Killer Whale Breeding: Artificial Insemination From The Female Perspective

 

Tommy Lee
Cover of Tommy Lee

Thanks to Tommy Lee and PETA, the methods used to extract sperm from killer whales for the purpose of artificial insemination are getting plenty of attention. Now the world probably knows a lot more about the mechanics involved in working with male killer whales than it probably ever wanted.

Well, for those of you who can handle it, and who want to know even more, here is what goes on from the female side of the equation. The pics in the slideshow below show Orkid, a 22 year-old female at SeaWorld San Diego undergoing recent training for the procedure, and an up-close of the actual procedure being performed (this picture was taken in 2005).

As background, Orkid is the only mature female at SeaWorld’s parks who has never given birth to a calf. She has been inseminated many, many times without success, and these training pictures–taken in August–seem to indicate that she is being prepared for insemination yet again, or perhaps has already been inseminated.

I was also tipped to a YouTube video clip from Animal Planet that also gives a very up close view of what is involved in inseminating a female killer whale. In this case the killer whale is SeaWorld’s Kasatka, who was SeaWorld’s first female to be artificially inseminated with success (using Tilikum’s semen), in 2000.

Here’s a description of what the video shows, from a friend who follows the AI program closely, and sent me the link to the video:

Basically, they push that tube down into the vagina, through the cervix, and a camera is threaded down it to see what they are doing. They actually inject semen directly into the womb, using the camera to help get it into the uterine horn that they detect is ovulating.

The video embedding has been disabled, which seems increasingly common with videos which show the husbandry practices behind killer whale shows. But click on the video image to be taken to the video.

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GMA Looks At The Death Of Kalina

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

There’s a lot more about Kalina, her life, and her death, here. She was the first orca born in captivity. Here’s a video of her birth, at SeaWorld Orlando.

Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum And The Death Of Dawn Brancheau

My effort to trace the marine park experience of Tilikum the orca, in order to try and understand how his life life led to the death of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer, is now out in the July issue of Outside. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Tilikum as
Image via Wikipedia

Tilikum kept dragging Brancheau through the water, shaking her violently. Finally—now holding Brancheau by her arm—he was guided onto the medical lift. The floor was quickly raised. Even now, Tilikum refused to give her up. Trainers were forced to pry his jaws open. When they pulled Brancheau free, part of her arm came off in his mouth. Brancheau’s colleagues carried her to the pool deck and cut her wetsuit away. She had no heartbeat. The paramedics went to work, attaching a defibrillator, but it was obvious she was gone. A sheet was pulled over her body. Tilikum, who’d been involved in two marine-park deaths in the past, had killed her.

“Every safety protocol that we have failed,” SeaWorld director of animal training Kelly Flaherty Clark told me a month after the incident, her voice still tight with emotion. “That’s why we don’t have our friend anymore, and that’s why we are taking a step back.”

Dawn Brancheau’s death was a tragedy for her family and for SeaWorld, which had never lost a trainer before. Letters of sympathy poured in, many with pictures of Bran­cheau and the grinning kids she’d spent time with after shows. The incident was a shock to Americans accustomed to thinking of Shamu as a lovable national icon, with an extensive line of plush dolls and a relentlessly cheerful Twitter account. The news media went into full frenzy, chasing Brancheau’s family and flying helicopters over Shamu Stadium. Congress piled on with a call for hearings on marine mammals at entertainment parks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened an investigation. It was the most intense national killer whale mania since 1996, when Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was rescued from a shabby marine park in Mexico City in an attempt to return him to the sea. Killer whales have never been known to attack a human in the wild, and everyone wanted to know one thing: Why did Dawn Brancheau die?

The story tries to answer that question. Hope it succeeds, at least in part.

There are a number of elements to the tragedy that I did not have space to fully explore. In the coming weeks, I’ll get into some of them right here, with the help of some of my expert sources. So please stay tuned…

In the course of reporting the story I developed enormous respect for the intelligence and complexity of orcas. Here’s a beautiful video that captures some of their majesty:

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