@


As I child I loved visiting the SeaWorld park here in my hometown. Along with the San Diego Zoo and the Natural History Museum, it was the impetus of my development into the dilettante naturalist I’ve become. That luster had largely faded by the time I visited as an adult and saw the park for the overpriced tourist trap it is, but I still maintained my appreciation for the animals. Corky, the resident female lead orca (or “killer whale,” as they’re more commonly known), was still there, performing the same astonishingly graceful leaps and flips that had stolen my breath back when I hadn’t yet learned to read.

On February 24th 2010 a large bull orca named Tilikum violently attacked and killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in full view of a crowd of witnesses. Seizing her by the hair, he dragged her into a deeper section of the pool, where she died of drowning and euphemistically-labeled “traumatic injuries.”

Tilikum is named for a Cree word that alternately means “friend” or “kin/tribe.” This is the third fatal encounter with humans he’s been associated with–though the first openly hostile one–during his time in captivity, and the fourth incident of orca aggression at a SeaWorld park in the last ten years. There have been two dozen attacks at various marine parks in the U.S., Europe and Asia since the 1960s.

Within moments of the first reportage of the attack internet news and social media sites were abuzz with comments, a large majority of them summed up by this sentiment graphic novelist Warren Ellis posted on Twitter: “KILLER whales. Not Cuddle Whales. Not Soft Whales. They’re called KILLER whales. How does this point escape people?”

There was even an outcry among some that, given his anti-human rap sheet, Tilikum should just be euthanized.

My response, once I managed to wade through all the rhetoric and find some actual details on the event, could be said in only three words:

Fuck you, SeaWorld.

Neither orca nor trainer should ever have been there.

****

The term “killer whale” is a misleading, inaccurate and redundant misnomer. First off, they aren’t whales at all, but rather the largest species of dolphin. Further, every cetacean, from the gigantic Blue Whale to the tiny Commerson’s Dolphin, is a predator. They might filter krill by the mouthful, battle giant squid in the deep dark abyss, or just shuck mollusks from the muddy silt, but each of them hunts and consumes other organisms to survive. There is no such thing as a vegetarian whale.

Lastly, and most importantly, there have never been any documented cases of a so-called “killer whale” ever attacking a human being in the wild.*

Take a moment to think about that. Twenty-four cases of orcas attacking humans in captivity, zero cases in the wild.

This is not true of several other species of dolphin, including the generally-beloved Bottlenose.

There are two major different kinds of wild orcas: transients and residents—and the differences between them are so substantial that debate is ongoing as to whether they should be classified as two distinct sub-species. Transients fit the bill of “wolves of the sea,” loose free-roaming pelagic packs of four to twelve individuals, who feed exclusively on other marine mammals. Several transient orcas, refusing to eat the fish they were offered, starved to death in captivity before this distinction was understood.

Residents, on the other hand, feed only on fish, and spend their lives as members of close-knit, matriarch-dominated family pods within a specific home range. Each pod uses different hunting strategies for catching the fish in their range, and develops a unique “language” of sonar clicks and whistles. This behavior is not instinctual; it is taught to the calves by the older members of the pod from generation to generation, and fits the general anthropological definition of culture.

Every orca currently in captivity was either removed from a resident pod or is the descendent of one that was. So what SeaWorld and its ilk present is a collection of strangers, stolen from their families and forced to live in a pod full of other orcas who cannot communicate with each other, and who then have their natural tendencies and behaviors exploited to perform tricks for the amusement of a crowd.

While it’s true that some orcas, like Corky, seem to enjoy human interaction–she’s known as having a very sweet disposition, and for performing underwater tricks for visitors in her holding tank during off-hours—for most of them it’s the only real socialization they get. Between performances they are split into smaller groups between the holding pools. Tilikum spends almost all of his non-performance time alone, a social animal with a complex intelligence confined in an isolated holding tank for long periods.

Worse, captive orcas frequently develop behavioral and physiological pathologies, most stemming from the stress of confinement. Bullying and intra-orca violence are relatively common. Their life span, roughly equivalent to that of a human being, is effectively halved, with many not living into their mid-20s; at 40, Corky is the second longest-lived captive orca in the world, and has adopted several calves whose birth parents abruptly died—including one that caused fatal injury to itself while attacking her. The calf mortality rate alone is staggeringly high. About 90% of the males in captivity suffer from collapsed dorsal fins, something that occurs in less that 10% of wild orcas worldwide, usually due to injury or poor diet. SeaWorld has repeatedly claimed that a collapsed fin is not indicative of an orca’s well-being.

