail in the air and wave. In between she tosses him fish. At one point when he does a trick she jumps up and down and squeals really loudly, with him about a foot or so away from her.

Maybe Tilikum thinks this is cool. I do not know.

The big thing I noticed though was her HAIR. Her ponytail (which is what he grabbed) swung back and forth on the side of her chest, dangling in Tilikum's face like a toy. A light-brown rope toy. This happened repeatedly and I'm sure his eye went to it all the time. I wondered if Tilikum may have been playing. He grabbed her by the ponytail and swam around with her underwater rotating her in his mouth. My dog does this exact same thing with his chew toys. Maybe Tilikum simply thought it was a game.

Also, the other man who fell in several years ago and was killed by Tilikum - I read they found the body draped OVER Tilikum in the morning. That sounds almost like he was snuggling with it or saw it as a blanket.

The guy giving the presentation ended with a line about how they are sharing their hearts and bonding - well, they need to get clear that their human emotions are NOT what is happening with these animals. Whatever the cause I do not put any fault onto Tilikum.

The operators of Sea World and other similar "amusement" parks are no different than the entertainers who captured King Kong in the movie.

They are only interested in money despite what they may say. Their deeds speak much louder than their words of "concern."

This is all about money, no matter about the three people who have lost their lives, What a horrible group of people who run Sea World.

Tilikum was born in the wild and captured. How evil is that? He was NOT put on this Earth to entertain mindless humans and live in a fish tank! Disgusting! The ONLY humane thing to do would be to release him to a sanctuary. Sea World is putting profit ahead of the whales and the safety of their employees.

"captive orcas", those, who like Sea World, hold these intelligent, sentient beings captive, for profit know that their actions are ultimately cruel and end in premature death of their captives, so yes, all captive orcas should be moved to open facilities so they are no longer captive, but are free to swim free in areas where the were captured. Some may reunite with pods in the wild, some will keep returning to the facility for food and care because their captivity will have prevented them from being able to successfully return to a natural life.

In my opinion the shows should not cancelled. They are working with WILD ANIMALS. She fell into his thank which never has people in it of course he is not used to people in his environment. Idiot activist groups and hippies should stay out.

There is no way the whale is at fault! It's so sad to see his fin bent over. Reminds me of the movie Free Willie! Dog Lover

"dolphins and whales are in constant state of distress living in cramped pools, bombarded by noise, stressed by food deprivation and forced to perform."

First of all, the pools are NOT cramped. They're big enough for Orcas to swim around in and have a good time. Second of all, they are NOT bombarded by noise. They learn their tricks by noises you idiots. Third of all, they are NOT stressed by food deprivation. They ALL get PLENTY of damn food each day, whether they perform or not! FOURTH OF ALL, they ARE NOT, and I repeat, ARE NOT FORCED TO PERFORM!! These dolphins[Yes, PETA, Orcas are dolphins.] are smart, big, and powerful. They also have a mind of their own. They'll perform if they want.

So, PETA, why don't you stop worrying about dolphins and whales at Seaworld, and go kill some more animals like you always do. (:

Imagine some alien race abducted you, took you to their planet and kept you in a small cage. They gave you food, water and health care but nothing else. They teach you to do tricks to amuse other aliens before putting you back in your cage. How long could you put up with this? Orcas are highly intelligent mammals, like elephants,-- they should not be held captive anywhere. The curved over dorsal fin on orcas indicates the animal is feeling depressed. This only happens when they are depressed or sick, in the open sea. No animal should be shut up in small holding pens only to amuse humans.
You do not want a deeply neurotic, 14,000 pound orca. The death of the handler will not be the last.

I tired of these terrorists telling me I don't have the right to keep a killer whale in a pool to entertain children and the elderly. This is America! Love it or leave it. You know what PETA stands for? People Eating Tasty Animals! HA!

So interesting Blackstone, the destroyer of many great institutions, owns Sea World. I would expect Blackstone to do nothing less than maximize their profits. They are like a colonial government, imposing their will, regardless of the carnage it creates. And yet Blackstone is fully sanctioned by the US government.

It's it obvious? Trainers are less expensive to replace than orcas, so the deaths will continue as long as people think that wild animals kept in cages to perform stunts is entertaining.

Seaworld isn't really the guilty party here, it's those who pay to go to Seaworld.

One dollar, one bloody vote.

It's like blaming a slaughterhouse for killing animals to stock at Vons.

The broken teeth is evidence that Tilikum and his fellow captive orcas do not belong at Sea World performing stupid pet tricks for human. The people at Sea World has to be that dumb to even consider allowing the whale to perform for the public again given his track record. Man has no one to blame but himself for subjecting these highly intelligent and social animals to stress which eventually causes them to turn on man. I also blame the general public for contributing financially to institutions like Sea World by going to Sea World. As long as the public keeps giving Sea World money to support their cruel acts against orcas and dolphins, then they play a role in this whole debacle.

put an electric implant in each whale next time a whale grabs a person, a trainer can grab the remote for that whale and give it an electric shock and make it let go,it must be an implant so it wont shock the other whales or people in the water.
brian Osborne

Like many people, I've enjoyed watching the wild in captivity. I can't imagine a childhood without the circus or zoos, wild animal parks or ocean exhibits - and even as an adult - I enjoy them immensely. But trying to make pets out of animals who would normally have us dinner - is asinine - plain and simple. I don't no how many people need to die before we grasp this.

I would love to see aquariums that are open to the sea - so creatures like the killer whale have to freedom to come and go as they please. I would think if there is a continuous food supply available to them, many would return regularly.

And of course, there will always be wild animals who - for whatever reason - need to be contained and cared for by humans. Those who treat them like lap dogs are simply begging for trouble.

Tilikum is part of a pod at SeaWorld-Orlando. The entire POD needs to be relocated to the wild (pretty far from homo sapiens) after a period of habituation to self-sufficiency. SeaWorld gambled and lost; they need to pay off their debt to Tilikum and his "family."

After watching "The Cove", I will never again go to another seaquarium again.

what is the difference between seaworld and your local zoo? all the people who say that sea world is at fault make me sick. all this talk about how people captured an animal in the wild and use it for their own purpose(money) should look hard in the mirror and realize that they are probably doing the same thing in their lives. who here has a dog????? wasn't a dog once wild and somebody captured it and domesticated it to become a pet. and isn't that pet of yours dependent on you to feed it too? haven't people entered their dogs into contests to benefit their behalves as well. how many dogs kill their owners or little kids every year? people who are against seaworld should open their eyes and realize that that the trainer is a professional and she knew the dangers to her job, and was willing to still swim with the whale. when steve irwin passed away from that accident a few years ago were we quick to close down his zoo? no, instead we all wanted to make it into a grand memorial to honor him. don't misunderstand me, i'm truly sorry for that family's loss but am just angered by this article.

Of all the comments here, sadly the one I was surprised by and agreed with the most was Linda, who wrote: "Trainers are less expensive to replace than orcas, so the deaths will continue as long as people think that wild animals kept in cages to perform stunts is entertaining."

I was somewhat stunned to watch the press conference the day after this tragedy where Seaworld CEO Jim Atchison appeared to have a complete cognitive disconnect about what was actually happening right in front of his eyes. A reporter pointed out that Tilikum has now been involved in the deaths of three humans and Atchison said, roughly, that this was a totally different situation. You could almost hear the reporter's jaw hit the ground as he pointed out, "But it's the same whale."

Bottom line is Atchison's bottom line. Whales cost money. He and SeaWorld will get sued by Brancheau's family, he and SeaWorld will blame the dead trainer, and he will continue to cash a giant paycheck paid for by families who will take their kids to see a whale who's killed three people because we are driving him crazy. Sick...

As for the very hostile and ill-informed person who insists Ric O'Barry and his associates are wrong about the torment experienced by captive whales and dolphins, what are your qualifications to attack experts OTHER than your hostility? Why do you think any tank is big enough to make a killer whale happy in prison?

This debate is exactly like the debate about letting Billy the elephant leave the L.A. Zoo and go to a sanctuary, rather than living in cramped isolation just so children can stare at him going crazy. It's time to grow up and realize that your lack of willingness to re-examine what you see as a happy childhood memory -- whether it's whales and dolphins playing stupid games or elephants standing and staring their lives away on concrete floors covered in straw is not near enough reason to imprison highly intelligent animals for their entire lives.

Grow up and be a person and stop being selfish, whether for yourself or your children. You think your kid don't recognize making a good moral choice versus a bad one? Teach them something of value.

This has nothing to do with education; this is all about greed. We learn about dinosaurs all the time and they've been extinct for 65 million years. I think in a 100 years, people will detest this as barbarism and cruelty.

Sea World needs to shut down, common sense people, research is done best in the subjects environment or in a research facility that mimics the subjects environment, not in a circus DUH!!!!

I don't know what the answer is here but what I do know is this is a wonderful amazing animal. You can not talk to it or reason with it. We will never know what it was thinking when this happened. I feel it is just to dangerous to be in the water with a killer whale. I don't think they are killers just animals that think like animals and if you do get in the water then you automatically except the resonsibility of your action. The law should protect the park from any lawsuits. While I sympathize with her family this was about choice her choice she new the risks and thought she new better.

