The Whale in the Room

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February 28, 2010 | Comments

In the spirit of my affinity for mama Grizzly Bear, I have a great passion for all animals — the world’s wild predators in particular. Having had the great honor of writing about them professionally and catching glimpses of them in their home territories, I am, needless to say, heartbroken by the events surrounding the death last week of a trainer by an orca at Sea World in Florida.

I never would have witnessed a spectacle like this myself, as I am one who avoids like the plague “shows” that feature the ability of whales of any kind – orcas, dolphins, belugas – to tolerate life in small concrete tanks, coerced at specified times to jump through hoops or “kiss” the faces of young spectators. Seeing such magnificent animals humiliated in this way is nothing short of, as I said, heartbreaking.

As for the case at hand, we know now that this is the third death attributed to orca Tilikum. Third. This beautiful, tragic animal — a wild animal, mind you, a wild predator — has done everything he can to convince our so-called “superior” species, that he is not cut out for life as a trained clown. Indeed, I believe that none of these animals should be sentenced to such a fate. And I am not alone.

Through the years, thanks both to writing assignments and personal passion, I have had the great privilege of spending time with marine-mammal trainers and caretakers who have lived and worked with orcas and dolphins (dolphins being the smallest members of the whale family) – many ultimately turning against their vocation, once they realized that they were in fact abusing animals of such sensitive, intelligent souls, and, as the statistics bear, shortening the animals’ lives significantly.

And now here we are, faced with yet another so-called “mishap,” in which an orca was simply being an orca – a large, wild predator (also known as “killer whale” for legitimate, biological reason). The public really can’t be blamed for the mass misconception, given the rosy portraits painted by those who seek to make a buck off of whales, proclaiming them to be sweet, gentle giants driven to dedicate their lives to humans. How else do we explain the playful smile on the dolphin’s face or the orca’s wish to be ridden by a salmon-wielding trainer? The same holds true, I suppose, of other predators — lions, wolves, tigers, cuddly bears of all species — all of whom have at one time or another been convicted of crimes committed because of their true, though misunderstood, natures.

When the news broke about this most recent orca attack last week, debate erupted over what should be done to/with the whale. When further news broke that this was his third offense, attention actually turned from the whale’s culpability to the grossly irresponsible decision on the part of those who own him to keep him performing despite his record. I only hope that Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who lost her life, knew of Tilikum’s past and made her decision to partner with him voluntarily and out of love for him. If she didn’t, well, that’s an issue for her family to handle now that she is gone.

Tilikum the whale, however, remains with us, a public-relations nightmare destined now to become not the elephant in the room, but the whale in the room. Sea World has benevolently announced that he will retire from show business and live out his days in leisure. His fate, then, is to become a curiosity, “that whale that killed those people.” Either way, captivity is a torturous existence for an animal created to roam the open oceans with his pod, his family, hunting, procreating and navigating underwater mysteries with only other whales and his superior mind to guide him, without benefit of cheering crowds or artificial reward systems.

I can only hope that someday our own species, in the wake of these repeated and tragic events, will hear the whales’ message and realize it’s time to stop relegating these creatures to those mind-numbing concrete tanks and the show-biz humiliation that comes with them. In that sense, I have found last week’s public support of this animal heartening. Maybe we’re starting to hear the whale’s song at last.

Betsy Siino | Comments