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Facts about Killer Whales in Captivity

Background to the trial of SeaWorld

Here are a few facts and figures about Tilikum and other orcas in captivity.

* There are currently 42 orcas in captivity worldwide. More than half of them are owned by marine circuses in the U.S.

* The largest male orca in captivity is Tilikum. He’s 22 feet long and weighs approximately 12,500 pounds. Tilikum was captured in 1983 near Iceland, taken to Sealand in Canada, and then, after he’d killed a trainer there, exported to SeaWorld Orlando. Since February 2010, when he killed Dawn Brancheau, he’s been kept largely in isolation.

* Isolation is a terrible punishment for orcas, who are highly social animals. In the wild, male orcas are “mama’s boys”, who rarely even leave their mothers.

* Immediately after Tilikum killed Brancheau, SeaWorld claimed that she “slipped and fell and drowned.” When that didn’t fly, they said that Tilikum had grabbed onto her bobbing ponytail while she was playing with him at the edge of his pool. In fact, the evidence shows that he grabbed her arm, dragged her down, held her under, and brutally tore her apart.

* Why does the ponytail theory matter? First, it suggests that the death was an accident – that Tilikum was distracted by her hair, and therefore that the incident was due to Brancheau’s carelessness. Second, it gives SeaWorld a way of pretending to have taken steps to ensure that this “accident” will never happen again by instructing trainers never to wear their hair down. Third, it helps protect the company from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s accusation of “willful negligence” on SeaWorld’s part.

* Life for orcas in captivity is highly stressful. In the wild, they live in highly social family groups. Captive orcas, by contrast, are confined to small, acoustically-dead, concrete enclosures with other whales with whom they share no family or cultural ties – not even the same language or dialect. This can lead to fighting, since there’s no way for disagreements to be settled by the two whales moving away from each other as they do in the wild. So aggression is common in captivity. In one example, Kandu V, a female orca at SeaWorld California, bled to death after colliding with another whale in a display of dominance, severing an artery and spouting blood from her blowhole for 45 minutes as she slowly died in front of the whole audience.

More details on all of the above, and much more in way of background, official documents from the investigating into Brancheau’s death, interviews with former trainers, and newspaper and magazine articles are to be found on this easy-to-follow page on the website of The Orca Project.

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