That’s Why They’re Called WILD Animals

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November 30, 2006 at 6:46 pm

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3 Comments

The recent news of a Sea World of California

by one of the park’s captive killer whales hits close to home. During my early-to-mid teens, I spent nearly every weekend and school holiday at Sea World of Texas in San Antonio.

I was a loner, but I didn’t go to the park to be away from people (it was crowded, anyway!), but rather to be near the cetaceans, particularly the killer whales (Orcinus orca). Their grace, power and intelligence remain unmatched among all the species I have had the pleasure of observing in person, either in the wild or in captive settings like Sea World or public zoos.

How does a teen find herself at Sea World every weekend? My parents purchased an annual pass for me (a couple, in fact, as my interest spanned more than a year), and Mom graciously played chauffeur until I was a little older and began spending time at the park with Justin, whom I’d met online in late 1988. Aside from the costs of Mom’s gasoline to transport me, some snack money, and the cost of film developing (which did get expensive!), it was relatively cheap, safe entertainment — and educational, to boot! It certainly beat hanging out at the mall or whatever it was that my contemporaries were doing. {Now that we’re having a daughter, I’m wishing I’d paid more attention to all those things my cohorts were getting into so I know what to look out for! Yikes!}

Anyway, I formed some meaningful friendships at Sea World,

including getting to know the various trainers at the “Shamu Stadium” (orca) and dolphin venues.

I was even at the park on November 26, 1988, when the first baby orca was born at Sea World of San Antonio’s park — her name is , and she is now eighteen years old(!) and was recently moved to the Sea World of Florida park in Orlando.

One thing you learn very quickly spending time watching the whales in between shows, if it isn’t made clear to you by the polished Sea World show banter, is that these creatures — while very intelligent and trained to perform complex skills (that mimic, albeit at times loosely, the behaviors they do naturally in the wild) — are also not tame. Like the white tigers formerly performing in Siegfried and Roy’s shows, they are trained wild animals. They perform at their own discretion, and they have definite personalities just as humans and many other animal species do. Like humans, they are also the top natural predators of their native domains.

Sea World, like most reputable animal training enterprises, does not utilize

such as withholding food or in any way punishing animals which are not performing as desired.

Regardless of your opinion of keeping highly intelligent creatures in a captive, performance/entertainment based setting, it is important to note that the trainers do very much care for, respect and establish a rapport with each animal they work with on a daily basis. I never, ever, came to any conclusion other than that these creatures mean a great deal to every single man and woman who has the pleasure of working with them. I also never doubted the rigorous training that is required before a trainer is ever allowed in the water with an orca, and I saw trainers beat themselves up for their own missteps which led to confusion or false cues to the whale(s).

So anything I say here is not mean to disparage or undermine the professionals who work with these creatures at Sea World.

I have nothing but respect for them, and I know they do everything in their power to take care of their charges.

That said, we are talking about keeping highly intelligent, large, mobile and very socially-oriented wild animals in a captive setting that amounts to little more than a large swimming pool. Their echolocation signals bounce back to them from the walls of their roughly 40-foot deep artificial home nearly immediately, whereas in the wild they would have a seemingly limitless world to explore (yes, with its inherent natural and, sadly, man-made dangers). They cannot hear the calls of neighboring or transient pods of other orcas, but only the calls of the others in their tank… often, these other orcas they would never have encountered in the wild as they were harvested/collected from different transient groups in different parts of the ocean. Each animal has a fairly grueling show schedule, compared to the life-at-a-natural-pace existence of the wild — feeding en masse with their own pod or cooperative pods of other orcas, sliding out on “rubbing beaches” to get a good rubdown, seeking out mates, giving birth or attending the births of other orcas, playing, etc.

If they do not fit well with the group they are with, they can leave that group and seek out another.

In captivity, things are a little different, and coupling that with the fact that they remain wild animals makes accidents such as these — where a human trainer is injured and audience members are left shocked/surprised/scared — par for the course. It’s a shame, but it is not something the trainers are ill-equipped to handle.

Often, a whale that had been planned to “star” in an upcoming show would be allowed to remain in the back pools (out of the show) because the trainers noticed its behaviors indicated that it was simply not in the mood to follow their cues. It’s not malice on the whale’s part — it just doesn’t feel like going through the motions yet again (you have to admit it has to get a little boring doing the same routine day after day, yes? That said, trainers try to vary their shows — for the audience’s benefit as much as for the whales.)

As for , the orca getting all the publicity right now since she’s the one who pulled the trainer under and broke his foot, I remember her well. She was one of several orcas at Sea World of Texas during the bulk of my visits to the park. She was also the “aunt” present during the birth of baby Kayla, swimming in the tank with the mother, just as female adult orcas do in the wild.

If I recall correctly, Kasatka was moved to another park shortly after baby Kayla was born. One of my post-Sea World realizations is that the whales are moved a lot more frequenty from park to park than it seems “fair” to do, but such is the zoological trade; movements are made to facilitate breeding or alter group dynamics which might otherwise harm the collective health of the animals. It was a shame when “Saudi” (as the trainers and some of us regular Sea World visitors called her) left our park, as I always felt she had an appealing personality; I can’t really place it now, and would probably romanticize it too much if I tried, but I recall her being one of the more inquistive orcas and the one I most easily could get the attention of by walking around the tank in between shows.

