Killer Killer Whales?

On February 24 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum, a 30 year old, 12,000-pound bull killer whale (Orcinus orca), commonly referred to as an orca, grabbed its trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and pulled her underwater, killing her. Her death was the latest in a string of fatalities involving experienced animal trainers and wildlife ‘experts’ (SeaWorld Killer Whale Attacks Trainer: Latest in String of Deaths, 2010), and the third such incident involving this particular ‘whale’ – Orcinus orca is actually the largest member of the dolphin family (Whale Trainer’s Family Speak of Shock at SeaWorld Death, 2010). CBS News Coverage

While orcas may have a fearsome reputation as lethal hunter-killers, there have been very few confirmed human attacks in the wild, and no deaths at all (Orca Shares the Waves with Local Surfer, 2008; Boy Survives Bump From Killer Whale, 2005). However, in captivity, this track record is much more dismal, prompting animal rights activists, such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), to condemn the confinement of wild, ocean-going mammals to an area, that to them, is “the size of a bathtub” (Whale Trainer’s Family Speak of Shock at SeaWorld Death, 2010). This disturbing divergence in behaviour between wild and captive orcas begs two questions: i) why does captivity make orcas substantially more aggressive, or is it just “Tilly”, as it was nicknamed and ii) what should they do now?

Orcinus Orca

First, Tilly, was a wild orca captured near Iceland in 1983. In the wild, orcas can travel up to 160km per day and occur in all the oceans and most seas. Thus, removing an animal of that size (Tilly is the largest captive orca in the world) from its natural habitat and putting it into a tank causes tremendous stresses from boredom and a lack of exercise for an animal as intelligent, curious and large as orcas (Whale Attack Renews Captive Animal Debate, 2010; Haq, 2010). Orcas also have highly developed and complex social structures (Heimlich & Boran, 2001, p. 35) and the stresses from relative isolation and extrication from its pod may have added to the stress it was feeling. Its reaction could hence have been a way for it to release stress. Earlier in the day, it had refused to cooperate during the killer whale show which may suggest that it was feeling particularly stressed that day.

Second, Tilly is a ‘stud,’ he has sired at least 17 calves since 1992. His high breeding rate and hormone levels may have contributed to its aggressive behaviour. As mentioned previously, Tilly appears to also have a particularly aggressive track record, being linked to the death of another trainer in 1991 and a man who had snuck into his pool in 1999. One of Tilly’s offspring, Ky, has also been linked to an attempted drowning of a trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio, Texas (Haq, 2010). This could very well allude to the fact that Tilly is, as an individually, genetically more predisposed to aggressive behaviour than the average orca. This would make Tilly’s behaviour highly unpredictable and in a sense, ‘expected’ and perhaps should not have even been a part of the show.

Third, an ex-trainer at SeaWorld, Thad Lacinak, has suggested that Tilly might have thought Brancheau’s ponytail floating in the water was a toy and “sucked it in” as part of a game, saying also that certain handling protocol was broken (Ex SeaWorld Official: Trainer Made Mistake, 2010). Given the intelligence and curiosity of these animals, such behaviour is not entirely unexpected. VIdeo Prior to Atack

Richard Ellis (2010), marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History, suggests, however, that this was not unnatural behaviour for a ‘predatory animal whose very nickname suggests it kills’, “When you’ve got a big predatory animal near warm-blooded prey, the possibility of attack is very high” (Haq, 2010).Richard Ellis Interview

Thus, while the likes of Ellis and other animal activists believe that it is wrong to cage animals train them for human amusement and who believe that it was only a matter of time before an unfortunate ‘accident’ of this nature would happen (Wood, 2010), there are yet others who attribute the cause of the problem to Tilly itself.

And while SeaWorld insists that Tilly will continue to be an important part of SeaWorld and cannot be re-released into the wild because it would die and is needed for research and breeding (Farber, 2010), there are still those who condemn the programme and who insist that orcas can be successfully reintegrated into the wild, as was done with Keiko, the animal star of the movie “Free Willy” (Wood, 2010; Farber, 2010).


Boy Survives Bump From Killer Whale. (2005, August 15). Retrieved April 5, 2010, from The Seattle Times:

Ellis, R. (2010, February 25). SeaWord Killer Whale Attack. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from The Washington Post:

Ex SeaWorld Official: Trainer Made Mistake. (2010, February 26). Retrieved April 5, 2010, from CBS News:

Farber, D. (2010, February 26). SeaWorld Defends Serial Killer Whale. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from CBS News:

Haq, H. (2010, February 25). SeaWorld Tragedy: How Common are ‘killer whale’ Attacks? Retrieved April 5, 2010, from The Christian Science Monitor:

Heimlich, S., & Boran, J. (2001). Killer Whales. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.

Orca Shares the Waves with Local Surfer. (2008, September 12). Retrieved April 5, 2010, from 3 News:

SeaWorld Killer Whale Attacks Trainer: Latest in String of Deaths. (2010, February 25). Retrieved April 5, 2010, from Telegraph:

Whale Attack Renews Captive Animal Debate. (2010, March 1). Retrieved April 5, 2010, from CBS News:

Whale Trainer’s Family Speak of Shock at SeaWorld Death. (2010, February 25). Retrieved April 10, 2010, from BBC News:

Wood, D. B. (2010, February 24). Death of SeaWorld Trainer: Do ‘Killer Whales’ Belong in Theme Parks? . Retrieved April 5, 2010, from The Christian Science Monitor: