A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Real Killer Education

A lesson from captivity and a lesson from the ocean

By Michael Mountain

SeaWorld has always maintained that its Shamu shows, featuring giant killer whales in captivity, are not just marine circuses but important educational experiences.

Well, in a Florida courtroom this week, SeaWorld has certainly been giving us all an education.

The company is defending itself against a finding by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration that it acted with “willful negligence” in what led up to the death of one of its trainers last year.

SeaWorld began the proceedings by arguing that the death of the trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was an isolated tragedy.

“Tilikum had never given us any indication that he would pull somebody into the water with him,” said training manager Kelly Flaherty Clark.

Had she completely forgotten that Tilikum had already killed two other people? And that only two months before Tilikum killed Brancheau, another trainer had been killed at a Spanish marine circus that has close links with SeaWorld. And that in the last 40 years there have been more than 50 attacks?

Kasatka at SeaWorld San Diego

On Wednesday, the court was shown video of trainer Ken Peters being nearly drowned by orca Kasatka. One of those who watched it described the video as being “horrible, scary and long – 10 minutes of attack.” It went on so long because Kasatka didn’t kill Peters. Instead, she brought him up to breathe after a minute under water and then dragged him back down again. Did she know intuitively where to draw the line? In the wild, mother dolphins often do something like this to their kids to teach them their manners and to let them know who’s in charge. And orcas are among the largest-brained animals in the world. They know what they’re doing.

So we’ve learned a lot about killer whales this week. And the overriding lesson is clear and simple: We should not be keeping these animals in captivity.

Seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild, however, is a completely different experience. And there’s an especially poignant example of this in a new movie, The Whale, that opens today in New York City. (It’s already been seen in Seattle, and will open in Los Angeles on September 30th.)

Luna visits with a dog on a boat in Nootka Sound, Canada

The Whale is the very touching story of Luna, a young orca from the “L” pod (extended family) of orcas who travel the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

In 2001, the youngster became separated from his mother in Nootka Sound, off the coast of Canada. Orcas are social animals, and when Luna and his mother couldn’t find each other, and the pod had had to move on, the youngster did the next best thing: he approached humans in search of friendship and company.

For the next five years, orca protection groups offered a workable plan to return Luna to his family, while marine circuses offered to “save” him (by taking him into captivity, of course). And after Luna had befriended many different people and groups, government agencies stepped in and ordered all humans to stay away from him. The young whale was bewildered. And the conclusion was tragic. But it’s a moving story of friendship and loss between two highly intelligent and social species.

With all its fancy shows and attractive trainers performing stunts with orcas in captivity, the education that an audience gets at SeaWorld is about us humans trying to take dominion over the top predators of the ocean, who maintain the health and balance of their whole ecosystem. The lesson SeaWorld is trying to teach – that we’re the masters of nature – is not only wrong; it’s dangerously stupid.

But unlike what happens between humans and orcas in captivity, in the wild no killer whale has ever killed a human.

That’s because we’re simply not on their menu, and unlike us they’re not into random acts of violence and domination. In the one known case where someone got attacked, the orca immediately realized that she’d grabbed the wrong species and let go, appearing to signal an apology.

The only education we’re ever going to get from SeaWorld is that it’s time to bring these circus acts to an end.

For a whole other kind of education, however, go visit these magnificent creatures in their own world, where you’ll be treated to an inspiring lesson in respect, coexistence, and the awesome power and beauty of nature.

And if you have a chance to see The Whale, you’ll have a touching lesson in the friendship that can exist between humans and other animals when we have a meaningful relationship that’s not just on our terms, but on theirs, too.