Shamu Flu?

“Dammit, this trainer’s runny nose is getting all over me.”

Maybe the world–forced into social-distancing lockdown and economic pain–is finally waking up to the many dangers of zoonotic viruses that can pass back and forth between humans and animals, and how close contact between humans and animals in factory farming, the bushmeat economy, and the wildlife trade and its “wet markets,” sharply elevates the risks.

And we have also seen how zoo animals, like a tiger at the Bronx zoo, can “catch” a virus from a human. Now the Voice Of San Diego notes that Sea World’s Shamu, and two other killer whales, were also likely infected by a flu virus passed from a trainer:

SeaWorld’s founding veterinarian was named Dr. David Kenney, a young man in the 1960s “who took credit for naming Shamu … and then figured out how to fly her to Sea World from Seattle,” according to his 2012 obituary in the Wall Street Journal.

In January 1969, Kenney noticed that Shamu and two other killer whales named Ramu and Kilroy seemed out of sorts. According to The San Diego Union, they had “bad cases of the sniffles, poor appetite, weakness and that all-over aching feeling.” Shamu, the paper reported, had been “moaning all day” and was “lethargic and irritable.”

The killer whales got a lighter schedule (although they apparently didn’t get to sit around and do nothing), and Kenney wondered whether they’d come down with the human flu. “We can’t be certain that they have human influenza,” he told the paper, “but the symptomology correlates, and blood tests indicate their infection is viral in nature.”

That killer whales in captivity can be victim to viruses they likely would not pick up in the wild, has already been established. And now Ingrid Visser and 20 scientists have published a detailed review of novel viruses in captive marine mammals and issued a call for killer whales and other marine mammals to be added to a permanent ban on the import of wildlife into China. They note that dozens of captive orcas have died from respiratory infections over the years, but that we don’t really know the extent of the problem because so many necropsies are kept confidential. It’s an eye-opening review, and you can read it here (and below):

Factory farms and wildlife markets are no doubt the most worrisome vectors for zoonotic viruses. But the fact that captive marine mammals and other zoo animals have also been infected by viruses that likely were passed from humans, and could themselves be the source of viruses that pass to humans, is just one more urgent reminder that humanity needs to dramatically change its relationship with animals–especially the degree to which they are commoditized and industrialized, and brought into the human economy.

Does SeaWorld Do Much For Wild Orcas?

“I’ve certainly never seen a SeaWorld researcher.”

 

Not really, writes Tasneem Raja in Mother Jones:

Yet independent orca researchers say these arguments don’t hold water. “If SeaWorld didn’t exist, would our understanding of wild killer whales be significantly reduced? I think the answer to that is no, it would not,” says a veteran marine-mammal researcher who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a bit like having Walt Disney tell us about mouse biology,” says Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research and a pioneering orca researcher.

Despite their 24/7 access to killer whales, SeaWorld-affiliated researchers have published relatively few orca studies. Of the four dozen orca-related papers coauthored by SeaWorld-backed researchers over the past 40 years, half were published before 1990, and just seven since 2010. What’s more, at least one-third of these papers did not focus on captive whales, but wild populations ranging from Alaska to New Zealand.

Many of the papers cited on SeaWorld’s website were coauthored by researchers from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a San Diego nonprofit founded in 1963. SeaWorld provides around 10 percent of its roughly $5 million budget. In 2012 and 2013, Hubbs-SeaWorld published 26 papers on topics ranging from abalone genetics to polar bears’ hearing; none focused on orcas. SeaWorld also touts its SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund as evidence of its investment in killer-whale science and conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012 the fund spent no more than $550,000 on research focused on killer whales, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

At some point SeaWorld will realize that spin will no longer cut it. If they want credit for promoting conservation and a better understanding of threats to wild orca populations they will have to make real investments and do real research.

A San Diego Progressive Takes On SeaWorld

Is this the best use of valuable San Diego property?

Not everyone who lives in San Diego thinks San Diego needs to protect SeaWorld. Linda Perine, of the Democratic Womans Club, wades into the fray with facts, links, and a fierce attitude:

Being very well connected and making a lot of contributions to politicians allows a business a fair amount of leeway, especially in San Diego.

As Voice of San Diego pointed out in one of its somewhat boosterish articles Sea World By the Numbers  Sea World employs up to 4,500 people, albeit many are temporary positions and minimum wage.

As was mentioned before, Sea World pays a percentage of its income as rent on a lease to the City that some view as extraordinarily favorable to Sea World.  While putting $14 million into the public coffers may be an attention getter, it is nowhere near what it ought to be.

Sea World is deeply imbedded in the San Diego conservative hierarchy.  It is a heavy contributor to the PACs of the Lincoln Club,the California Restaurant Association’s local chapter and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.   Sea World has a presence on the board of many local organizations like San Diego County Taxpayers Association, Equinox, San Diego Tourism Authority, the Chamber and many others.

Yes, that is the same Lincoln Club, Taxpayers Association, Chamber and Mayor who oppose increasing the minimum wage so that the workers at Sea World can afford to feed their kids.  So, no, they are not going to get all misty eyed over some “black fish”.

