The Trials Of Tekoa
While “Blood In The Water” focused most on the killer whale Keto, it also detailed a serious incident in which Tekoa, a young male, went after a trainer called Claudia Volhardt, and put her in the hospital.
During my reporting, I was told that Tekoa has a tough time at Loro Parque, and is frequently harassed by the other killer whales there. Now I want to dig a bit deeper into Tekoa’s experience at Loro Parque, because recently some pictures of him have surfaced which show very serious scars and rake marks, underscoring the difficult social order among the killer whales at Loro Parque, and Tekoa’s plight.
When SeaWorld first sent four killer whales to Loro Parque, some SeaWorld trainers, as well as other experts, worried that the group did not include a mature, dominant female to establish a clear and stable social order (the two females were Kohana, 3 at the time, and Skyla, 2). And those concerns seem valid, given that the Loro Parque’s killer whales, according to many people I spoke with, were often more interested in chasing after each other than performing in shows. And, of course, there were two serious attacks at Loro Parque, one resulting in the death of a trainer. But now we can also see visual evidence of how the unstable situation is affecting Tekoa.
Here is a close-up of Tekoa taken in April 2011 (click the image for full-size, to see full detail):
This is a second photo MonchoParis sent me, after I asked if I could use his photos (click for full size):
I also have more recent pictures of Tekoa, taken in September and sent to me, which I’ve put into a slideshow:
A number of experts have told me that these rake marks are about as bad as any they have ever seen on a marine park killer whale, and people are taking notice. Even fervent fans of marine parks have been visiting Loro Parque and, after seeing Tekoa’s condition, have been posting critical reports about Loro Parque and the troubled social dynamic among the killer whales online. They have posted accounts of seeing Skyla and Kohana, in particular, abuse Tekoa for hours without any intervention from the Loro Parque training staff. Many express the belief that Tekoa should be moved back to a SeaWorld park.
This echoed something I had been told while reporting “Blood In The Water.” One source told me that in 2009, Brian Rokeach, then SeaWorld’s supervising trainer on site at Loro Parque, had become concerned enough about Tekoa that he urged SeaWorld management to consider bringing Tekoa back to the United States. I asked Loro Parque about it, and they responded: “We do not have any information about the request of Brian Rokeach to return Tekoa to a SeaWorld facility. If it happened SeaWorld Zoological Department should know.” SeaWorld has denied that any of their employees have ever recommended moving any of the Loro Parque Killer whales. So I left it out of the article.
Since then, however, I have heard more about Tekoa’s experience at Loro Parque. And regardless of whether there was ever any formal discussion of moving him, it seems clear that there were issues that might justify concern about his well-being. What I have been told is that in late summer 2009 Tekoa injured his belly by trying to slide over a safety bar placed between the pools to prevent the orcas from freely going up and over the slideover from one pool to another.
Here is a picture, taken in August 2008, of what the safety bar looked like before 2009 (provided by a friend, who follows marine parks very closely, and is an expert at finding photos! More photos here and here):
You can see that the safety bar discouraging the killer whales from going between the pools via the slideover is smooth. You can also see some chains (they are easier to see in the other photos I linked to above), which are in place, I am told, to discourage the orcas from bellying up to the bars and testing them.
At some point in 2009 the safety bars for the slideover were modified, and hexagonal nuts were welded on to them, to deter the orcas from sliding over them. This slideshow shows in close-up detail what the modifications look like:
So I went back to my source with this picture and was told that these hexagonal nuts were what injured Tekoa. The source said that the Loro Parque orcas spent a lot of time spy-hopping and leaning on the safety bars, and that the spikes were added to the bars to discourage the orcas from sliding from one pool into the other (the bars at SeaWorld California have also been retrofitted; apparently Orkid was one orca known to slide over the bars before the retrofit). Part of the backstory, I was told, is that the Loro Parque trainers used to remove the safety bars as part of playtime with the orcas, so they could slide back and forth between the pools. The injury to Tekoa, I was told, occurred when the safety bars were replaced one day, but the chains used to help keep the orcas way from the bars, were forgotten. And Tekoa tried to go over the bar, which now had the nuts on them. Another source told me that he was trying to escape aggression when he went over the bar.
These sorts of accounts are always complex, and difficult to completely nail down. But here is what the source says: “Definite facts are that those projections were first put on in late summer/early fall 2009, the trainers forgot to replace the chains, and Tekoa injured himself trying to slideover.”
Without knowing exactly when Tekoa was injured it is hard to know for sure whether photos of him show the injury to his belly. But this photo of Tekoa, taken in late July, appears to show at least some sort of scarring on his underside (click image for full size):
I don’t know whether SeaWorld ever seriously considered moving Tekoa or not, though I do know trainers back at SeaWorld were aware of his injuries and his troubled life there. But I am digging into this to illustrate how complex the interactions between marine park killer whales are, and how there are sometimes situations which are very difficult for an individual whale (like a kid at school who, for many subtle reasons, ends up being the kid the bullies always pick on).
That was part of Tilikum’s story, in fact. And it is worth considering how being the killer whale that gets picked on in a social group might affect that killer whale’s mentality. Some trainers did not believe Tekoa would ever be a reliable waterwork killer whale because of his tendency to get picked on in any social grouping he was placed in. There was always a concern, when getting in the water with him, that some fight or social issue with the other killer whales might have been missed, and Tekoa might take his frustrations out on a trainer.
So experience in whatever group a killer whale happens to be in is a serious issue. Most people go to a marine park show and see killer whales who all look the same to the casual eye. It is not easy for most members of the audience to pick up on all the details, interactions, and body language which help reveal what sort of experience a particular whale is having in the marine park environment. But in Tekoa’s case, the signs of his troubles are all over his body.