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Talking Tilikum (And Killer Whales) On NPR This Wednesday

July 19, 2010

Just a heads up that NPR’s On Point will do a show this Wednesday on Tilikum, Dawn Brancheau, and killer whales. I’ll talk about Killer In The Pool from 11am-noon EST; check listing for local broadcast times). Ken Balcomb (Executive Director of the Center For Whale Research), and Thad Lacinak (a former VP of Animal Training at SeaWorld) will also appear on the show.

It should be a fascinating hour, and I hope you will tune in (and help spread the word). On Point will take calls toward the end of the show, so feel free to call in and be part of the conversation (details here).

Here’s what we’ll be talking about:

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35 Comments leave one →
  1. Colleen permalink
    July 19, 2010 5:53 pm

    Thanks for the heads up, Tim.

    If Ken Balcomb will be on with Thad Lacinak, it surely will be a fascinating hour.

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      July 19, 2010 6:02 pm

      I am pretty sure they will be on separately, but it will still be an interesting hour.

      • Colleen permalink
        July 19, 2010 6:03 pm

        Ok. In that case, I hope Thad is on before Ken. Saving the best for last is always a good idea😉

  2. Lee Ann O'Toole permalink
    July 19, 2010 6:19 pm

    Radio or tv? I dont want to miss this!

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      July 19, 2010 6:25 pm

      NPR Radio. Details at Seems like it will be happening (and open for calls) 11am-noon EST, on Wednesday–even if the actual broadcast in your area is at another time. Schedule by city is here:

      • Justice permalink
        July 20, 2010 7:34 am

        i can’t hear it in here, Finland??:/

      • timzimmermann permalink*
        July 20, 2010 8:04 am

        You can listen online. Details:

      • Jeff permalink
        July 21, 2010 6:02 pm

        Just to let you know, when Tom stated, wild orcas don’t attack people.
        Anyone should realize that makes no sense.
        People don’t touch wild orcas. That’s a stupid and ‘answer in its self statement.’ Tom is stupid for even asking that question. Not only that but Tilikum didn’t ‘attack.’ Maybe for a human its considered an ‘attack’ but for a killer whale its just an animal wanting to be close to its caretaker ending up in an accidently kill.

        And captive cetaceans, (NOT JUST KILLER WHALES) don’t live long in captivity. Most animals that are in captivity outlive their wild lifespans but it is still unknown why its only cetaceans who don’t live longer. But today, many cetaceans are outliving their wild counterparts.

      • timzimmermann permalink*
        July 21, 2010 8:40 pm

        Jeff: It’s great to have your view argued on this blog, but I’d like to ask you to dial down the personal nature of some of the rhetoric. Fine to challenge facts” with your own “facts” but there is no reason to call anyone uneducated, or accuse folks of making things up. How about providing an example instead of just making the accusation?

        As I mentioned on the show, I am not sure exactly what the scientific proof is that those who support captivity would like to see. Or why the distinct difference in mortality in captivity versus mortality in the wild does not constitute at least a piece of important evidence. And I also think that the degree of aggression and injury caused between killer whales in captivity, versus killer whales in the wild (and I am starting to think that the aggression and complexity of the social interaction in the back pools is far more extensive than we are aware), is another important indication that all is not well in captivity, and is a point that needs to be considered by those who support captivity. Finally, I agree that there is far, far more human interaction between human and killer whales in marine parks than in the wild, and that may account for the disparity in aggression against humans (trainers) in the parks, versus what we (don’t) see in the wild. But there is at least anecdotal evidence that in the wild killer whales tend to leave humans alone. Ingrid Visser, for example, a scientist in New Zealand has spent a lot of time in the water with killer whales in the wild. And even Don Goldsberry told me he was impressed by how unaggressive the killer whales he trapped were, even when he was taking their young away (and he and his team were often in the water with the killer whales during these operations).

      • Dee Johnston permalink
        July 21, 2010 6:36 pm

        People play and touch wild Orcas all the time. People swim with them as well as kayak with them.