I feel sorry for the ill informed folks here who thinks the pool that the Orcas are kept in at Sea World are more than adequate. In truth, they are not. Orcas are oceanic animals who never stay in one place Therefore those tanks they are placed in are not suitable for animals who are constantly traveling.

Orcas are also highly socialable animals with an intelligence higher than a lot of animals (including some humans I know). With their intelligence, I am sure orcas like Tilikum still remembers being abducted from their pods and placed in cramped quarters at Sea World. They also rely on their sonar to find food and to communicate. Imagine hearing an orca's sonar bouncing off the walls in their swimming tanks. That can't be very pleasant for the whales.

The fact that Tilikum's teeth are in atrocious shape is an indication that life at Sea World is cruelty against the animal. His teeth would not be in the shape they are in if it wasn't for his abductors.

I am an animal lover and have been reading these stories about this horrible accident. I myself have four dogs of which three are retired greyhounds. I am not against racing dogs. I am against the treatment of the dogs. The same goes for these orcas. I am not against them performing, I would be a hypocrite I have been to sea world many times as well as local zoos. Has anyone seen any programs on how the cattle and chicken we eat is handled prior to being consumed? We consume these whales also. Not for nurishment but for entertainment.

first of all, after reading so many people that believe that these are WILD animals that have been captured for profit (education can be done in their own environment, so all of you pro-seaworld animal jail people, that is NOT a good reason to keep a wild animal in a tank and forced to perform!), I have to say for the most part, I am starting to have faith in humanity once again...

Tina, your comment about the whale "swimming around their tanks and having fun", I just want to know what planet you are on..Are YOU a whale? How do you know? What if you were living your life wild and free and somebody caught you and sold you to some facility and turned you into a slave?? How would YOU feel??

Loui, First of all, you are missing an "e"...If there were no activists for any injustices in the world, there would still be human slaves. Would you be okay with that???

Patricia, once again you prove that anyone can call him- or herself an "animal lover" without giving any thought to the fact that being an animal lover isn't just about making yourself feel good by hanging out with certain select animals. If you are an actual animal lover you have a responsibility to animals -- to actually THINK about what happens to them.

If you have three retired racing greyhounds you have a responsibilty to think about not just YOUR dogs, but all dogs used for this pointless, abusive "sport." You have a responsibility to realize that while YOUR dogs survived, thousands of others end up shot dead when they are no longer of any use to track owners. You have a responsibility to think about more than what goes on in your house. You have a responsibility to think about greyhound puppies being born today who could be dead well before their time simply because they were born to cruel and greedy owners.

You have a responsibility to think about who you're paying your money to and what abuses you support by amusing yourself watching wild animals in cages in zoos and at SeaWorld. You have a responsibility to ask "what is this captive animal's life like?" If you blow off this responsibility you are not an animal lover, you are an animal exploiter, plain and simple. No animal lover enjoys watching animals suffer.

You also look pretty foolish when you write, "Has anyone seen any programs on how the cattle and chicken we eat is handled prior to being consumed?" Um, yeah Patricia, we have. That's why a lot of us don't eat cows, pigs, chickens, etc. anymore. Just because you only now have thought about what happens to farmed animals doesn't mean the information just got here. A lot of us have known this for decades and have taken concrete action to try to change things.

Being an "animal lover" isn't just some cute label for your Facebook page. It's a responsibility. You accuse everyone else of being hypocrites, but your post makes clear that you have yet to take even a cursory look in the mirror. "We" don't consume these orcas, you do.

I wonder if Tilikum's attack on his trainer had anything to do with the Earth upheaval from the Chile earthquake. Whales are said to be exquisitely attuned to natural happenings, such as atmospheric pressure, water pressure and tidal movements. Whales must have instinctive reactions to such happenings. What do whales in the wild do, when earth calamity causing tsunami occurs? Do they go deep, and ride it out? Do they surface, and ride it out there? What? What would captive whales do? Is it possible that Tilikum wanted to do what is instinctive, but could not, because of being in a man made pool? Could he have panicked and therefor attacked? I would like to know what scientists think.
Posted by: Patricia Leadley, March 3, 2010, 1:00 pm

The question is simple- Would you like to do stupid tricks for food and be kept in a small area to live in-being separated from your family for years? That is worse than prison.
Let's have respect for these beautiful creatures who would normally be swimming miles in the wild.
God invented birds. Man invented cages. SeaWorlds are cages.
It is inhumane -idiotic- and Jack Hanna and Seaworld or all animal parks are no friends to animals.


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