Tilikum suffers from it:

The exact provocation behind Tilikum’s attack is not yet known, but it appears as though he finally succumbed to a fit of pique and lashed out, with sadly fatal consequences. And I can’t say I blame him for that. Any kidnapped human being subjected to those living conditions and exploited for public amusement who fought back against his captors would be lauded as a hero, not vilified.

Tilikum’s fate is secure. He’s the park’s principle stud muffin, the most successful sire in captivity, with ten surviving offspring, and as such represents a profound investment in future profits. Which cuts right to the heart of everything that’s wrong with SeaWorld.

SeaWorld markets itself as a family-oriented educational adventure, as well as a safe haven for the conservation and study of marine life. But it’s not. SeaWorld is an aquatic circus, a zoology-for-profit private enterprise—one that, until recently, was owned by a massive beer conglomerate. After parking, tickets, food, and a souvenir or two, a family of four will spend close to $400 for a single day’s visit.

The orca shows are the park’s biggest draw, so keeping those orcas flipping and leaping means big money for SeaWorld; after all, popular plush toys of the “Shamu”** mascot start at around $20. You can barely walk ten feet without running into a gift shop or vendor cart selling them.

A visit to the local, nonprofit Birch Aquarium costs about $10 per person. They have one gift shop, and it’s mostly full of books.

I’m not an anti-zoo person, by any means. My appreciation and support of the San Diego Zoological Society remains constant, in part because they are everything SeaWorld pretends to be: a non-profit, scientific society dedicated to research and conservation, one which maintains remarkable transparency in the use of the funds it generates and has been instrumental in the preservation of several critically endangered species, including the local California Condor. And unlike SeaWorld, it’s also been a world leader in providing progressive, naturalized habitats for the animals on display.

I don’t mean to disparage SeaWorld’s cadre of scientists and researchers, since doubtless most of them are decent human beings dedicated to fostering scientific discoveries and educating the public however they can. And the institute has done good; it’s an inescapable irony that much of what we know about orca intelligence initially came from their captivity programs, and they’ve played a key role in rescue efforts for beached or injured marine animals. But when the Yangtze River Dolphin slipped into extinction in 2006, SeaWorld was nowhere to be seen. There was no financial gain in doing so.

I’m also aware of the irony of criticizing the very institute that inspired me to learn about marine biology, but that’s just it; most of what I know has come from my private studies or resources like National Geographic or Nature, not SeaWorld. Education and conservation are byproducts of SeaWorld’s business, not the goal.

And any last lingering affection I felt for it died the moment Tilikum dragged his trainer under water. It seems an inescapable part of the human condition that many of the wonders of our childhood turn to sadness as we slip into adulthood, but this is not one I regret. I’ll save my mourning for the trainer, and for the orca who killed her.

****

My last visit to SeaWorld was on a weekday in February, 2007. It was a cold, drizzly day, with sparse attendance at the park. Because of the weather, most of the shows were canceled, which was fine with me. Towards the end of my visit I wandered over to the Shamu Stadium, where Corky was entertaining herself in the large display tank. No one else was around. When she caught sight of me she corkscrewed onto her back and began swimming a series of rapid laps upside down, always cruising right next to the glass when she came near my station. Thanks to an underwater microphone I could hear some of her clicks and whistles. I stood there for a while, watching her as she played and chattered for both of us, and wondered if the surviving members of her family pod missed hearing her voice.

****

In case I haven’t bored you witless on orcas by this point, you can go read this fantastic article originally published in National Geographic‘s April 2005 issue.



*There is one anecdotal report of a surfer who was grabbed by a wild orca by mistake and promptly released, but it has never been substantiated, and is most likely hearsay.

**The original Shamu died in 1971 and was one of the first perpetrators of orca aggression against humans. She was permanently removed from public view after being caught on tape biting and refusing to release the leg of a trainer during a performance.


TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

128 Responses to “Shamu Killed My Childhood”

  1. Man, that says it all. They don’t attack people in the wild, but tragedies like this happen in captivity… But people don’t learn.

    I used to be obsessed with whales when I was a kid (add that to sharks, crocodiles and dinosaurs) and I “adopted” an orca for about five years, until she died. They’re amazing creatures, and should be protected in the wild, and not made to perform tricks for fat kids at theme parks.

