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Tilikum the Orca – Two Articles

February 26, 2010

I was stunned when I first heard about the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.  

I have included two articles regarding the incident.  “Inside the Mind of a ‘Killer Whale,'” which I found on   The second article, “The Killer Whale — the Name that Suits It,” was written by biologist Janet Mann, Ph.D. from Georgetown University.  In the introduction to the article, Dr. Mann writes:  

“We forget that they are called killer whales for a reason and there is nothing warm and cuddly about that,” she writes.  


Facts:  Tilikum was captured and removed from his resident pod at a young age of two years old – calves typically stay with the mother for many years.  Tilikum was also used primarily for breeding, resulting in 17 calves – 10 are still living.  Tilikum, displaying somewhat aggressive hormonal (male) behavior, spent much of his time in isolation –  NOT natural for an Orca.

This incident focuses thoughts about wild animals living in “collections” (zoos, animals parks) throughout the world.  There are two sides to these thoughts:     

Side 1:  Zoos and animal parks educate people by providing the opportunity to see animals that perhaps they had only heard or read about. 

Side 2:  Zoos and animal parks force animals to live in unnatural conditions.  Visitors view these animals as entertainment, expecting only acceptable behaviours versus innate behaviors.  (Please see

And at the end of the day, the focus of any exhibit is the number of visitors it attracts.  Zoos and animal parks have “bottom lines,” too.  They are a business, and are in business, to make money – profit or non-profit.  


Inside the mind of a ‘killer whale’


Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010 8:00 PM by Alan Boyle 

SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau is shown while performing on Dec. 30, 2005.  Brancheau was killed during an encounter with an orca at SeaWorld on Wednesday.  

Experts on marine mammals say that dolphins – including “killer whales,” which are more properly called orcas – rank among the most intelligent species on the planet. So what was that orca thinking when he dragged his human trainer into the water and killed her? 

“I have no way of knowing what the whale had in mind,” Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History, told The Associated Press. “But I can tell you that killer whales, because they’re supposed to be so intelligent, don’t do things accidentally. This was not an insane, uncontrollable act. This was premeditated. And the whale, for whatever whale reasons, did this intentionally.”   

Dolphins have so much brain power that they’re thought to rival humans in intelligence. One measure is known as the encephalization quotient, or EQ, which quantifies the size of a species’ brain compared with what would be expected based on body size alone.   

At last weekend’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Emory University neuroscientist Lori Marino noted that our EQ is about 7, while the EQ for chimpanzees and other great apes is a little more than 2.   

And dolphins? Species in the dolphin family have EQs ranging from 4 and 5. “This means their brains are significantly larger in relative size than all other animals and second only to modern humans,” Marino said.   

What’s more, the cortex of the dolphin brain is more convoluted than the human cerebral cortex. Thus, on at least one scale of brain function, dolphins beat humans.   

Orca intelligence hasn’t been studied as intensively as the intelligence of bottlenose dolphins, but orca EQ has been pegged at around 2.5. Toni Frohoff, research director at TerraMar Research, is confident that orcas are not dumb animals. “If anything, since orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, their intelligence is perhaps superior to other dolphins,” she told me. 

 Marine mammal’s motive?
Frohoff suggested that Tilikum, the orca who was involved in the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at the SeaWorld aquarium in Orlando, Fla., may have been suffering from the cetacean equivalent of anxiety disorder.   

“We know that post-traumatic stress syndrome has been identified in other species, by [veterinarian] Temple Grandin and others,” Frohoff said. “PTSD is very possibly related to his action. The act of capture alone, let alone the sustained and chronic stress that he is subjected to, could easily be responsible for that. … He’s been trying to communicate, and nobody’s been listening.” 

 Researchers generally say that confinement in a holding pen for long periods of a time is stressful for marine mammals, which typically swim 75 to 100 miles a day in the wild. 

 Tilikum was a special case for several reasons: He’s the largest orca in captivity, weighing in at more than 6 tons. In confinement, he’d feel especially pinched by his goldfish-bowl surroundings. He was separated from his Icelandic family pod at the age of 2. That would be particularly stressful for a species so tied to family life that each pod has its own dialect of calls. And because he was involved in two earlier deaths at SeaWorld, in 1991 and 1999, Tilikum was even more isolated than the typical captive orca. 

 Some might wonder why Tilikum was still at SeaWorld after those earlier deaths. “Because of the previous incidents, he has been kept in isolation most of the time – except for breeding,” Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network in Washington state, told me. “That’s why he was kept on. He’s sired 17 calves.” 

 Isolation, stress, boredom, raging hormones … all these have been cited as factors contributing to the Tilikum tragedy. But Emory’s Marino said “it is important for us not to get caught up in this one whale.” 

 “He isn’t a bad seed or a serial killer,” Marino told me in an e-mail. “He is an intelligent sensitive animal taken from his family when he was 2 years old and forced to lead a highly artificial and confined life.  This tragedy is just one example of what happens when we continue to use animals in this way.  It is also critical to note that there has not been a single documented case of an orca injuring a person in the wild.  People do swim with them or get among them in very small inflatables and boats, and there has yet to be an incident.  All of these terrible events occur in captivity.” 

