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You Are Not His Family!

SeaWorld’s troubled pre-teen belongs with his true family

Ikaika during his time at Marineland in Canada

There’s something a bit creepy about SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz telling us that Ikaika the pre-teen, troubled orca “will become a member of our family.”

It sounds like those people who kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City and proceeded to make her part of “our family.”

Ikaika has just arrived at SeaWorld San Diego from Marineland in Niagara Falls after years of being caught up in a custody battle between his two corporate would-be parents.

In the wild, orcas travel thousands of miles with their families, with whom they are deeply bonded. The males, in particular, stay with their mothers well into middle-age. Ikaika has traveled thousands of miles, too – but in the air, not the ocean, with rival marine circuses first bargaining and then fighting over him.

It’s the sad and sordid story of two orca families whose true homes were in the waters of Iceland and the Pacific Northwest.

Ikaika’s story

Ikaika was born in 2002 at SeaWorld Orlando, where he was the son of Tilikum and Katina.

Tilikum is the orca who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau last year. In 1983, at age 2, Tilikum was torn from his family off the coast of Iceland and taken to Sealand in British Columbia, where he grew up as a troubled orphan, killed his first human, and was moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where he has so far killed two more people. (Orcas in the wild have never been known to kill anyone.)

Ikaika’s mother, Katina, was also captured off the coast of Iceland – again when she was 2 years old. She was taken to Marineland at Niagara Falls, before being bought by SeaWorld, which proceeded to shuttle her back and forth to perform at SeaWorld Ohio in the summer and SeaWorld San Diego in the winter. Then they moved her to SeaWorld Orlando to be mated with Tilikum.

Their progeny, Ikaika, was taken from his mother at age 4, as happens to most orcas born in captivity.

The wheeling and dealing over Ikaika’s future had begun several years earlier when Brad Andrews, a vice-president at SeaWorld, sent the corporate jet to Toronto to bring the president of Marineland to a wining-and-dining in Virginia. According to the Toronto Star:

[Marineland’s president] Holer wanted a male killer whale. But how much was one worth? About four belugas, which Busch [the company that owned SeaWorld at that time] wanted. According to court documents, a beluga is worth $50,000. Holer only wanted to give up three. Busch demanded four, but would later toss in two trained sea lions. And the deal was done.

So Ikaika was flown to Marineland. He already had dental problems, most likely from chewing on the metal bars of his pool, and he needed daily treatment along with ongoing antibiotics and pain medication.

And since he’d received none of the socialization and education he would have had in the ocean as a young male surrounded by his family, he was also becoming aggressive. So SeaWorld was sedating him twice a day with valium to “try to mellow him out.”

At Marineland, Ikaika’s teeth got worse, and the aggression was mounting. Chuck Tompkins, head animal trainer at SeaWorld, was worried he’d attack someone. “We’ve already seen some of the precursors [of a human attack] up there, meaning he’s grabbed boots, he’s grabbed targets, he’s grabbed an arm before,” Tompkins said in an affidavit.

But Marineland didn’t want to give him up – all of which led to a lawsuit. Last July, a judge in Canada ruled that he should be returned to SeaWorld.

Marineland appealed, but SeaWorld prevailed, and once they’d won their case, they decided to move Ikaika to San Diego, where another young orca, 12-year-old Sumar, had suddenly died.

Sumar was another of Tilikum’s sons. His mother was Taima, who had also recently died at Orlando. SeaWorld called both deaths “unexpected.”

(Orcas in the wild generally live into their 60s and 70’s. In captivity, three out of four orcas die before the age of 10.)

Home away from home

Last weekend, Ikaika traveled from Niagara Falls to San Diego in a padded transport unit filled with tens of thousands of gallons of water.

Just getting him to the airport was quite a production. One onlooker said he counted at least 14 Niagara Regional Police cruisers, with lights flashing, two transport trucks and a crane slowly escorting the orca to Hamilton airport on Saturday evening.

On Sunday, the troubled pre-teen landed in California. SeaWorld says he has already begun to bond with Corky, a female who was abducted at age 3 from her family, the well-known A5 pod, off the coast of British Columbia, in 1977.

Now in her mid-40s, Corky has lived in captivity longer than any other orca. In 1989 she was injured when Kandu, another troubled male, chased her into the wall of her pool, injuring an artery in her jaw. For the last 20 years, scientists and animal protection groups have been calling for Corky to be returned to her family in the Pacific Northwest.

Ikaika and Corky at SeaWorld San Diego

As Ikaika arrives back at SeaWorld San Diego, his dad, Tilikum remains at the center of a contentious lawsuit in Florida. SeaWorld is fighting off charges from the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) that the company was guilty of a “willful” safety violation when Tilikum dragged his trainer into his tank and violently killed her in a horrifying series of attacks that lasted 20 minutes.

Tilikum remains one of SeaWorld’s top studs. He’s bred by having his human “family” force him to roll over and be manually stimulated – just another in a long list of abuses and humiliations.

How long will it be before yet another angry, frustrated, orphaned orca strikes out again? In a prickly exchange in court on Tuesday, Ken Peters, a trainer from SeaWorld San Diego, testified about the time another angry orca, Kasatka, had dragged him to the bottom of her pool. Peters called it an “acceptable” risk.

And so it goes. All of which is the background to what spokesman Koontz is talking about when he says that Ikaika “will become a member of our family.”