    • Matt says:

      I think we more or less lived out identical childhoods in different parts of the world, David.

      That’s what really gets under my feed about SeaWorld. It claims to be committed to nature and species preservation, but wild orcas aren’t benefiting from their research at all.

      • Like yourself, I’m not against zoos entirely, but I’m skeptical about the benefits of the orca program. I think the name “Shamu” came to mean the same as any rollercoaster or attraction, and nothing more.

        • Matt says:

          Yes. “Shamu” is basically an underwater Mickey Mouse, at this point. Though I never heard any stories of the “real” Mickey giving anyone rabies.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Thanks for this. I agree with you about the problem with SeaWorld. They should be transparent about their commercial nature, and channel the image-polishing money into funding for actual science. Then they should pay attention to that actual science, and invest in innovation to improve the worst aspects of their model.

    But to be fair, re: the Yangtze Dolphin, the true villain is the Chinese government. Nothing stands in their way, and I suspect SeaWorld wouldn’t have been able to make a difference if they tried.

    • Matt says:

      “Then they should pay attention to that actual science, and invest in innovation to improve the worst aspects of their model.” which is exactly what the San Diego Zoo has done, and why I support them.

      I agree with you re: Yangtze Dolphins. From an immediate, practical conservation standpoint SeaWorld probably wouldn’t have been able to do anything. But they had the resources, and the means, to inform a large portion of the American public about the issue years before it came down to a crisis.

      And they didn’t.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Orca’s are, in my opinion, the most beautiful creatures in God’s green earth. Or in this case the blue ocean. Because of that, I always feel so bad when I see them preform. Yes it’s brilliant, but at the same time I wonder, like you stated, “if the surviving members of her family pod missed hearing her voice.”

    • Matt says:

      The performing orca in the top photo (and the one on the archive cover of this post) is Corky. Her pod is designated A5, and they still live off of the northwestern coast of Canada. Two of her siblings and a niece are among them.

      I don’t know if orcas have the capacity for true abstract thought, but I can’t help but think she’d rather be with them than letting humans ride around on her.

  4. Gloria Harrison says:

    I love everything you’ve said here – and you’ve said it all beautifully. I appreciate very much your taking the time to collect your data.

    I had the same thoughts when I heard about the Orlando tragedy – they are called killer whales, aren’t they??? I know, it’s a misnomer. But still, that’s a big frickin’ fish to have in such a small space. And it’s no secret that they’re brilliant. You put a huge, brilliant animal in confinement and wonder why it went crazy? Really?

    P.S. I know they’re not fish.

    • Matt says:

      Eh, much of this information has been living in my head since I was younger than your sons. When I first learned to read I went after books on science and nature with a vengeance. I took some time to confirm details I suspected, and I read up on Tilikum’s history a bit, though.

  5. Gloria Harrison says:

    Have you ever read Life of Pi? Martel goes into zoos and wild animals for a few pages toward the beginning – and it is the best stuff on the subject I’ve ever read.

    • Matt says:

      I have not. I remember when it came out, it was such a trendy book (much in the way The Lovely Bones was–remember when everyone was carrying around a copy of that?) that I felt no interest in reading it. But I might just have to look into it, now that some time has passed.

      • Jude says:

        Great post Matt. Unfortunately only the ‘enlightened’ ones will get to read this – mainstream newspapers, journals, magazines etc. will not publish anything like this…

        And you must read ‘Life of Pi’ – it’s on my top 10 list. Great book!

        • Matt says:

          Okay, I’m sold. I through Life of Pi onto my ever-growing list of books to read this year.

          I posted a link to this on Twitter, and it went kind of viral, at least among people here in San Diego. A few of the local alternate weekly newspapers reposted it. I expect a cease-and-desist letter from SeaWorld any time now.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Life of Pi is amazing. Sometimes books are trendy because they’re just that good.

    • Zara Potts says:

      I agree, Gloria. It totally changed my view on zoo’s. Such a great book…

  6. Simone says:

    “I stood there for a while, watching her as she played and chattered for both of us, and wondered if the surviving members of her family pod missed hearing her voice.”

    That line almost brought me to tears. Matt you’ve tugged at my heart strings with this piece. Well written, well informed and just heart breaking to believe that we’re capable of inflicting such cruelty to animals.

    I do so agree with you that neither the trainer, nor the orca should’ve been there.

    • Matt says:

      It was one of those moments that managed to be simultaneously heart-warmingly beautiful and just really, really sad….and that was back in the days when I still begrudgingly enjoyed the place.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Was there something about how killer whales were given the name because they seemed to have a tendency to lead whalers to other, larger prey? I seem to remember something about that.

    This whole thing makes me very sad. Poor everyone.

    • Matt says:

      My understanding is that mariners used to refer to them as “killers OF whales” because they observed transient orcas attacking whales. Somewhere along that line the “of” fell out, horribly shaping human perception of them. As late as 1975, the handbook of the U.S. Navy stated that an orca would attack a human being on sight. Of course, this is the same manual that said the best way way to avoid a shark attack was to violently thrash about in the water, so it’s not like we can give it too much credit.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    Great post, Matt. Summed up all the feelings that I have.
    And I agree with Simon, poor everyone. Whales, dolphins and trainers.

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Matt,

    I hate it when bad news from right here in Florida goes all around the world. Florida thrives on tourism.
    (And, apparently, I am the chamber of commerce. It’s really early in the morning and I didn’t sleep well, so my brain has obviously been taken over by someone politically connected and awake.)

    Have you noticed that the weasel is back on Zara’s shoulder? She always denies it, but this is the second photo she has posted with her weasel.

    • Zara Potts says:

      A weasel?? Where?? Get it off me!!!

      • Matt says:

        It wasn’t a weasel. It was a little kiwi bird.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Zara, that is NOT your gravitar!
        I wasn’t born yesterday.

        You have had TWO different gravitars with weasels in them.
        TWO.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Where are the weasels?? I can’t see them..!

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Are you two enjoying your game of Spot the Weasels?

          This seems as good a place as any for me to belatedly express my admiration for this post, Matt.

          I remember long ago reading an essay about zoos by the critic John Berger, in which he raised many of the points that have by now become common — primarily the apathy and seeming melancholy of the animals on display. Strange how long it’s taken those arguments to catch on. It’s also strange that no one has apparently yet mentioned elephants, who, similar to Tilikum, fatally snap in captivity. Or maybe someone did mention it, and I didn’t see it, suffering as I am from a bad cold.

        • Matt says:

          Zara: I think the weasel thing is just a sign of an impending stroke.

          Duke: Thanks, and no worries for turning up a bit late. This one got bumped down to the bottom of the page within twelve hours of my posting it, so I think a lot of people missed it.

          I think I read that Berger essay myself, back in the day. And I very much see the relationship between circus elephants and the trained orcas. There’s even been a recent burst in aggression among wild elephants in Asia who live close to human settlements. Apropos of nothing, they attack humans, running them down on the roads, smashing through houses. The reason isn’t yet known.

    • Matt says:

      Wait, wait….I always thought it was cocaine Florida thrived on, not tourism. Huh. Learn somethin’ new every day.

  10. Becky says:

    I have such mixed feelings about this.

    I mean, I agree with you in essence.

    But having grown up working with animals my whole life–domesticated ones, for that matter–I have trouble thinking of animal-to-human violence as a rebellious act quite in the way you offer it.

    I have trouble attributing human qualities, motivations, cognition to animals to much of an extent. Not because I think they’re just dumb animals without feelings or thoughts, I just think that animals have different motivations, thoughts, etc. and that thinking of animals like they’re humans causes people to try to relate to them like humans, often causing them to overlook the actual causes of any given behavior, which stem from a horse’s (or dog’s or whale’s) brain, not a human one. Human-style interaction is not a communication system/attitude that animals understand. They have their own system, and we need to learn it like another language or, in the end, animals and humans alike suffer for it.

    I realize I sound like the dog whisperer, but this was a component of my horse handling training long before TLC existed, I assure you.

    Every WEEK, someone was bitten, kicked, or stepped on by a horse. It wasn’t an act of rebellion; it was an act of surprise or aggravation, or sometimes pain, or even just an accident, and part of being a responsible handler was recognizing those modes of communication and, ideally, avoiding the assault, but ultimately, making sure you understood what caused it so you could proceed accordingly both for your own protection and in the best interests of the animal. And, frankly, some horses are just cranky. Just like some people are just cranky. But being injured by them was just a danger of working with 1500-lb animals. And we all knew it, and we did it anyway. Violence is how animals communicate in most cases. But I think it’s dangerous to attribute violent acts to something like “freedom fighting.” I think that’s counterproductive, even if well-intended and compassionate.

