"60 Minutes Australia" Segment on Tilikum

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"60 Minutes Australia" Segment on Tilikum

By Karen Dawn, Dawnwatch, October 2010

Tilikum now languishes out of public view in a small pool at the back of the complex. Trainers aren't allowed to touch him, and the most contact he has is being hosed from two meters away. For all intents and purposes he's in confinement isn't he?

Having just arrived home from my New Zealand and Australia trip, with no time yet to start to play any catch-up, I got a Facebook message from Australian animal advocate Wendy Shaw letting me know that the Australian "60 Minutes" had just done a story (Sunday, October 17) on Tilikum, the Orca held in captivity at Orlando's Sea World, who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau earlier this year -- his third human kill.

The piece was pertinent for me as I had mentioned Tilikum in each one of my New Zealand and Australian talks, and had made an appearance on New Zealand national TV arguing against marine mammals in captivity.

While the Australian 60 Minutes story, by reporter Michael Usher, takes a balanced view, and includes an interview with Brancheau's best friend who also works at Sea World, overall the tone can be summed up in one of Usher's opening lines:

Two of his victims were his trainers, and his tragic story makes you wonder what we're doing confining these majestic and clearly very dangerous creatures in concrete tanks.

One of the highlights comes about halfway through the piece when in contrast to the orcas doing tricks in tanks, Dr John Jett takes Usher and the viewers out to the waters of British Columbia to see orcas in the wild. Jett says:

That's a killer whale in the wild. You know, once you see something like that, it'd be hard to go to an aquarium to see them in a captive environment, no doubt about it.

Usher tells us that the Orca we are watching, a matriarch, is 99 years old. As we watch video of an orca capture he comments:

Her age, though, means it's more than likely she lost offspring in these waters when killer whales were herded so the young ones could be captured and sold to marine parks. This is exactly how Tilikum was caught in Iceland 25 years ago.

HSUS's Naomi Rose is interviewed. She makes some superb points and does a great job arguing against orcas being in captivity. But I think she gets it gravely wrong in a couple of spots. While obviously not falling for SeaWorld's ridiculous initial claim that Brancheau's death was a total accident, Rose does say, despite what we hear of the lengthy and determined drowning sequence:

...personally I think he didn't mean to kill her but he was angry or upset or disturbed about something and he took it out on her and she died...I don't know what happened that day. I'm not sure Tilikum knows what happened that day....

What? Is he an idiot? Hardly. In fact we know that orcas are extremely intelligent animals, though we don't know exactly how intelligent, as we do not speak their language, which to us sounds like a series of complex blips. (And which, incidentally, could be comparable to the lack of differentiation I hear in human Asian languages with my Western trained ears.) When a human prisoner kills one of his captors we don't suggest he didn't know what he was doing. Why would one make such a suggestion about Tilikum, who has now killed three times? Those killings are not a surprise, not because he is some sort of vicious killing machine but because he has no other way to offer his resignation. And as yet, he has had no brave young boy managing to "Free Tilly," Hollywood style. In the real world that will involve transporting him to Iceland.

The end of the story is heartbreaking. Usher says:

SeaWorld isn't sure what to do with it's infamous star attraction. Tilikum now languishes out of public view in a small pool at the back of the complex. Trainers aren't allowed to touch him, and the most contact he has is being hosed from two meters away. For all intents and purposes he's in confinement isn't he?

HSUS's Naomi Rose responds:

He's in solitary confinement. He is in fact the loneliest whale in the world. This is not normal for killer whales. They're supposed to have companions. They live with their family for their whole life. This whale is messed up.

Rose next says:

This species doesn't belong in captivity. They are inherently unsuited to being confined in concrete tanks. So what I'm asking them to do is to phase them out. Stop breeding them, that's the first thing you have to do.

All good.

But then, sadly, she suggests:

Stop producing more of them and let the ones that are currently on display live out their lives, die in due course, and not be replaced.

Can you imagine Amnesty International suggesting that we let the political prisoners for whom they fight live out their lives in jail, and that we just don't replace them? It breaks my heart when those who have chosen to be the voice for other animals make suggestions that would never be made by those advocating for humans.

There have been a couple, just a couple, of attempts to release captive orcas back to the wild, which have not been successful. That does not mean we should therefore just let the other prisoners die in their watery jail cells.

If attempts to release any of them fail, then they must go to some sort of sanctuaries, perhaps netted off bays, where their sonar will not bounce off the walls driving them mad, where they can communicate with other whales and enjoy the tides of the ocean, and where they can eat a mixture of fish they catch or are given as necessary. And that's only after every attempt has been made to release them back into the waters where their families still swim. It is well past time for that to be done, and done at the expense of the companies who have for decades been making millions on their backs literally.


Dawnwatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at DawnWatch. You may forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts only if you do so unedited -- leave DawnWatch in the title and include this parenthesized tag line