        You cannot ignore the facts of this chart, which lists at least 46 incidents of a killer whale attacking or killing a human being:

        A wild orca has never attacked or killed a human being.

        Here are some examples of interacting with wild orcas —

        A human touching Wild Orcas on Beach:

        Kayaking with Wild Orcas:

        Swimming Underwater with Wild Orcas:

  3. annie brunelle permalink
    July 19, 2010 8:42 pm

    thanks so much for the head,s up. “On point” is my favorite NPR show. I never miss it,and since killer whales are my favorite wild animal,no way in the world will I miss THIS episode! Such a tragic and sad incident,both for the trainer and Tilikum. Good luck on the show.

  4. Jeff permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:48 am

    Ken is uneducated and biased. He is no source what-so-ever for captive cetaceans.

    • Jeff permalink
      July 21, 2010 11:43 am

      Do you know why he is uneducated? Because he never worked with captive killer whales. He doesn’t know the slightest thing about how they are cared for day by day. And he will never understand. He already has it in his mind to hate captivity because the orcas from his pod were captured. But guesss what? Captures are over, and the population recovered. Now the problem is human pollution. Here that? Our existence and living is killing off animals, but that’s a different story.
      The Killer in the Pool article was very well written. It was not biased and stated all facts, just some of the numbers were off. When Ken Balcomb states, “wild orcas don’t kill people,” that is the most ignorant thing, not only stupid, to say. We don’t get close to wild orcas day after day. We sit and watch them from boats or kayaks at the closest. Tilikum did not kill because he wanted an end to his captive life. That makes no sense. He simply never understood the human body’s limits and accidently killed her. Once again, when Ken said a killer whale knows when something is about to die and not, that’s for seals. Not humans. (Is this getting through your head Ken?) Waterwork whales don’t kill trainers because they understand the body’s limits. Tilikum accidently put an end to Dawn’s life. He killed her because he just wanted to be with her. Her recent long hair was a great opportunity to grab her. Now to the part, why did he refuse to let her out of the water? He’s a possesive animal. And because of his past at Sealand, growing up at Sealand with mediocre care, he looked at humans more of play things then living things. Course, captivity is not like the ocean, but don’t be a hypocrite, that goes with ALL non-domesitcated animals that are either pets, kept at zoos, or perform in amazing shows. Tigers have killed, elephants, and all of them for different reasons. Where is all the PETA activists now? SW may be all about money, but what isn’t?! People have to make a living, and at the same time, SW employees are doing what they love to do. Show off amazing animals And don’t think its all about entertainment, everyday we are learning new things about the animals SW holds, and not to mention SW rescues many, many animals week after week. Same with the Miami Seaquarium. All of you biased anti-caps are not giving the credit to these parks as they deserve. SW does a little bad, but also does a lot of good. And funny enough, so does PETA. PETA kills animals. They put thousands a sleep a year. Where are all the activists against them? PETA should be the LAST person to try and shutdown these parks. And why is it all anti-caps like Naomi for the Humane Society are so stupid? The answer is simple, captivity is fine. And all of this shitty news propaganda and attention should be focused on organizations like Mercy For Animals. Where they actually capture footage of animal abuse. We are wasting so much time and money over whether captivity is okay, well guess what, IT IS.

      • John Kielty permalink
        July 21, 2010 2:10 pm

        Now that Tim Zimmermann is bringing the truth to the masses, I can hear the desperate foot stomping and cries of Pro Cap / Pro SW beginning. Ahhhh…. Such a sweet sound!
        Great job on the NPR broadcast Tim and to all who participated.

      • Jeff permalink
        July 21, 2010 5:53 pm

        What are you talking about John Kielty? I loved that article. And it leads right to my factual opinion on the fact that Tilikum did not attack because he is a psychotic animal. And yep, I’m pro-cap and proud because their is simply nothing that bad with keeping animals in captivity. Nothing Tim said was wrong, besides the fact that Ulises is the oldest male orca in captivity, not Tilikum.