She’s probably even the one I got to squirt water by mimicking one of the trainer’s hand signals; as a regular, I’d memorized them all (wow, I was as smart as a trained orca! hehe) That was just before Sea World began converting to using hydrophonic tones to signal the whales — a technique that, if memory serves, was introduced and perfected at Sea World of Texas by former trainer Mark McHugh and fellow trainers.

In all my time at Sea World of Texas as a guest, I never saw an orca harm or attempt to harm a trainer, or vice versa.

I do have anecdotal comments about the general mental health of one of the orcas that was held there — to put it plainly, he was depressed — and it was with great sadness that I heard he eventually passed away at the park.

He had a habit of floating rather listlessly in the tank, rubbing his nose against the tank wall and thereby wearing all the skin off his nose (rostrum), leaving a bloody nose in its place.

He is also reported to have jumped/fallen out of the tank on at least one occasion, requiring heroic efforts of man and crane to safely get him back into the tank (this isn’t B.S.; I was friends with many people at the park and this anecdote comes from a former Sea World security official who reportedly witnessed the overnight event and in fact alerted training staff to it.)

All of this blathering is meant to simply reinforce what should be obvious or at least should be reminded — not all animals can or should be tamed, and orcas are one such animal. Sea World trainers know this, and are the very best at what they do (IMHO). Orcas can be trained and will perform when and how they wish at a given moment, and they are wonderful creatures whom I wish I could still watch for hours. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found some of that joy lessened by knowing the creatures I’m watching are captive, separated from their natural world and natural opportunities to grow, interact, explore and live.

It is not surprising that occasionally an orca or other naturally predatory wild animal will seem to “turn” on its human trainer, but one should not ascribe malice, hatred or revenge to such actions. Have you ever had a bad day? Well, animals have them too… hell, anyone with a common house cat (certainly a domesticated animal with very few vestiges of its wild ancestry) knows that there are certain days you just don’t mess with them.

Kasatka is not a rogue or dangerous killer whale, any moreso than any other captive orca or white tiger or trained bear is.

She is simply what she is.

The fact that she allowed the trainer to surface, and the fact that she “merely” broke his foot versus severing it cleanly from his body (which she has every capability in the world to do, times ten), reminds us there is a connection there between man and “beast”.

Is she sorry?

That’s a question for animal behaviorists… the better question is, “Why did she do it?” They may find she has an ailment they had not diagnosed during the many routine blood and other health checks they do… we all get pissy when we’re not feeling good, why not a whale?

And to be honest, a wild orcas method of “play” is very violent when gauged by human standards — throwing still living prey into the air, diving and swimming with it in their jaws, passing it to a fellow orca in a rather morbid game of football, etc. are all very normal, very natural behaviors for an orca.

Should Sea World remain? I for one have wrestled with the notion at various times in my life, and I always come to this simple answer — as long as we humans operate public zoos, Sea World is the same type of entity with the same goals and the same high standards of care.

Until we graduate to having Holodecks populated with full-size, interactive, life-like versions of rare or difficult to observe wild animals, I still believe zoos and Sea World serve a vital role — EDUCATION & AWARENESS. You cannot truly appreciate something if you have only seen it on television or in a book — you have to look into its eyes, and it into yours. I wouldn’t trade the years I spent observing the orcas and dolphins at Sea World for anything, and to be honest their animals always seemed better adjusted and less stressed to me than the bulk of the animals I see at our award-winning, nationally acclaimed public zoo.

Hell, if I could swim to save my life and didn’t abhor public speaking, becoming an orca or dolphin trainer was definitely in my long list of potential career opportunities. So much of the work they do goes on behind the scenes, and I think that’s why I spent so much time at the park — to observe the orcas, and their trainers, interacting without the glare of the show lights and the roar of the crowds.

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3 Comments

November 30, 2006

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Great post … I too spent time at Sea World (Ohio) and enjoyed spending off season lunch hours with these “oceanic dolphins” …

You might enjoy the link below I made earlier this year.

November 30, 2006

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Thanks for sharing!

I’d love to see orcas in their native habitat, but I think I’d keep a larger buffer zone between me and them than those kayakers… yowch!

I did get to rub/pat an orca at Sea World once (I’m actually fairly certain it was Kasatka, in fact), and that was an experience I’ll never forget, even though it was in the artificial setting of Sea World. You have to have guts to be willing to put yourself in the same water with them — not because they’re wild, even, necessarily but just because they’re so much BIGGER than we are… it’s assuming a lot to think that a 5000 to 7000+ pound creature is going to know where your scrawny 100-200 pound body is at every given moment so as not to squash you!

Baby Kayla was over 300 pounds when she was born, if I remember correctly, and watching her learn to jump was comical and scary at the same time — she’d often jump right into the path of another orca’s descent.

November 6, 2007

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I enjoyed reading about your encounters with the orcas at Sea World. I have never been to Sea World and Never plan on going. I am glad to read about your struggling with supporting Sea World. I struggle with issues of supporting zoos as well. I personally do not want to support the captivity of wild animals even for research sake.

I live in the Pacific Northwest. There are several ways to study orcas in their natural habitat. You should visit Washington sometime and go to Lime Kiln State park on San Juan Island. There you can view the resident orcas from land. They swim pretty close to the shore. There is a whale museum on San Juan Island as well. It’s a great place to learn about orcas without separating them from their much needed family groups or forcing them to live in chlorinated, too small tanks and perform cheap tricks so that humans can make a profit. It really is wonderful.

I appreciate your interest in orcas.

Thank you for sharing your story.

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