Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance
One of the other clues to Tilikum’s potential state of mind (Part 1 here) just before he killed Dawn Brancheau is his performance in the “Dine With Shamu” show that she completed with him before he grabbed her.
Trainers working with killer whales are trained to look for clues in their behavior, anything that might indicate that there is something wrong, or potential danger. These are called “precursors,” and no experts I spoke with about Tilikum’s interaction with Dawn in the “Dine With Shamu” show believed that there were any precursors or red flags that should have warned her that she might be in danger. That said, some behavioral experts I spoke with also told me that the “Dine With Shamu” show did not go that well from a performance point of view. Specifically, they said Tilikum appeared uninterested and somewhat disengaged, and did not perform well.
The primary resource when it comes to seeing Tilikum and Dawn’s work together in that show comes from a video made by a family attending the Dine With Shamu show on February 24. Here is the video, made by the Connell family, from New Hampshire. It’s a little difficult to watch, knowing what comes moments after it concludes, but it is a key to helping understand what happened that day.
[Update: WESH-TV, which is a local Orlando station has disabled the embedding for this video. Interestingly, they have not disabled embedding on the other videos on their YouTube channel. SeaWorld conspiracy theorists, you can run with this one! For those who just want to watch the video, click on the link which appears along with the “embedding disabled” message]
To the untrained eye, this looks like Tilikum putting on a pretty good show. And when Dawn engaged with Tilikum after the show, lying down next to him on the slide-out and talking to him and stroking him in what is known as a “relationship session,” it indicated that she thought he had done okay, too, as relationship sessions are partly used as a reward for good behavior (though she also had to keep him engaged while the Dine With Shamu guests headed down to the underwater viewing area).
Following the tragedy, SeaWorld employees described the “Dine With Shamu” show as “perfect,” with nothing out of the ordinary occurring. Here is trainer/spotter Jan Topoleski’s description of the show to Orange County Sheriffs Office investigators:
However, one behavioral specialist I spoke with took the time to break down the video of Dawn working with Tili and found a less than smooth performance.
Here is that second-by-second analysis, based on the above video:
0:11 DB asks for “raspberry” behavior; Tilikum instead emits long slow exhale
0:14 Training moment: DB conducts a 3-sec neutral response (for incorrect behavior)
0:17 Tactile to Tilikum’s rostrum
0:21 DB asks for Tilikum’s left pectoral flipper (visual signal of gesturing to it)
0:29 Lazy roll. One could make the case that Tilikum looks slow
0:32 DB maintaining good eye contact
1:04 “See Dawn rubbing down Shamu’s pec” [pectoral flipper]
1:18 DB feeds Tilikum 5 herring
1:24 DB feeds Tilikum 2 herring & 1 smelt (aka Capelin)
1:38 DB whistles (behavioral bridge = “good”) when he makes contact (shows control)
1:47 DB repeats the “head shake NO” behavior
1:51 DB whistles (behavioral bridge = “good”). A variable reward usually follows a bridge.
2:00 DB feeds Tilikum 4 herring
2:10 DB stimulates Tilikum via splashing water on abdomen and left pec
2:27 Tilikum rolls back over after splash, awaits reward (note lower jaw)
2:34 DB feeds him 2 herring
2:43 Dawn asks for Tilikum to retrieve a herring (then throws a fish out into the pool)
3:13 Tilikum returns with a fish head (incorrect; gaming)
3:28 Training moment: DB intends to reward Tilikum for holding the fish without eating it. DB places herring on his lower jaw (briefly); she whistles-rewards before he has the opportunity to generate another incorrect response (effective training moment).
3:35 DB rewards Tilikum with ice. She may be low on food at her current location.
4:17 DB rewards Tilikum for following (bucket splashes)
4:34 “Words alone simply cannot possibly describe Dawn & Shamu’s relationship”.
4:56 “The biggest tool we use here at Sea World is our hearts”
5:10 —- TAPE DISCONTINUITY OF UNKNOWN DURATION —
5:13 Double pec wave behavior, bye bye
5:29 Tilikum receives more ice, then 3 herring from another bucket
5:45 DB asks Tilikum to go down to window (draws a virtual square)
6:13 DB reinforces Tilikum with water reward
6:21 DB with Tilikum in the shallows
This specialist added the following analysis, making clear that it is with hindsight, and speculative:
In general, the session seemed long with an animal that was slow. Ice rewards are often used as sessions come to an end, because when your primary (food) is gone, that is what is remaining in the bucket (the bucket itself has reinforcing properties). From a statistical standpoint, ice is positively correlated with session-end. Tilikum, provided with precursors of session-end as early as 3:35, may have elected to stimulate himself in a more dramatic fashion; in this case, with tragic consequences.
Again, it is important to repeat that there were no obvious red flags and that this show was probably within normal parameters (in a way that the preceding Believe show was not): some shows go well, some less so. So I am not in any way trying to suggest that there is anything in the Dine With Shamu show that Dawn or anyone else from SeaWorld should have interpreted as a warning.
At the same time, the show did not go perfectly, and Tilikum apparently was not really engaged. In fact, more than one behavioral specialist I spoke with suggested that they would have considered ending the session, simply because lethargic behavioral responses should not be reinforced. Here is another comment on the Dine With Shamu show I received from another expert. She told me:
This was a very poor session with Tili. He was reinforced (with fish and other) for poorly performing several behaviors. Also, Tili assumed an arched posture with his head down a few times. This posture often meant that either a whale was not interested in the session or that he/she was looking out for harassment from another whale. Based upon what little I’ve seen, I would have probably ended the session with Tili. He was obviously not into it.
I have no way of evaluating whether these critiques are too tough or not, but if they are not and Dawn had ended the session before lying down next to Tilikum, obviously there might have been a different outcome. So it is a haunting question.
In any case, the critiques are useful because they raise a number of interesting points and questions:
- If the critiques are in fact on the mark, I wonder whether Dawn felt it was important to finish the show with Tilikum regardless of his seemingly lackadaisical performance, because the show which had just preceded it had been cut short, and ending two successive shows early might have resulted in some pretty puzzled SeaWorld guests. Had Dawn been part of that Believe Show? How aware was she of what had gone down? We’ve been trying to burrow into Tilikum’s head, but in this case it would be useful to know more about what was going on in Dawn’s head that day.
- Is there ever an issue with running out of primary reinforcement (fish) while working with a killer whale? Does that ever frustrate or provoke a response from the killer whales? If so, should SeaWorld (or OSHA for that matter) be looking at all at the supply and use of fish in that Dine With Shamu show?
- Even if Tilikum’s performance was in fact within normal parameters, and more like a B-grade performance than a D-grade performance, at a minimum it shows that marine park killer whales are not automatons that are conditioned to the point where they behave the same way each day, and in each show. SeaWorld does not like this term, but they clearly have “moods.” And while we may never know exactly what “mood” Tilikum was in, or why, it is clear he was not totally engaged and at the top of his game performance-wise. With that sort of emotional variability, there is always the potential, it seems to me, for a killer whale to do something unexpected.
Perhaps we’ll never know the answers to these questions. But they are what I wonder about when I try to dig deeper into this tragedy. What other questions should be asked, if any, about the Dine With Shamu show and the interaction between Tilikum and Dawn?