        And guess what? Theres a difference between pro-caps and antis. Antis make things up. A large amount of their view is all biased opinions. Pro-caps however show all facts and then back it up with hard core proof. And like a normal, idiotic anti-cap, you changed the subject and had a responsee that had nothing what-so-ever to do with what I said. Frankly, besides tiny truthful corrections for Tim, my comment had nothing to do with Tim, but I was referring to Ken Balcomb, the biased anti-cap. Once again, this shows how ignorant anti-caps are. Very, very, and always ignorant.

      • John Kielty permalink
        July 21, 2010 7:00 pm

        Keep stomping your feet Jeff. The only part of your ramblings that makes any sense is when you say “I love that article”.
        The Killer in the Pool is a great article and it was a great show on NPR today for which I commended Tim AND all those who participated (this includes Ken Balcomb).
        I however can understand your defensive position as you begin to recognize that YOUR need and desire to continue cetacean captivity and the exploitive, unnecessary, non-educational circus shows are being threatened.
        Like a friend of mine stated today… “it’s not a matter of if, but when cetacean captivity ends” And it will come to an end through unbiased science, real education and public policy which is not developed and schemed by a greedy, corporate philosophy. “Believe” me, the shows are coming to an end, no matter how hard you stomp your feet.

  5. Kim Findlay Davis permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:08 am

    I am convinced that once an animal has a dollar sign as a primary description of his worth he is doomed.

  6. Kim Findlay Davis permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:11 am

    The interview and discussion were terrific, thought-provoking and important. Thank you Tim for covering this vital story. I am headed out to buy it right now!

  7. July 21, 2010 11:38 am

    Looks like I just missed it…Looking forward to catching via NPR’s On Point podcast.

  8. Rachel permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:59 pm

    I found today’s On Point thought provoking and enlightening. I have trouble taking Thad at his word because he has/had a stake in upholding a certain image of Sea World.

    What I found interesting, and that was never really addressed in all the post-attack coverage, is that two orcas who were born at Sea World parks were involved in incidents in 2007 & 2009. They were part of a group of four young orcas that Sea World loaned to Loro Parque in Spain in 2006. The trainer was actually killed in the incident that occurred in December 2009 involving the orca “Keto.”

    It’s hard for me to believe that Dawn’s death was an accident when orcas roughing up trainers (hasn’t Kasatka in San Diego been involved in a few close encounters?) seems to a far more regular occurrence than any of the parks would like to let on.

  9. John Kielty permalink
    July 21, 2010 2:15 pm

    Anyone who missed the live NPR show can listen here anytime. You don’t want to miss this! Thank you Tim, it was an an incredible show!

  10. Rachel permalink
    July 21, 2010 8:42 pm

    I wonder if Sea World shot itself in the foot by using Tillikum as their main breeding bull for so many years. The gene pool of captive orcas is very small at the moment.

    Let’s look at the numbers:
    There are currently 20 orcas between the three Sea World locations.
    5 were captured from the wild (Corky, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises, Tillikum)
    15 were born in captivity
    7 of these orcas were sired by Tillikum
    2 were sired by Taku (deceased now, also sired by Tillikum)

    The remaining orcas also share familial connections.

    This isn’t counting the four orcas Sea World sent to Loro Parque (three of which share Tillikum as a father) or Ikaika, who Sea World sent to Marineland in 2006 (also sired by Tillikum).

    • timzimmermann permalink*
      July 21, 2010 8:53 pm

      This is a serious issue in the breeding program (which is increasingly using shared genes). Not sure why AI methods are used to get different genes from other marine parks, so it’s not so much Tili. Anyone know?

