The widely acclaimed Orca documentary, Blackfish, will premiere on TV tonight (7-9pm Mountain time) on CNN. Watch it, and it just might change your mind about the ethics of keeping Ocras in captivity. It’s not a sappy exploitation film with Sarah McLachlan music playing in the background, but the testimony of several trainers who were as intimate with these animals and complicit in the SeaWorld marketing model as anyone else who are now sobering up to the reality of the business and of the burden carried by the Orcas.
Just as this blog was one of a handful of critics of modern dog show culture before Pedigree Dogs Exposed changed the landscape and brought exposure of pedigree breeding’s sins to a vastly wider audience, so too was this one of the few outlets to ask the now obvious questions “what about the other victims?” “Why does this keep happening?” “How can it be that this one Orca had been allowed to kill for the third time?” And, ” what provoked him to become a literal serial killer whale?
When SeaWorld’s bull Killer Whale Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010, the American media covered the story in a more extensive manner than the first two Tilikum victims had received, but their coverage didn’t answer my questions, so I used my best google-fu to try and find out more.
Before there was Blackfish, there was Multiple Orcasms which dared to explore the sexual aspect of the abuse that was both forced on Tilikum and received back during his attack on his second victim because that’s the weird angle I found when I searched. While the major outlets regurgitated SeaWorld’s spin on the story, and made a passing reference to the first trainer, Keltie Byrne, who was killed almost 20 years to the day before at Canada’s Sealand, almost all the coverage glossed over the death of Daniel P. Dukes who was not a trainer or in any way affiliated with a marine park. How does that even happen, I thought, and my investigation lead to some pretty strange places.
It turns out that Daniel Dukes was a psychologically unstable drifter with a long history of bizarre arrests who had previously broken into the fantasy castle home of Ulitma Online founder Richard Garriot, disrobed, and gotten into Garritot’s bed despite being shot at by the stunned homeowner. So we’ve established a pattern of bizarre night-time breaking and entering with nudity and sexual undertones and a stubborn obliviousness to warning signs that this is unwelcome behavior.
When it was revealed that Dukes was found “draped” naked across the top of Tilikum the next morning, along with his arrest history and his family’s characterization of SeaWorld’s fault in creating a “huggable” mystique around Shamu, I said what the rest of the reporters only hinted at: bestiality. While you can of course spin Duke’s behavior as non-sexual, and most editors would prefer that their middle-American audience not pitch a fit about printing smut, no matter how true, the tidbits of facts from their reporting can all be looked at in that manner. A person’s bed is for sleeping and sex and Dukes had violated another man’s bed with him in it. Grown men do not have stuffed animals to hug at night like innocent toddlers, so I doubt Dukes had non-sexual motives when he stole a Barbie Doll and an adult camisole from a department store. There’s now an entire recognized sub culture of people who sexually fetishize their stuffed animals from childhood, so it’s not really a stretch to connect the dots with Dukes and his family’s claim that SeaWorld presented the whales as “human loving.”
Some people didn’t agree with the sexual overtone that I felt the facts justified, and it’s true that I don’t have iron-clad proof. But the Blackfish documentary provides even more evidence to support my claims.
First there’s the question of the lack of video in Daniel Dukes’ death. The documentary makes clear that several of the areas that Dukes would have had to have traversed to enter Tilikum’s tank were under constant video surveillance by SeaWorld, including several cameras on the tank itself. One former trainer thinks that it’s highly suspicious no one knew about Duke’s death until the next morning given that there was always a trainer on site and people watching those multiple video feeds. Plus, none of those videos have ever been made public. Why? We have video of the other deaths and mishaps at SeaWorld which the park used to spin their side of the story, why not the Dukes’ death? Probably because there were no other non-employee eye-witnesses that would present a different interpretation of events like there were in Dawn’s death which was witnessed by dozens of park guests.
Take a look at the early reporting on Duke’s death:
This article, which is based on statements released by SeaWorld, claims “An autopsy scheduled for Wednesday was expected to show he had drowned, as his body was not harmed.” The article goes on:
“An employee at the Orlando marine theme park discovered Dukes Tuesday morning, dead, nude and draped across the back of a killer whale “Tilikum,” named after the western North American Indian Chinook word for “friend.”