In the interconnected world of Who Runs San Diego it is the mutual back scratching benefit of interlocking boards and contributions to politicians that allows our Mayor and City Council to be so unquestioning in their support of this morally and fiscally compromised corporation.

Sea World is imbedded. It’s a player.  As its Prez said – they make no apologies.  And we are to be grateful?

If you like the attitude, read the rest of Perine’s takedown. There is plenty more.

Blackfish Effect At Work: Southwest Airlines

It has been amazing to see all the Blackfish-inspired efforts to campaign for changes in the way we see and think about SeaWorld and the captive display of orcas. There have been a multitude of grassroots petitions urging musical acts to avoid playing at SeaWorld. There have also been grassroots efforts to inspire SeaWorld’s corporate partners to revisit their relationship with a business that displays orcas. For example, this Change.org petition to Southwest Airlines.

The response from singers and bands has been impressive. But getting corporate partners to move on from longstanding relationships is a bigger challenge, and multiple approaches are possible. That’s why I wanted to flag Kimberly Ventre’s quiet and respectful effort to engage Southwest about its relationship with SeaWorld. Instead of rallying thousands of potential fliers to petition Southwest, it is based on a strategy of trying to engage Southwest’s leadership in a thoughtful conversation about SeaWorld and captivity (and included offers to screen Blackfish and have some of the former SeaWorld trainers who featured in Blackfish meet with Southwest executives; Ventre is former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre’s sister, and a devoted Southwest flier).

Southwest has been open and responsive, but also hasn’t accepted Ventre’s offer for further engagement and discussion. They did send her a Southwest thumb drive, but I suspect that won’t be enough to deter her from her goal of having Southwest revisit its SeaWorld partnership.

It will be interesting to see whether this alternative approach to the Blackfish Effect will succeed. And whether it can be a good model for change. So, for the record, I am posting a summary from Ventre regarding her Southwest campaign, as well as the letters that have gone back and forth.

Here’s Ventre:

When is the last time you wrote an airline and they responded right away? This is why I love Southwest. They are different. They are thoughtful. They listen.

Recently, I sent a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly (and four other executives) expressing my concern over their on-going partnership with SeaWorld. I explained a group of scientists, filmmakers, and authors were willing to come present the facts surrounding orcas and captivity. Shortly thereafter, I received an encouraging response.

Southwest’s leadership team said their eyes and ears are not closed and vowed to “remain transparent and open in their desire to learn and educate (them)selves.” Remarkably, they confirmed they had seen Blackfish and said they would read Death at SeaWorld as well as the other articles I provided.

Their transparency, willingness to engage in dialogue and commitment to do their due diligence are all hallmarks of great global brands. Their partner SeaWorld could learn a lot from them.

Southwest asked for patience as they move through their learning process. As they begin to understand the real story of Shamu, they will reach the same conclusion millions around the globe already have. What was once popular is now seen as an inhumane. I believe Southwest will evolve and choose to be on the right side of history.

See my letter to Southwest and their response.

The Power Of Art: Who Is Shamu?

One of the themes of Blackfish is that orcas are highly intelligent, self-aware, social beings. In short, they are individuals.

However, SeaWorld’s marketing and presentation of killer whales–through its promotion of every whale as a single whale, Shamu–works to erase the idea that each killer whale in SeaWorld’s “collection” is a distinctive, unique, killer whale, with its own individual experience and history, and its own identity.

That doesn’t sit well with Lee Harrison and James Wolf, and they have created this powerful and moving graphic to drive home the fact that there is no Shamu, that instead there are multiple killer whales with multiple fates.

Here is how Harrison (you can see more of his work here) explains the project:

“This idea came to me when I recalled some of the orcas that have died and have been forgotten based on SeaWorld’s ‘sweeping it under the rug’ ways.

I wanted to create awareness by drawing attention to some of the more shocking and upsetting stories we know of in a simple way to get people more interested to discover more.

The simple and pleasing visuals seem to draw people in, while the stories shock them and they tend to ask more.”

And here is what he and Wolf (who in encyclopedic when it comes to SeaWorld’s killer whales and their histories) produced (click image for a version you can enlarge):

forgottenshamupostersmall

 

For more a more detailed presentation of this art, and the life histories of the killer whales featured, go to OrcaAware.

SeaWorld Spare Air Update

Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando lifting a trainer ou...
Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this month I wrote about two safety upgrades SeaWorld is working on to try and reduce the risks of working in the water with killer whales: a fast-rising pool floor, and a small, emergency air supply for trainers to wear in their work.

Since then I’ve picked up a few more details on the emergency air supply. One of the concerns some trainers have with it is that the killer whales might grab the equipment, so the equipment itself could become a source of risk. SeaWorld is hoping to minimize this risk by sewing the rescue scuba tank Buoyancy Compensator (BC) as tightly as possible onto the wetsuit, so there is nothing left hanging for killer whales to latch onto. And, as mentioned before, the plan is to then wear the tight overlays the trainers don for show branding purposes on top of the rig (though some trainers are worried that putting the overlay on top will be dangerous because they won’t be able to dump the scuba gear if a killer whale does latch onto it).