    Anyway, what interests me is that horses are domestic animals and the incidents of some kind of physical clash or another was far greater than with wild animals, that I’m aware of. I mean, if you’ve got one handler and 4 horses, and one handler and 4 orcas, the horse handler is going to get banged up more often. Maybe a whale isn’t the greatest example because of the water/land mammal divide, but let’s say it’s 4 tigers.

    I mean, I wonder about this. You would expect wild animals in captivity to become aggressive more often, not less often, than dogs or horses or cats.

    But that, in my perception, doesn’t seem to be the case.

    • Jen Violi says:

      Thank you Matt for this thoughtful and important piece. To me, healing has come to mean realigning with natural rhythms and cycles, and it seems that anytime we force anyone, any being, and creature out of it’s natural cycle, some kind of harm is generated–like what happened here. Of course, then I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of the natural cycle of humans to do this kind of forcing–because we seem to keep doing it.

      And thank you Becky for your thoughts, which certainly call to mind Chris Rock’s comments post Siegfried and Roy tiger incident: “That tiger didn’t go crazy; that tiger went tiger.” Same with this orca. Anthropomorphizing animals can sometimes help to create understanding or I think even offer us wisdom, but I think you’re right–there’s a whole other language and system at work that, when we take time to understand it, has perhaps even greater wisdom for all of us.

  11. Tawni says:

    I grew up full-on animal geek, checking out every book about animals I could from the library, and reading this was absolutely fascinating. I also agree with you on all points. It has been a long-time dream of mine to go to Sea World, as I’ve never been, and after reading this, I don’t even want to go anymore.

    I am always bewildered by the the public disbelief expressed when large, intelligent animals, confined in small, boring conditions finally snap. Like when circus elephants go on angry rampages. It seems almost arrogant of humans to be shocked by these outbursts. The animals weren’t put here to entertain us. We really like to think that every creature is here for our amusement or exploitation, but hey, guess what? Sometimes the creatures disagree, with deadly results.

    Really excellent, informative, and thoughtful post, Matt.

    • Matt says:

      See, and there’s the rub:I can’t honestly say that I wouldn’t take my kid to SeaWorld, or someplace like it, at least once. I mean, who am I to deny a child a sense of wonder, especially over something that proved to be a hugely positive force in my life. It’s a sentiment I wrestled with a lot while writing this essay.

      Assuming things haven’t changed by the time I finally unleash my spawn on the world, I’d probably take my kid, let him/her ooh and ahh over everything, and then go out and get a bunch of reading and research materials, so he could start learning about what those animals are really like.

      Sorry about pooping on your SeaWorld dreams. Next time I’ll write about feet. No dream-shattering for you there!

      • Tawni says:

        NO.

        Do. Not. Ever. Write. About. Feet.

      • Tawni says:

        I have already refused to take my kid to the circus for similar reasons; exploiting wild animals for our entertainment seems like a tacky and unkind lesson to teach a child. But I really hadn’t philosophically approached the Sea World vacation idea. If they would stop making the animals perform, and give them larger, more natural living spaces, I’d feel a helluva lot better about it all. I really had no idea. In my head, they were the pampered stars of Sea World, getting the celebrity treatment. Spoiled, even. I had no idea they were being kept in such isolated, unhealthy conditions. I can’t feel good about supporting that.

        If I do take my son there, it will be when he’s older, so I can explain what isn’t very nice about it, and use it as an intellectual stepping stone to pique his interest in further marine biology research, which seems to be a very positive gift Sea World gave you. But right now, the shine is off the diamond for me. I won’t be going out of my way to make it to Sea World. Bleh.

        • Matt says:

          That pampered, celebrity thing is something SeaWorld encourages, I think. Getting an audience to believe that an orca is living a life of luxury is a lot cheaper and more PR-friendly than actually owning up to the damages captivity is causing.

          If you want your son to get interested in marine mammals, I might recommend taking him someplace where you can go whale watching. Seeing one in the wild is far, far superior to seeing one in captivity.

        • Tawni says:

          My husband and I are going on an Alaskan cruise this summer and I’m SO excited to see whales in the wild. Whales! (:

        • Matt says:

          Woo!

          From November through February the California Gray Whales migrate south along the state to reproduce in the Gulf of Mexico. I loooooooooooooove going out to see them. A couple years ago, one wandered into the bay right by my house and stayed for about a week.

          Last time I went whale watching, one of the whales had a healed scar on one of it’s flukes. Turns out it was likely hit by, er, an orca somewhere along the route.