  11. Sam_orca permalink
    July 22, 2010 8:17 am

    For Tim:

    Tim, within the radio interview you are asked a question about measuring or quantifying the stress that captive cetaceans endure… and you seem unable to answer the question; or rather, you say that there isn’t really a way to do so (sorry for roughly summing it up, I can’t remember specifically how you responded)…

    However, I have a really great scientific article that has indeed measured the stress levels (or rather, blood and serum chemistry levels linked with stress) in captive marine mammals before, in relation to the performance and public display situation.

    The only problem with doing it today is that no marine park would let you anywhere near their animals to conduct such studies – they know exactly what would be found and it would reflect badly on them.

    I would love to pass the article deatails on to you (I am in the process of trying to get hold of it myself and so if I manage to do this, I would also love to pass the actual article on to you) but would prefer to do it privately rather than splashing it on here straight away (primarily because I haven’t seen the actual article myself yet – I only know the contents of it).

    Would be great to hear from you about this as I think it is an important element of the research – if enough pressure is applied, who knows, a park may have no choice but to allow a repeat of this research… and if that is done, it could make a huge difference!

  12. Sam_orca permalink
    July 22, 2010 8:29 am

    Also, in response to the “biased” opinions of “anti-caps”…

    As a Zoologist myself who conducts experiments on a weekly basis, the experiment set-ups are not biased. They have a hypothesis (what you think you will find) and a null hypothesis (stating that there will be no effect of whichever variable is being tested) and the results cannot be controlled.

    Sometimes we gain the results we expect and sometimes we do not.

    Jeff, by telling me (and all other people who stand behind the fact that orca and other cetaceans are not suited for captivity) that the facts I base my opinion on are biased, are you also saying that the scientists conducting such experiements have somehow fiddled with the results of their experiment?

    Be careful with your response because we are talking about 100s of researchers here, some of whom are considered the best in their field (whether that be behavioural research, orca research, cetacean research, neurology, etc).

    And if you are saying that these results have been fiddled (because that is the ONLY way they could possibly be biased – because as far as I am aware, results are what they are… sometimes predictable but only hypothetical until actually proven), could you explain to me WHY these reputable and respectable scientists would have done this? And why they would have done this when some of them actually began studying these animals in captivity and only stumbled upon their findings that these animals were not suited to captivity by chance?

    On the whole, these researchers love these animals and want the best for these animals. So why on earth would they have it in for the captive industry unless there was something fundamentally wrong with keeping this large, wide-roaming carnivores in an artificial environment?

    You say that cetaceans are one of the only animals in captivity which do not out-live their wild counterparts….. do you not think there is a reason for this?

  13. Sam_orca permalink
    July 22, 2010 8:35 am

    And Tim, your question about the AI with regards to the breeding programme… I am not entirely sure what you mean by your question, but I think this may help with your answer (?) ……

    SeaWorld have an arrangement with other parks (and I think, specifically one in Japan) where they exchange the semen of their breeding bulls in an attempt to increase the gene pool within the captive orca populations.

    I think the whole problem may stem from the fact that a) they want to speed up the reproduction rates (it’s important to remember that in the wild, there is usually a three year gap between one calf and the next pregnancy!) and b) originally, there were a lot more females taken from the wild as they were smaller and considered more docile so males were initially limited. Not to mention the fact that these animals weren’t doing too well and they were stressed in their captive environment – animals don’t tend to mate or breed when they are stressed.

  14. Peggy permalink
    July 23, 2010 6:28 am

    I listened to this broadcast on NPR and found it very interesting. I was disturbed however, to hear the behavior of Tilikum described as “psychotic”. This definition would include evidence of sensory hallucinations. ( from the DSM IV/summarized: ” The major symptom of these disorders is psychosis, or delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are false beliefs that significantly hinder a person’s ability to function.”) This diagnosis would be fairly impossible to determine in this or any wild animal. As well, hearing this on the radio, I felt, did a disservice to those human individuals who do suffer from psychosis, as they are not necessarily inclined to behave in such an aggressive manner as did this whale. I believe that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a better diagnostic fit for this mammal. ( from DSM, summarized:” Those with the best prognosis include situations where the traumatic event was acute or occurred only one time (e.g., car accident) rather than chronic, or , or on-going trauma”).
    This great whale has suffered from being taken from his natural home, removed from his natural cultural connections, confined in limited environments, and exposed to aggressive behavior between the mbrs of his “family” on numerous occasions. I suggest that PTSD would be a better term to use when describing the possible reasons for the behavior of Tilikum.

