By Jennifer O’Connor
An orca named Taima recently died while delivering a stillborn calf at SeaWorld Orlando. The baby was the offspring of Tilikum, the angry and frustrated killer whale who battered trainer Dawn Brancheau to death earlier this year. Wild animals are dying because of human avarice, but unlike the birds, fish and mammals who are perishing in the Gulf of Mexico, the animals at SeaWorld can easily be saved.
Like BP, SeaWorld can never make up for the harm that it has done. But it can immediately stop breeding animals and fund the creation of a coastal sanctuary through which captive orcas can start their journey back home.
Taima’s mother, Gudrun, was torn away from the ocean in the 1970s; she gave birth to Taima in 1989. Another of Gudrun’s calves was born with mental and physical problems and lived just a short while. Yet another, stillborn, had to be extracted from Gudrun’s body using a lift and chains. Gudrun—whom her keepers considered mentally ill (and no wonder)—died four days later. She would never again have the chance to feel the ocean currents or hear the calls of her lost family.
For Taima, death was terrifying and painful, yet it was a release from a miserable life of deprivation. Both mother and baby—and many other orcas and bottlenose dolphins before them—met their end alone in a tank full of chemically treated water that must have felt like a bathtub to these animals, who are meant to explore the endless fathoms of the sea. In nature, orcas choose their own mates (they are not artificially inseminated in invasive and grotesque procedures), and the females stay together for life.
Those who tout breeding programs and claim that captive animals “cannot” be released are usually the very people who profit from the animals’ confinement. SeaWorld and industry shills such as Jack Hanna have profited considerably from confining animals and putting them on display. It’s in their interests to keep the money flowing.
But let’s remember Keiko, a wild orca who was captured near Iceland in 1979 and sold to a series of aquariums, where he became sick and severely depressed. After the movie Free Willy prompted the call for his retirement, Keiko was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, rehabilitated and eventually moved to an ocean pen. He learned to hunt and catch his own food. Even though he was still being monitored by his rehabilitators, Keiko lived five healthy years, navigated more than 1,000 kilometers of open ocean and was living freely when he died.
Transitional protected sea pens would give orcas greater freedom of movement; the ability to see, sense and communicate with their wild cousins and other ocean animals; the chance to feel the tides and waves; and the opportunity to engage in behavior that they’ve long been denied. For those with legitimate concerns about captive animals’ ability to fend for themselves, these questions must be asked: Even if there are risks, aren’t we morally compelled to give these animals the chance to live freely? Don’t they deserve some measure of what they’ve been deprived?
SeaWorld has the means to make this happen, but look at its track record. Despite knowing about the extreme danger posed by Tilikum—including the fact that he had killed humans twice before he attacked and killed Brancheau—SeaWorld refuses even to “Free Tilly” because he’s a valuable and prodigious breeder. The public can help compel SeaWorld to do the right thing simply by refusing to buy a ticket.
Jennifer O’Connor is a research specialist with The PETA Foundation.