  12. Ducky Wilson says:

    To me, Seaworld (and others) are no different than plantation masters. It’s slavery, pure and simple. Forcing these animals to perform tricks for our amusement is wrong. It breaks my heart.

    Freedom is invaluable to all species – not just humans. I’m a strong-willed person inherently, and if I were a killer whale at Seaworld, I’d act the same way.

    • Matt says:

      That’s why I used the circus analogy. I really see no difference between forcing an elephant to march about in ridiculous getup and making orcas allow humans to ride them.

  13. Becky says:

    And, I just had this thought. More of a musing, and half-joking, but it occurs to me that captive wild animals are less violent than human beings.

    The problem may be, in part, that when an aggravated or annoyed person pushes or punches or slaps you for whatever reason, it usually merely stings. When an aggravated Tiger or horse “slaps” you, it shatters bones, tears flesh, or proves fatal.

    I mean, it just occurred to me that the severity of the injury may not enjoy a direct correlation to the severity of the “sentiment” behind it. That might be a mistake in human perception as well. A sort of homo-sapiens-centric understanding of violence.

    • Becky says:

      That is, in part, it may be a simple issue, in some cases, of sheer physical mass. I mean, when the house cat leaps on you from the top of the fridge and bats at your scalp, you don’t usually need an emergency room. A tiger would be a different story.

  14. jo says:

    TU CHE MATT!!! :)

  15. New Orleans Lady says:

    What a great piece, Matt. I share your love of all animals and sea creatures. I’ve been a member of the Audubon Institute for as long as I can remember and still visit either the zoo or aquarium at least once a week. Unfortunately, I’ve only been to Sea World once. I found it to be one of the best and worst experiences of my life. On one hand, selfishly, I was able to have close encounters with such amazing creatures. On the other hand, my realization that they didn’t belong there was almost more guilt than I could bare.

    On the most current of events, I’m deeply saddened. The outcome for this beautiful whale will be determined by people who really don’t care about the species’ well being. I’m sorry that the trainer had to lose her life but I doubt she would want this animal killed. Think about it. She must have had a deep respect and love for whales herself, to spend her entire life training them and learning about them. I think if she were here, she would be fighting for his rights.

    His rights. That statement almost made me laugh. When will humans understand that we should be giving animals the same rights as we have? Then again, how can people who do understand this, make a difference? It’s upsetting.

    Great piece, Matt. Keep up your studies and keep sharing your knowledge with us. I enjoy it.

    • Matt says:

      The Audubon facilities are great. I kept a membership current the whole time I lived there, and like you I went frequently. The zoo’s entire swamp exhibit is phenomenal, and I’d say the Aquarium of the Americas is second only to the one at Monterey Bay. Remember back in 2001 when that catwalk that used to run over the Gulf of Mexico tank collapsed and dumped a bunch of people in? I was there for that–though not on the catwalk!

      They’re not going to kill Tilikum. First, the trainer’s family insists that she wouldn’t want it. Second, wild captures of orcas are no longer allowed, so SeaWorld has to get the captive ones breeding. And as I pointed out, there’s no one better at that than Tilikum.

  16. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thanks for sharing this piece, Matt. It’s really beautiful and heartfelt.

    Within the past three or four years, I’ve experienced a tremendous shift in my views about animals. One of those shattering moments was seeing a mountain gorilla at the Memphis Zoo. He sat in full view of everyone near a little cave-like entrance to his shelter. I watched his hands open and close and his chest move as he breathed. I realized he didn’t even bother to look at the people gazing at him. I was fascinated by his beauty–and then, to my surprise, felt a deep sadness. He wasn’t meant to be there. I had no right to be looking at him in circumstances like that. Then an hour later, when I saw the captive pandas, I knew I’d never be able to visit a zoo again. The views I formerly held fell apart.

    You might be interested in this brief YouTube video from Jean-Michel Cousteau: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp8MkPyBE5A&feature=youtube_gdata

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Ronlyn.

      The one time I was in Memphis, I didn’t have a chance to visit the zoo, so I’m unfamiliar with their captivity conditions. It’s interesting that your epiphany came due to gorillas and giant pandas, two animals who I would argue have massively benefited from zoological studies and conservation efforts–the critically-endangered mountain gorilla, especially. Both, I think, illustrate what can be accomplished when zoos actually put their efforts into accomplishing something good, instead of just displaying an animal for entertainment’s sake.

