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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

What Made This Gentle Giant Kill?

What Made This Gentle Giant Kill?

Author: Reilly Capps/Saturday, May 25, 2013/Categories: marine mammals

[Photo from the movie "Blackfish," of the killer whale Tilikum.]

By Reilly Capps 

An interesting documentary called "Blackfish," set for a wide release, is making people question our relationship to animals. 

It's about Shamu. 

The name Shamu was used by SeaWorld to refer to several killer whales, each cuddlier and more cooperative than the last. A six-ton golden retriever -- only smarter. 

Killer whales are killers in the wild, but they've never killed a human there. And their presence at SeaWorld for so many decades indicated they never would kill a human in captivity. 

In 2010, a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed a SeaWorld trainer by the hair or arm, dragged her underwater, bit her, scalped her, ate off her arm, would not let her go for some time and dragged her along the bottom of the tank like a rag doll. 

It was shocking. It seemed unreal. 

But "Blackfish" shows that this wasn't a fluke. Killer whales, when kept in captivity, can be human killers. 

"Blackfish" unfolds like a mystery. What made this gentle giant kill? 


Maybe her killer came from a bad environment. In his first home, Sealand of the Pacific, he was bullied and battered by the two other whales in the tank with him. They bit and cut him with their teeth. 

Maybe Tilikum the Killer was mad about being kept in a pool. When he was out in the wild, he was free. One day, men throwing bombs scared him into swimming into a small bay. He was captured and hauled by plane out of the wide-open Pacific and dropped into a chlorinated tank in a far away place away from his family. Some of the conditions, especially at Sealand of the Pacific, were brutal, including being shut up in small dark tanks and being deprived of food. Killer whales die 40 to 50 years earlier in captivity than in the wild. 

Maybe Tilikum the Killer didn't like performing for audiences. He was fed, but he had to work for his food. It's possible that he resented being made to work; that may have made him frustrated and angry at his trainer. 

It turns out killer whales are extremely intelligent. In fact, their brains may be more advanced, in some ways, than ours. Researchers put a killer whale into an MRI machine and found that they have a part of the brain that we don't have, in the limbic system, which helps regulate emotion. It's possible that whales are more socially adept than we are. Mothers wail and shrink when their babies are taken. Hunting parties work together to kill seals. It's suggested, in the film, that whales have a different sense of self from us. They see themselves not so much as distinct individuals so much as part of a group; their sense of themselves may be distributed among them as a group. They may, if you want to get poetic about it, have a kind of collective consciousness. 

And so maybe they don't like being performance artists. Maybe they're not happy partners in a whimsical show, as SeaWorld says. Maybe they see themselves as prisoners, slaves to whistle-blowing, fish-tossing sadists. 

Maybe Tilikum the Killer was just a bad apple. It turns out that Tilikum was involved in two other deaths stretching back to 1991. The water parks where he killed them -- Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, Canada and SeaWorld in Orlando -- swept the deaths under the rug, calling them, essentially, accidents. 

But maybe it's not just Tilikum. Maybe many killer whales in captivity are aggressive. SeaWorld kept quiet the fact that there have been at least 70 accidents in which a killer whale harmed a trainer. 

One of the climaxes of the film is a long scene in which a killer whale takes the foot of his trainer and pulls him under, repeatedly, before let him up to the surface long enough to breathe. Then he pulls him back to the bottom and seems to toy with him before letting him up again. It's mesmerizing. The whale lets him live. It looks a lot like revenge. 

The film makes the SeaWorld show seem as antiquated and demeaning as the olden days when bears danced in Russian circuses. It's a morality tale about how we're meant to treat animals. It's this year's "The Cove." Look for it at the Oscars. 

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