  15. Jeff permalink
    July 23, 2010 11:54 am

    A lot of those are accidents. These people are working with the killer whales all the time. They get within inches of them when training them. Accidents happen. Killer whales aren’t going to be gentle 24/7 and depending on their mood, sometimes they may be over excited. And they touch them all the time. And just to let you know, that chart is not complete. There have been tons of accidents and I’m sure every single park has had them. That chart is just naming the absolute major ones at certain parks. A lot of parks that have held orcas in the past aren’t even on their. There have also been many incidents with other cetaceans also…bottlenose dolphins, lags, belugas, etc. Why are we only talking killer whales when killer whales are equal to any other captive cetacean?

    You cannot compare the accidents between captive and wild animals. Won’t work. In your case, its just another excuse. And see Peggy, you noticed it, Ken Balcomb is uneducated when it comes to captive animals. Tim though seems to have a problem with that.

  16. Sam_orca permalink
    July 23, 2010 1:37 pm

    By calling these incidents “accidents” Jeff, you are basically saying that you can guarantee 100% that you know the intentions of these animals – is this true, or am I mistaken?

    • Jeff permalink
      July 24, 2010 6:19 pm

      Calling them attacks would also be saying you think you know the intentions. What are some of these intentions you are talking about though? And just look at the some of the incidents posted on OrcaHome. Do you really believe when Orky2 happened to land on Nootka and a trainer was on purpose ? A trainer signaled Orky2 to side breach by accident. The trainer was fired on account of that. Nootka and a trainer were in the middle of doing their own behavior. That was clearly an accident. What about the incident with Shamu? There is a video of Shamu holding Annette’s leg in her mouth. Do you really think Shamu wanted to kill the girl? No. Putting a stranger in the water obviously made her feel scared or mad. Who would blame the whale? or any animal at that? And what makes you think I ‘guarentee 100% the intentions of these animals?’ Maybe I just want to cut these animals slack? (especially when you have people like the intelligent Ken Balcolm calling a killer whale physho.) And it depends on the situation. Take the LP trainer death for example. I bet if there was a video, we would see a trainer stuck under Keto’s body. Maybe Keto didn’t see the trainer or accidently hit him. Keto was a large waterwork animal, anything could happen with something that size. Accident severity happens the larger the animal gets. If dogs were 8,00o llbs and 18 feet long, I’m sure they would accidently break an arm or kill us. If killer whales were the size of lags, the number of severe incidents would be less. But why are we only talking killer whales? What about other cetaceans? Incidents AND accidents happen working with any animal. But if a lag nips a finger, do you really think it would be posted all over the world? Why is it when a killer whale nips an arm, (and may or may not kill that person) the world freaks out and questions if they should be captive huh? This comment clearly strayed from the point but if we are going to be saying things about killer whales in captivity, then other cetaceans should be brought into the picture.

  17. Maxi Carter permalink
    July 23, 2010 1:57 pm

    I think the question we should all be asking each other is this:

    What can WE do to minimise the potential risk for both captive cetaceans and trainers?

    As people who claim to care about these animals and these people who are working with the animals, we should be simply accepting that there *COULD* be a problem with keeping cetaceans captive.

    *IF* this is so, then we need to do something about it – for the sake of animal welfare and for the safety of the people who work with the animals.

    It shouldn’t be a constant argument or battle between people who have firmly chosen a side – it should be a case of everyone working together to achieve what is best for both animals and humans.

    If the potential is there, then it is definitely worth the consideration.