      That’s a great video. I’m going to have to repost that.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Not that I know much about what makes a great zoo habitat, but the Memphis Zoo did seem to have spacious areas for their animals, “nice” and “humane” compared to the zoos I saw as a child. It wasn’t the condition of the physical space that got me. It was really witnessing in my own way where the animals were (monkeys, hippos, and pandas aren’t native to TN) and what I was doing to participate in that.

        I agree zoos have had their place in conservation efforts. I’m wondering now, though, what the next few decades will look like–how human interest and curiousity about animals will balance what I personally feel are the animals’ rights to live wild.

        Glad you liked the video.

        • Matt says:

          This is an area where I think mass-communication technologies are really going to help. During the pre-TV/pre-internet days, people had no choice but to go to zoos if they wanted to see some of the exotic and interesting wildlife from other countries. Nowadays I can pick up my iPhone and find footage and images of all sorts of wildlife.

          As I understand it, there’s a project underway in certain game parks in Africa and Asia to install self-contained wireless webcams to stream raw footage of parts of these wildlife preserves. Click of a button and kids will be able to see animals in the wild in realtime.

  17. Hey Matt:

    Yeah, I heard about this incident on NPR. I found it really quite unsettling. On a number of levels, and for a number of reasons. All I can say is that I’m glad that whale didn’t grab you and those postcards of yours.

    Speaking of which, I just received my postcard this past week. I have three words for you: Uh. May. Zing.

    As I was reading the story on back, I was trying to imagine where you were going with it. And let me tell you, the tapeworm twist at the end really got me. Didn’t see it coming. Very nice.

  18. Tammy Allen says:

    I love Sea World. I hate Sea World. Yep that’s how I feel. I had a friend that worked there and she said she had to sign a contract not to disclose any information about animals dying, etc.

    I really don’t think it’s over priced. For the amount of money you pay you can see 8 to ten shows in one day and ride that waterslide. Crap aside no one forces you to buy the souveniers.

    I think Sea World does do important scientific exploration and animal conservation. Accidents are bound to happen. Should the animals be forced to perform – no. It should be informational and fun but not a circus act.

    It’s a tragic accident. It’s sad. Sea World isn’t going to change.

    Well written and informative – Thank you.

  19. Angela Tung says:

    this makes me really sad. i remember loving sea world as a kid. i don’t even want to take my own (future) kids there now.

    also makes me think of that chimp who went nuts (or maybe went “chimp” to quote jen quoting chris rock) and ripped that woman’s face off. i don’t know if the owner should have been keeping him at all, but she should definitely not have been giving him wine and Zoloft (and certainly not at the same time!).

    • Gloria says:

      She was giving him wine and Zoloft?? I never heard that part! WTF?

      I’m moving to Mars. Wanna come?

      • angela says:

        i know, right! i don’t know if he was downing handfuls of zoloft with half a bottle of chardonnay, but he did ingest both at some point.

        mars sounds great, as long as there’s coffee.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, I heard about that, but I was unaware of the wine and Zoloft portion of things. Holy crap. Yeah, do let’s give an intelligent, potentially aggressive and extremely strong animal mood-altering substances. Nothing wrong with that idea at all.

      As I mentioned to Tawni above, part of my inner conflict with this issue is the fact that I can’t say I’d never take any (future) kids of mine there.

  20. Quenby Moone says:

    Fabulous. I think this poignant sort of deconstruction of SeaWorld is imperative. It may have had its usefulness or simple cultural relevance at one point, but as with all other zoos, its policies regarding its inhabitants has to evolve or die.

    When zoos were first introduced to the world, humans (natives stolen from faraway places) were sometimes included in the exhibits, and all the exhibits themselves were beyond horrific. When people began to have the good sense that perhaps that sort of treatment of both human and animal was beyond the pale, the zoos had to change.

    Suck it up, SeaWorld. Your model is archaic. Tillikum and all the other creatures deserve their emancipation.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Quenby.

      When I was a kid, the San Diego Zoo was one of those facilities that kept all of their animals in either concrete pits or brick & iron cages. They’ve invested a great deal of time and effort into modernizing things, and now provide very naturalized habitats for all of the animals in their care. Only handful of those old enclosures remain, and they’re on the way out. Greater knowledge has led to progressive developments in animal care.

      This is not an example SeaWorld has put any effort into following.

      Suck it up, indeed.