SeaWorld has experimented with personal air systems before, and  some trainers feel that this new rig–which is based on a military design–is much easier to use. However, the previous system SeaWorld experimented with–which was based on something like this NOAH design, and consisted of a canteen-sized air bottle located at the small of the back, with a hose running up inside the wetsuit, where it could be accessed via a velcro opening at the chest–was much less bulky. The new emergency air supply is more like a full-up scuba rig (with tank, BC, regulator and hose), and so wearing it many hours over the course of a day isn’t as comfortable or easy.

One of the purposes of a more full-up scuba rig, presumably, is to provide more air capacity, which is important. Trainer Ken Peters, for example, who was dragged underwater multiple times by Kasatka in 2006 (a video that was shown at the Seaworld/OSHA appeal), spent a minute or more at a time underwater. (Though I doubt that spare air would have been much help to Dawn Brancheau or Alexis Martinez, given the severity of their internal injuries).

Alexis Martinez and Dawn Brancheau

SeaWorld management believes that the new scuba design should give trainers about five minutes of air capacity, which certainly could have helped Peters (who survived even without the air). But in practice sessions trainers are finding it only delivers a couple of minutes of air (which would not be a huge jump over the old NOAH system).

Another feature of the new design–which also helps account for the increased bulk–is a separate air cannister that is reserved exclusively for emergency inflation of the BC, for rapid ascent in a dire situation. As any scuba diver knows, rapid ascent is always a risky proposition because rapidly expanding air in the lungs can force dangerous, or even deadly, air embolisms through the lining of the lungs and into the bloodstream. For this reason, scuba divers ascend slowly and make sure that they exhale air from their lungs as they rise through the water column. The emergency inflation of the trainer BC, however, will cause a trainer on the bottom of the pool to ascend to the surface (some 40 feet) in about 3 seconds. Any compressed air in the trainer’s lungs from the spare air system  (and remember, this step will only be taken in a chaotic, stressful situation), would likely result in severe embolism injury (former trainers tagged this danger when the idea of “spare air” first came up after Dawn Brancheau’s death).

This video of trainers swimming and diving in the SeaWorld Florida “Dine With Shamu” pool gives you a sense of the depth and scale of a SeaWorld pool.

This danger of embolism is serious enough that SeaWorld management has been nervous about having trainers practice emergency ascents with the equipment.

The final issue I have been hearing about with regard to the new emergency air equipment is a more mundane problem: the placement of the air cannisters. The location of the breathing bottle and the emergency ascent air supply on the rig place both bottles against the trainer’s lower spine. Trainers do a lot of running around the wet pool decks during training and shows. Sometimes they slip and fall on their backs, and some trainers are concerned that a similar fall with the new gear could result in serous lower spine injury.

So there are real dilemmas and trade-offs on implementing the new gear, which is not surprising. Killer whale training and interactions are intensely complex. Any new piece of equipment, and any change in practices, will always raise any number of issues that could impact both the trainers and the killer whales. SeaWorld had been hard at work getting the new air system ready for prime time: trainers were wearing and experimenting with the gear (behind the scenes, out of sight of the public), and the killer whales were being desensitized to it (though the trainers stayed out of the water, as they have been since Dawn Brancheau was killed). That work stopped with the onset of the OSHA hearings, which have now been extended to a second session that will start in November. But SeaWorld seems poised to deploy the equipment–with all its trade-offs–if and when they ever send trainers back into the water.

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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.

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: Tilikum’s Dine With Shamu Performance”

Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?

Now that “Killer In The Pool” is on news stands and online, thanks to Outside, I want to take some time to start digging a little deeper into some of the questions surrounding the tragedy of Tilikum and Dawn Brancheau. I met and interviewed some incredible trainers and scientists, and there is so much more that I would have loved to fit into the Outside piece. Getting into those issues, and posting additional news about orcas and killer whale entertainment will become one of the missions of this website, and I hope you will become part of the conversation.

The first question it makes sense to address, to the extent that it is even possible, is Tilikum’s state of mind on the day he killed Dawn Brancheau. Killer In The Pool has some relevant details about Tilkum’s life at SeaWorld: the abuse he receives from some of the female killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando, his physical health, his relative isolation (which has only increased since Taima, one of his most frequent companions, recently died in childbirth).

But the question of what triggered Tilikum to pull Dawn Brancheau into the pool, on that day as opposed to any other day over the years of close interaction with Dawn and many other trainers, is a key question which bears close analysis. It could have been a spur of the moment response to specific stimuli present while Dawn lay close to him on the slide-out. But it is also important to try and understand whether there might have been anything going on with Tilikum that day that might have made him MORE LIKELY to grab her, and then thrash her violently once she was in the pool with him.

So: was anything in particular going on with Tilikum and the other seven killer whales at SeaWorld Orlando that day? Anything that might have impacted his behavior and state of mind, beyond his general experience at SeaWorld and the specific way in which Dawn interacted with him?

Continue reading “Diary Of A Killer Whale: What Motivated Tilikum’s Attack On Dawn Brancheau?”

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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