 Marino worried that Brancheau’s death may lead SeaWorld to give Tilikum what would amount to a lifelong sentence in solitary confinement. “That would be the worst thing that could happen to this whale,” she said. “That really could worsen the situation.”   

She and many of her colleagues in the marine science community say that captivity isn’t healthy for orcas, or for studying them scientifically. “There is a good deal of information from the orcas, but most of it has come from the wild,” said Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York. 

 During the AAAS meeting, Reiss, Marino and other scientists called for a halt to practices such as dolphin drive hunting and the capture of dolphins, including orcas. One ethicist, Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University, said the mammals’ behavior and neurophysiology suggested that they had “all of the traits that philosophers traditionally require for persons.” (A similar debate over personhood has been percolating over the status of chimps.) 

 Ellis said this week’s incident would likely have the ironic effect of raising the popularity of marine mammal shows like the ones at SeaWorld. But Marino said the Tilikum tragedy should instead spark a reassessment of the sea’s most intelligent species. 

 Marino suggested that Tilikum and other captive orcas could be rehabilitated to return to the wild, or at least go to marine sanctuaries (like the one that sheltered  Keiko, a.k.a. the “Free Willy” whale). The Orca Network is currently campaigning for the release of Lolita, a performer at the Miami Seaquarium that is the only member of the Southern Resident orca population still held in captivity. 

 “We need to have a conversation about whether these animals should be entertaining us in these tanks,” Marino told me. 


Updated February 25, 2010 

Killer Whale — A Name That Suits

By Janet Mann, Ph.D. 

Before you start thinking about orcas as if they were plush toys, check out this commentary from Georgetown University biologist Janet Mann. “We forget that they are called killer whales for a reason and there is nothing warm and cuddly about that,” she writes.  


We see killer whales differently somehow than other predators, such as white sharks or even spotted hyenas. They look ‘happy’ and ‘friendly’ regardless of what runs beneath. We forget that they are called killer whales for a reason.

The recent death of Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s Sea World Park at the jaws of Tilikum, a 30 year old male killer whale, shocks the sensibilities of those that view killer whales as intelligent but gentle giants. Many call them ‘orcas’ rather than killer whales because it sounds friendlier. 

Biologists, on the other hand, continue to call them killer whales because it so aptly describes their wild nature. They are top predators that, other than humans, are the only species capable of coordinating a successful kill of the largest animal on earth, the blue whale.

Killer whales are a cosmopolitan species found in every ocean worldwide, but they are different at every location they have been studied. One major difference is that at some locations killer whales feed exclusively on fish (e.g., salmon or herring) and others feed exclusively on marine mammals (seals, whales, dolphins, sea otters, etc.). Regardless, they are known to cooperate and coordinate their hunts in ways rarely seen in the animal kingdom. Killer whales are nothing short of being exquisite and creative hunters. In the Antarctic, killer whales regularly examine ice flows for their seals, leave, recruit their fellow pod-members, create a wave to wash the seals off the flows and can deftly skin them nearly whole for consumption in ways any taxidermist or furrier would envy. In Patagonia and the Crozet Archipelago, they beach themselves to catch seals, risking being stranded in the process. They coordinate attacks on large whales and share the spoils with the entire pod. Killer whales are very competent at ‘sneak attacks.’ They will stay submerged, breathe quietly or not use their echolocation to avoid detection. They share food, whether fish or mammal, and are clearly dedicated to each other.

Tilikum was taken from the waters off of Iceland in 1983, when he was estimated to be about 2 years old. He would have been close to, but not yet fully weaned at that age. The Icelandic killer whales feed predominantly on herring. They have distinctive techniques for cooperatively corralling and feeding on herring schools. Tilikum would not have learned to hunt on his own. Regardless of questions we have about his life in captivity and destiny, like Keiko, Tilikum cannot be returned to the wild. Millions of dollars were spent to return Keiko (star of “Free Willy”) to his native seas, but despite great effort, he was utterly dependent on humans. He has no family, no culture, no real-world skills to survive.

Tilikum is the largest killer whale in captivity at over 6 tons and 22 ft. But killer whales live for decades, over 60 years and there are some indications they can live into their 80s. The fish-feeding killer whales tend to stay in their natal pods for life. That is mother and son have a life-long bond, extending many decades beyond weaning. Daughters stay as well, but if the pod gets very large, they may eventually split and raise their young in their own pod. Matings occur between pods during occasional encounters, so even though the family stays together for life, fathers play no role in raising their offspring. In mammal-eating killer whales, the pods can sometimes be smaller because cooperative hunting and sharing is more efficient in smaller packs. In this case, it seems that still, the son will stay and the elder daughter(s) will leave to start her own pod.

We can speculate all we want about why Tilikum did what he did. There were two lethal incidents before the tragedy of Dawn Brancheau. I have no doubt she loved and cared for Tilikum dearly. I have never met a trainer who had anything but deep passion for the animals entrusted to their care. But how do they view us? We have evolved in completely different environments. Our affinity for killer whales and other dolphins can be partly attributed to our recognition of their intelligence and sociability. They look after each other the way families do. But we are not part of that family. We see them differently somehow than other predators, such as white sharks or even spotted hyenas. They look ‘happy’ and ‘friendly’ regardless of what runs beneath. We forget that they are called killer whales for a reason and there is nothing warm and cuddly about that.

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