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.
One of the allegations in Killer In The Pool that SeaWorld pushed back hard on, was the assertion that Tilikum was abused by other killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, and that aggression between killer whales in SeaWorld’s pools sometimes leads to serious injuries. Responding to the allegation, VP Of Communications Fred Jacobs said: “Injuries as part of the expression of social dominance are rare and almost never serious.”
Jacobs doesn’t say that serious injuries NEVER occur. Which is smart, because there is a pretty well known 1987 incident at SeaWorld Orlando in which a whale named Kotar bit a whale he did not get along with, named Kanduke, in the penis. The bloody result closed SeaWorld shows down for a period, and Kotar was eventually shipped off to SeaWorld San Antonio. He died there in 1995, when a pool gate he was playing with closed on his head and fractured his skull.
At the same time, Jacobs carefully worded response could easily give the impression that this is not a very serious phenomenon. And it would probably shock many in the public to see what some of the injuries actually look like. The second most notorious incident between two SeaWorld killer whales occurred in 1989, between two orcas called Kandu and Corky. Here is one description of what happened:
Kandu was a good performer, but she was also a moody orca. Waterworks were done with her but she showed aggressions to her trainers more than once. In 1984 she got pregnant with her first offspring. Unfortunately she gave birth to a dead calf on January 31, 1986.
Almost one year after, SeaWorld got 2 new orcas; Kandu immediately got along with the male Orky II and soon became pregnant with her second calf. On September 23, 1988, she gave birth to a female named Orkid. Kandu was a good and protective mother, so she wasn’t enthused when Corky, one of the other females showed interest in the new calf.
On August 21, 1989, Kandu was swimming laps in the back pool, while Orkid and Corky performed during a show. Kandu suddenly rushed into the show pool and rammed into Corky with her mouth being open. Corky was fine after the attack, but Kandu broke her jaw and started bleeding soon after. She immediately swam back to the back pool, where she died from severe blood loss. Orkid was by her side.
This incident is tragic because it led to the death of a killer whale. But someone recently sent me a photo of what the scene looked like after Kandu returned to the back pool, and it is pretty shocking. It tells a story about what can happen in the pools that is totally at odds with the impression that SeaWorld often conveys: that there is some social jostling, but it is “almost never serious.” This looks pretty serious:
I find this picture immensely powerful, because it conveys a mostly hidden reality. And while it is probably the most extreme event in SeaWorld’s history (that we know of), there are many injuries and incidents which never get seen or reported.
For example, this year at SeaWorld I have been told two killer whales named Kalina and Kayla have not been getting along. From what I have been told, it was these two killer whales, in fact, that shut down the Believe Show on February 24, just before Dawn Brancheau was killed. It is not necessarily surprising that SeaWorld has to cope with conflict between its killer whales, given that they are brought together in a pretty random way (aggression between members of a family pod in the wild is almost nonexistent). But, again, you get a critical level of understanding when you get an actual first-hand report, and some pictures.
Here is an account (with pics) of what happened between Kalina and Kayla at the Believe Show at SeaWorld Orlando in June this summer:
The show commenced as it usually does with the opening show. Then, Kalina came out for the first major breach, the start of the show.
Moments later, Kayla raced into the pool. I could instantly sense this was not part of the show, as Kalina suddenly seemed very skittish. Moments later, Kayla collided with Kalina in the centre of the pool, causing a scuffle that went on for several seconds, water thrashing about and squeals from the orcas.
Straight after, Kayla left and raced into the back pool, leaving Kalina to swim laps about the pool on her own, disobeying and refusing to listen to trainers orders, as one of the trainers came out to talk to the crowd, the show halting at this point.
The trainers attempted to place Kalina into the back pool, the same as the others (at this point it housed Katina, Kayla, Trua, Nalani and Malia), which Kalina flatly refused, opting to swim laps about the pool instead. The show continued, ignoring Kalina who ignored all instructions and just swam laps.
Anytime Kayla entered the pool, Kalina would approach the gate to the opposite back pool and cower there, as if trying to get away. The gate was never opened, despite Kalina flatly refusing to co-operate throughout the show, despite several times approaching trainers.
In the finale of the show, Kalina finally decided to start obeying orders. This was fine, but what disturbed me at the end, was that Kalina was again, sent to the same back pool as Kayla.
My sense is that this sort of fracas is not that unusual. But it’s hard to know, because they only become public when they occur during shows and are documented. Anyhow, here is the result. When Kayla initially rammed Kalina, she put a gash right above her eye (luckily she did not take out the eye):
So how did SeaWorld address the incident, and the lack off cooperation from the whales that resulted? Happily, my source filmed that, so we can listen to the trainer trying to explain it to the audience.
“There are just days that they just want to play with one another and be extremely social,” he says. I think that qualifies as stretching the definition of “play” and “extremely social.” Anyhow, watch for yourself, and observe one of the talents required to be a SeaWorld trainer:
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).
Media organizations have given up on their legal efforts to force videos and photos of Dawn Brancheau’s death into the public domain. Here is a report from the Orlando Sentinel, one of the media outlets seeking access to the material:
The Orlando Sentinel and other media outlets have abandoned an effort to ensure public access to video recordings and photographs documenting the killing of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer by one of the park’s killer whales.
The move is a victory for SeaWorld and the family of the late Dawn Brancheau. The two parties have been battling in court to block any release of the images capturing the Feb. 24 tragedy, in which a 6-ton killer whale named Tilikum pulled Brancheau into his tank by her hair and drowned her in a violent episode in front of some park guests.
The court dispute revolved primarily around images recorded by SeaWorld surveillance cameras — including one capturing an underwater view into Tilikum’s tank and another mounted atop the park’s 400-foot-tall Sky Tower — which SeaWorld turned over to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office as part of that agency’s investigation into Brancheau’s death.
A lawyer for the Sentinel’s parent company said Thursday that representatives for SeaWorld and the Brancheau family were unwilling to accept a settlement offer in which news organizations would have agreed not to publish any of the images or air the video in exchange for the right to have their reporters inspect the materials.
The only reason to ever make any of this sort of material publicly available is if it helps answer questions about what happened, and can help prevent a similar tragedy. Anything else is just prurience, and voyeurism of the sickest kind. I have watched a person die on video. In that case the video was the only way to understand why he died. It was still an intensely harrowing, and painful experience (which is why I haven’t supplied the link to the video).
I am not sure what photos are involved, but if they depict scenes from the aftermath, when efforts to resuscitate Dawn were being made, and when she was cut out of her wetsuit, then I don’t think they come close to meeting this standard.
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.
With regard to the Education of Seaworld: I found on a message board that someone had contacted Seaworld and asked “Is Tillikum transient or resident?” and Seaworld replied:“Thank you for contacting the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Family of Parks. We appreciate your questions as they are invaluable in helping us provide you with world class service.
That is definitely a different definition of “resident.”
In my research I also pursued this question. And the best answer I could come up with is that the orca population off eastern Iceland, where Tilikum came from, shows resident characteristics. Another key point is that the Icelandic orcas were caught either by following the herring fleets, or by dumping herring into the water ahead of a pod. So Tilikum almost certainly came from a fish-eating population, which reinforces the notion that he is more likely resident than transient.
One other very interesting question raised for me by orca biologists is whether transient killer whales that are taken into captivity–used to eating and hunting large mammals–are more likely to be involved in trainer incidents. There probably are not that many transients kept at marine parks since most of the killer whales taken into captivity were taken from the Pacific Northwest and Iceland, from resident populations. But it is an interesting idea.
Anyone have insights into this transient versus resident question?
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: