In the Battle at SeaWorld, the Whales Have Won
New York magazine|May 2–15, 2016

Score one for the cetaceans.

Benjamin Wallace

As charismatic megafauna go, Tilikum is one of the most charismatic, the most mega. He’s big (22 and a half feet long, approximately 12,000 pounds). He’s old (35, ancient for captivity). He’s potent (having sired a Ramses-worthy 14 calves). He’s a chowhound (tucking away 200 pounds of fish and about 80 pounds of gelatin every day). He has the mournful aspect of the exile and the orphan (call it anthropomorphizing, but he does). Netted in the waters off Iceland when he was two and separated from his family, shipped to a shabby marine park in western Canada and onward to SeaWorld in 1992, Tilikum has been in captivity for 33 years, and age and living conditions have taken their toll. Like other adult males in SeaWorld’s 29-killer-whale collection, he has the sad-looking collapsed dorsal fin and curled flukes that come, in part, from performing at the water’s surface (where gravity exerts its pull), broken teeth from gnawing on his unnatural concrete-and-steel habitat, and raked skin from the orca-on-orca aggression that ramps up when you mix whales from different pods in a confined space. “His life has been extraordinarily difficult,” says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist who has advocated against killer-whale captivity for more than 20 years. “He’s not a normal guy.”

Tilikum has an unsettling air of menace, for he is the deadliest orca in captivity (and actually, since there’s no documented case of a wild orca killing a human, on Earth). At Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum was one of three orcas involved in the 1991 killing of Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old student and part-time trainer who slipped into the water and became the three animals’ screaming pool toy for ten minutes until she drowned (it took another two hours to recover her body). Eight years later, at SeaWorld Orlando, a 27-year-old drifter named Daniel Dukes, who somehow ended up in the park after hours, was found the next morning draped naked across Tilikum’s back, one of his testicles torn off.

Because of his lethal history, trainers were forbidden to be in the water with Tilikum. So on February 24, 2010, when 40-year-old veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau began a so-called relationship-building exercise with the whale after a show, she lay on a slide-out, a surface at the pool’s edge covered by three or four inches of water. But after her ponytail slid into the water, the whale clamped its mouth on either it or her arm (witnesses offered conflicting testimony) and pulled her in. Another trainer sounded an alarm, and staff rushed to the pool to try to corral Tilikum with nets. For at least a minute, as surveillance video recorded, Brancheau made efforts to escape, but within six minutes, her body appeared lifeless. It would take nearly half an hour for rescuers to extricate her from the whale’s mouth. Besides a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a dislocated knee and elbow, Brancheau had been scalped and her left arm had been torn off. The Orange County medical examiner found her to have died from “drowning and traumatic injuries.”

It is because of Brancheau’s death that Tilikum is also a movie star, the killer whale at the center of Blackfish, the hit 2013 documentary about SeaWorld and the problems of keeping orcas in captivity. Blackfish triggered a profound crisis for SeaWorld, which had built its brand on the backs of killer whales. Tilikum embodied the paradox of Shamu, the Ur-orca who came to represent all SeaWorld’s killer whales: the cuddly predator, the plushy-ready wild beast trained and monetized but never wholly tamed.

The documentary blew up at a time of broader societal soulsearching over the use and misuse of animals for our entertainment. Cirque du Soleil has found a huge audience that doesn’t want or need animals in its circuses. Hollywood is increasingly populating its films with animals generated using CGI technology. Facebook and Twitter have enabled insta-opprobrium toward the likes of that Minnesota dentist who arrowed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe and then had to close his practice for several weeks because of death threats. In the closest parallel to SeaWorld, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, after long resisting calls to drop elephants from the big top, announced last year that it would retire its remaining herd to sanctuaries.

Amid these sweeping changes, SeaWorld had become a pariah state, a benighted holdout in an increasingly humane country. When in early March the company revealed that Tilikum was ailing, it seemed to presage yet another wave of terrible press: The looming death of Tilikum would serve as a reminder of the company’s backwardness. Instead, ten days later, the company made an announcement that stunned even many of its most vehement critics: SeaWorld would stop breeding orcas. The current generation of killer whales would be its last.

SEAWORLD WASN’T AMERICA’S first marine-mammal park—that honor goes to a concrete lake in the concrete jungle: Sea Lion Park, opened in Coney Island in 1895 and closed seven years later—but when it debuted in San Diego on March 21, 1964, the brainchild of four frat brothers from UCLA, it was instantly the grandest. A postwar middle class had leisure time and disposable income and a new highway system to ease family road trips. Disneyland had opened in Anaheim nine years earlier.

The inhabitants of the ocean, in those days before Jacques Cousteau was a regular presence on U.S. television, were deeply mysterious, and marine-mammal parks promised a safe encounter with the watery wild. Dolphinariums, with their swim-with-dolphin programs, boomed. In 1965, a book could be published with the frankly innocent title Wonders of an Oceanarium: The Story of Marine Life in Captivity.

It was inevitable that America would want to supersize its marine mammal entertainment. After Marineland of the Pacific acquired a pilot whale in the late ’50s, attendance soared. Orcas were larger still and, like their dolphin cousins, highly trainable. The first trained orca had been captured in 1965, and later that year SeaWorld bought the second for a reported $75,000, flying the 2,300-pound animal in by cargo plane from Puget Sound. She was called Shamu, a baby name for an apex predator and the start of an image makeover that would turn the “deadly killer whale” into America’s most bankable critter. Orcas became SeaWorld’s main attraction and profit center, enshrined even in the company logo, which showed a killer whale (and later two abstractly rendered orcas) breaching.

But from the start, there were signs that holding these majestic, intelligent animals in tanks might be problematic. In 1961, at Marineland of the Pacific, the first orca to be displayed in a marinemammal park died after two days. At SeaWorld, Shamu had to be retired after biting a bikini-clad staffer riding on her back and not letting go until trainers pried her jaws open with a metal bar. She died four months later, after only six years in captivity.

The very awareness of and empathy for cetaceans that SeaWorld was instrumental in raising would ultimately turn on it in the form of opposition to their capture. An increasingly conservation minded public supported the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. By then, SeaWorld was a juggernaut (it would eventually have four big parks in the U.S., though the Aurora, Ohio,location is now closed), and as it became more difficult to obtain wild orcas, the company moved to captive breeding. Still, its business model was based on an animal that an increasing number of people believed shouldn’t be part of anyone’s business model.

Dawn Brancheau’s death had drastic consequences for SeaWorld. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into working conditions at the company’s marine parks, ultimately requiring it to eliminate all “waterwork,” the in-water trainer-whale interactions that had long been at the heart of its shows. SeaWorld appealed several times unsuccessfully.

Activists suddenly found traction. Naomi Rose, one of the most persistent and well-qualified critics of SeaWorld, had been hired by the Humane Society in 1993 expressly to target captive-orca programs. For 17 years, she labored on the lonely fringe. But with Brancheau’s death, everything changed. For the first time, she found herself holding the microphone. Rose was the protagonist of journalist David Kirby’s 2012 book Death at SeaWorld, which ably articulated a set of arguments that collectively amounted to a disturbing idea: Captivity had turned Tilikum into a psychotic killer. PETA filed suit against SeaWorld under the novel legal theory that the company was infringing on the constitutional rights of five wild-caught orcas, including Tilikum, by holding them as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment.

Still, SeaWorld didn’t yet face a broad public rejection of its practices. In 2010, the year Brancheau died, the company lost $45 million on revenues of $1.2 billion, but by 2011 it was making money again, and the company’s treatment of orcas hadn’t become a mainstream cultural issue. When the private-equity firm Blackstone took SeaWorld public in April 2013, says Barton Crockett, who as an investment banker at Lazard co-managed the stock offering, “this was nowhere on the radar screen.”

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