Investigators said the 14-year-old whale – at 11,000 pounds the largest in captivity – may have played with Dukes’ 180-pound body as if it were a toy.
Killer whales, also called orcas, are not naturally aggressive to humans and are not inclined to add something new, like people, to their diet, experts said.
But this characterization contrasts harshly with the testimony of trainers that’s presented in Blackfish. JV is Jeffrey Ventre and JJ is John Jett, both former SeaWorld trainers :
JV: “Well all I know is the Public relations version of it. He was a young man that had been arrested not long before he snuck into Sea World. Maybe he climbed the barbed wire fence around the perimeter and stayed after hours.”
JJ: “Perfect story line: a mentally disturbed guy hides in the park after hours and strips his clothes off and decides he wants to have a magical experience with an orca and drowns because he became hypothermic. Right, so, and that’s the story line and none of us were there to know the difference.”
JV: “He was not detected by the Night Watch Trainers who were presumably at that station.”
JJ: “There are cameras all over SeaWorld, there are cameras all over the back of Shamu stadium pointing every which way. There are underwater cameras. I find it hard to believe that nobody knew until the morning that there was a body in there. They have a night watch trainer every night, that person didn’t hear any splashing or screaming? I just find that very suspicious.”
JV: “One of the employees, I don’t know if it was a physical therapist or someone coming in in the morning. There was Tilikum with a dead naked guy on his back, kind of parading him around the back pool.
The public relations spin on this was that he was kind of a drifter who died of hypothermia. But the Medical Examiner reports were more graphic than that. For example, Tilikum stripped him, bit off his genitals, there were bite marks all over his body.”
JJ: “Now whether that was post death or pre-death, I don’t know. But all I can comment on is that the guy definitely jumped in the wrong pool.”
This new revelation is repeated in an article that came out on Outside Online following my article.
In 1999, Tilikum reminded the world that, at least when it came to humans, he could be a very dangerous animal. Early on the morning of July 6, Michael Dougherty, a physical trainer at SeaWorld, arrived at his office near the underwater viewing area of G pool. He glanced through the viewing glass and saw Tilikum staring back, with what appeared to be two human feet hanging down his side. There was a nude body draped across Tilikum’s back. It wasn’t moving. As in the Brancheau incident, Tilikum was herded onto the medical lift in order for SeaWorld staff to retrieve the body. Rigor mortis had already set in. It was a young male, and again the coroner’s and sheriff’s reports are telling. He had puncture wounds and multiple abrasions on his face.
The victim was Daniel Dukes, a 27-year-old with a reddish-blond ponytail, a scraggly beard and mustache, and a big red “D” tattooed above his left nipple. Four days earlier, he’d been released from the Indian River County Jail after being booked for retail theft. On July 5, he apparently hid at SeaWorld past closing or sneaked in after hours. At some point during the night, he stripped down to his swim trunks, placed his clothes in a neat pile, and jumped into the pool. Perhaps he was simply crazy or suicidal. Perhaps he believed in the myth of a friendly Shamu.
The coroner determined the cause of death to be drowning. There were no cameras or witnesses, so it’s not known if Tilikum held him under or hypothermia did him in. But it’s clear Tilikum worked Dukes over. The coroner found abrasions and contusions—both premortem and postmortem—all over his head and body, and puncture wounds on his left leg. His testicles had been ripped open. Divers had to go to the bottom of the pool to retrieve little pieces of his body. SeaWorld ramped up its security, posting a 24-hour watch at Shamu Stadium.
So I don’t think I was that far off in my sinister and NC-17 reading between the lines of what the press, SeaWorld, and the Dukes family were saying. The truth was decidedly more graphic than even I had imagined.
The documentary goes on to support my later assertion as well, that the sexual exploitation of Tilikum wasn’t limited to a one-off event at the hands of Dukes. The documentary adds insight into the social nature of Orcas and that despite being the largest (the documentary pegs him at 14,000 pounds, much larger than the prior news coverage weighed him in at) Killer Whale in captivity, Tilikum was actually routinely abused by the territorial female Orcas who would rake him with their teeth, scarring his skin and opening up bleeding cuts along his body.