  18. Sam_orca permalink
    July 25, 2010 11:46 am

    I anticipated your response. No one can guarantee the intentions of an orca or any other cetacean in captivity. This is why we go by scientific evidence, whether that be behavioural or other.

    We know these animals are self-aware sentient beings. Therefore, this implies that they understand their situation and they understand what they are doing. They are aware of these things and of themselves.

    I know of some well-experienced cetacean trainers who are firm in their beliefs that cetaceans rarely, if ever make mistakes…and when mistakes are made, this is a fault of the trainer, either through misdirection or miscalculation. Therefore, to me, this rules out the idea that orca or other cetaceans would misjudge their spatial awareness in situations where they land upon or collide with other cetaceans or people. This may be a result of a trainer’s miscalculation or misdirection, or the mammal in question may be fully aware of where he is going to land. But either way, these incidents are occurring and to me, that is one supporting piece of evidence that suggests cetaceans should not be performing shows or partaking in interactions where either the mammals or people could get hurt.

    Certain wild populations of orca participate in lesson behaviour. This can be seen in Antarctic orca, for example, where adult orca will teach their juveniles how to hunt seals effectively. Observations have shown that sometimes these behaviours appear to be purely to teach the young orca how to hunt successfully and the seals are left unscathed.

    Orca and other cetaceans are also capable of handling objects in their mouths without leaving marks or puncture wounds. Yet there have been instances where trainers and civilians have had to have many stitches for puncture wounds inflicted by captive cetaceans. At the same time, we must remember that there has been no recorded attack in history in the wild. Combining this with the fact we know they are self-aware sentient beings, there is strong evidence which shows that orca and other cetaceans are aware and do know what they are doing when they inflict injury on other animals and on people. There is evidence to suggest they are sensitive to the fact that they are aware as to what will inflict harm and injury on individuals and therefore, they are aware of the limits of these individuals – like we would be if we were play-fighting with an individual or if we were purposefully inflicting pain or injury onto an individual.

    The difference between cetaceans and other animals, like for example, a dog, is that cetaceans are more intelligent as indicated by a number of different measures, including the fact that they are self-aware.

    On top of this, studies have shown that wide-ranging carnivores are less suited to captivity than other types of animals. In fact, they do not thrive at all. (Clubb & Masson, 2003, Animal welfare: captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores).

    Now, in reference to your comment about Ken Balcomb. I do not know Ken’s meaning behind calling Tilikum psychotic – maybe it was a passionate comment or perhaps he believes that Tilikum was displaying psychotic behaviours – but what I DO know is that this man has dedicated his life to the research and conservation of cetaceans. Same with other researchers and conservationists who are opposed to captivity – they do it because they CARE ABOUT THE WELFARE OF THESE MAMMALS, not because they have a personal vendetta against the captive industry or particular companies within the captive industry. That is, to be blunt, absolute nonsense. There is no reason for it.

    And I can tell you for a fact, “Jeff”, these researchers and conservationists know a lot more about these animals (including their behaviours) than you do.

    And that is a fact.

  19. Sam_orca permalink
    July 25, 2010 11:50 am

    *No recorded attack of orca on humans in the wild; *I do not know why Ken Balcomb DESCRIBED Tilikum as psychotic.

    • Lee Ann O'Toole permalink
      July 25, 2010 3:16 pm

      Perhaps because he ( Tilikum) is exhibiting psychotic behaviors, due to the fact he is spending his life in a bathtub, isolated, cannot echolocate, artificially masturbated, and maybe its time Seaworld accepts that this WASN”T an “accident”. Maybe Seaworld ought to climb out of the for-profit box they exist in and realize the magnitude of these animals intelligence and quit insulting it, otherwise the next time ( which is only a matter of time) it is simply blood on their hands. And trainers, sure Seaworld pays your salary, do you really want to continue this prison, death march for these animals all in the name of entertainment? Not to mention your personal risks. Come on out to the San Juans, or every other ocean nagivated by these beautful whales and see them in their natural habitat, their homes/eachother and leave Seaworld behind. I have.

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