So Tilikum was isolated.
Then, following his first kill in Canada, SeaLand was shut down and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld, where management knew he was a liability for their trainers so he was not used for the more interactive routines.
Tilikum was isolated further.
It became increasingly the case that the only physical contact Tilikum had with any other warm bodies was when he was masturbated by male trainers and if another orca was brought in during the “sample collection” it was most often another male orca.
And that’s where Blackfish continues to riff on the them I brought up in my post.
JJ: “So why keep Tilikum there? This guy has a proven track record of killing people, he’s clearly a liability to the institution. Why keep him around? Well, it’s quite simple to answer: That is, his semen is worth a lot of money.”
The documentary shows, in detail, what a semen collection looks like and explains why SeaWorld is so eager to milk Tilikum and the other males like they were dairy cows. Money. Since it is now illegal to wild capture Orcas in most of the world, and very expensive and controversial elsewhere, the multi-billion dollar SeaWorld (and other Orca show) business relies on a constant stream of new Orcas. This requires captive breeding and there are only so many males in captivity that can be used to stud out to all the females. Given the logistics of their size and habitat requirements, it’s vastly cheaper to ship semen than to ship females to Tilikum for live cover.
Semen collection is a part of animal husbandry, but almost no other animals can really claim to have such a limited existence where their only social interaction with man or their own species or any sort of natural habitat is their collection sessions. Tilikum is basically a sex slave that gets let out of his dungeon for a few hours a week.
So is it any great mystery that Tilikum is a serial killer of humans? We kidnapped him from the wild, killing several of his fellow calves in the process, subjected him to the abuse of adult female Orcas from a different pod, isolated him in near deprivation levels for most of his life, transferred him from an ocean-water corral to the swimming pool like environment at SeaWorld where captive whales live only a fraction of their wild counterparts, used him in a limited fashion for entertainments but little physical contact save drifters and semen harvesters sexually exploiting him. And when he behaved badly, we just isolated him more.
This story is deeply perverse and it’s not me putting that spin on it out of nowhere.
As a child I was a victim of the Shamu marketing empire. I was so little I couldn’t even pronounce the name, but I wanted to see SHAMPOOO! and I wanted a cuddly stuffed Shamu of my very own, just like I’d seen on all the ads. And I got what I wanted: a trip to San Diego along with front row seats to the Shamu show where Grandma and I got soaking wet, much to my amusement and her bewilderment. And we couldn’t leave the park without a visit to the gift shop for that plushie that was as big as I was.
Captive Orcas no longer give me the same thrill I had when I was a child. I know too much now to continue to condone such a social and kinetic animal to be so stifled and warehoused in distressing swimming pools that dull their senses, corrupt their minds, and enfeeble their bodies. It’s time to free Tilikum and all the other Orcas.
A huggable Shamu wasn’t the only giant plushie I got on that trip. My father won a 5 foot tall Sylvester the cat doll (that I still have) at Cirus-Circus in Las Vegas on the drive out, and after our tour bus broke down in front of the Panda exhibit I had to have one of those too. (Notice how they are all basically stuffed Border Collies of a slightly different shape).
The pandas were an international event which was heavily advertised by the Zoo all across the country. Having arrived from China only weeks before our trip, Ba Si and Yuan Yuan were only in the USA for a few months and save Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in Washinton DC, were the only Giant Pandas in the country. It was such a huge draw for the park at the time that you couldn’t really view the pandas from ground due to the crowds, so we had to take the double decker bus tour. Even then, there was so much demand for the Pandas that the bus only stayed in front of their enclosure for 30 seconds or so. Well, I was high as a kite when our bus stopped with a perfect view of Bai Si pestering Yuan Yuan as he tried to eat the ample bamboo left in the enclosure, ignoring all of her advances. Minutes went by and the next bus had already pulled up behind us and then driven off. Several more buses came and went while we had perfect second-story views of the two Pandas and the rest of the kids on the bus and their parents were elated with what a wonderful time we were having while everyone else was being pushed and shoved and trampled along the walking path below us.
The vehicular trouble was no accident, however, as a $20 bill got lodged in the driver’s pocket at the start of the trip which caused the delay.
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