  21. Greg Olear says:

    Fantastic post, Matt — maybe your best ever. Topical, well-written, and really interesting.

    I didn’t realize they were dolphins, but it makes sense. It’s maddening, isn’t it, the hubris of man, thinking that we are so far above it all. This reminded me of passages in The Darling, the Russell Banks novel, which are about chimps. Genetically, a male human is closer to a male chimp than to a female human, and vice versa.

    Tillikum and Montecore should have a support group…

    • Matt says:

      I’m glad you think so, Greg. I meant to have this up closer to the actual attack (a bout of stomach flu got in the way). I was a little anxious while editing this that all the science info might be a bit off-putting; I have a tendency to act a bit of the know-it-all when it comes to this sort of thing. But all the ignorant hyperbole zipping around the internet really pissed me off, and I couldn’t let the event pas without saying something.

      The only Russell Banks novel I’ve read is The Sweet Hereafter, which so kicked my ass emotionally that I’ve been a little hesitant to go back. I have a copy of his most recent book here on my shelf, though, and think I’ll sit down with it sometime soon.

  22. J.M. Blaine says:

    A dolphin named Goofy
    at Sea World Orlando
    repeatedly rammed her nose into my groin.

    “Hey!” I objected and the trainers laughed and said
    “Goofy likes you!”

    • Matt says:

      Maui surfer dude I used to know
      told me once he’d happened
      upon three wild dolphins
      while out riding the waves.

      For a few minutes
      they took turns ramming him.
      Left bruises
      and everything.

      Probably hugely pissed off that people give them
      ridiculous names like “Goofy.”

  23. Marni Grossman says:

    Your point is well-taken, Matt. I’d even venture to say that some zoos are similarly guilty. Overpriced tickets and crying children and funnel cake. This combination has always made me feel sort of depressed when I visit the zoo.

    So interesting and so heartfelt.

    • Matt says:

      Oh, c’mon! Who doesn’t love funnel cake?! Especially when they put powdered sugar and the raspberry goop on top!

      My pet peeve when I go to the zoo these days are parents pushing their kids around in those SUV-sized megastrollers….while the kid is snoozing. Like, why are you spending the money to be there if the kids are just going to sleep the whole time?

      • Ah, spoken like a well rested man who does not have kids.
        Greg and I laughed because we would pay A LOT to have our kids pass out in a stroller
        (not that we have an SUV sized one or even a stroller anymore)
        Napping kids are the best kind of kids. So, that’s why.

        • Matt says:

          I don’t HAVE kids, but I’ve spent the bulk of my life around them and interacting with them. I’m great with kids. If I’m ever in NY you and Greg can turn Dom & Prue over to me for a while. I’ll tire ‘em right out. I’m pretty good at that, actually.

      • Tawni says:

        Your comment made me smile in the same way it made Greg and Stephanie smile. Oh, you young and well-rested, sweet man. You will learn someday if/when you procreate, that if you can find something that soothes your kid into napping, that is a glorious thing. If going to the zoo made my kid sleep, I would be there every afternoon like clockwork for nap time, with a ridiculous stroller big enough for a four-year-old. (I buy a yearly pass for the zoo, so it wouldn’t cost extra.)

        To answer your question, if my husband and I went to the zoo and our kid fell asleep, we’d still be there because: 1. If he’s unconscious, my constantly chatty little ankle biter is blissfully quiet, and my husband and I can actually talk to each other like adults in a relationship for a little while, or just enjoy the silence. And: 2. Because I am still a huge animal geek who loves the zoo. We’d still be there for me. (:

        • Hear hear, my Tawni. Ain’t it the truth? When our kids are asleep, that’s when Greg and I get to be us again. We get to talk. We get to even talk about them and how much we love them. Our kids don’t nap anymore – except Prue who passes out in the car if the time is right (and that’s when I get to park said car somewhere pretty and either read or sleep myself). Only when one is in the deep trenches of parenthood can one understand some of these things that people who don’t have kids say,”I don’t understand why….” Like before kids, I never understood how certain musician mom friends of mine stopped doing their music – um – I get it now!!! (Except now, I am getting back into it – i’ll have to write you privately about this, Tawni love – think I’ve hijacked this post enough for now.)

          And Matt – appreciate the childcare offer! Greg and I are working out the contract details.

  24. I didn’t know any of that, other than the no attacks in the wild/24 in captivity statistic, and I only knew that from your Twitter. I am genuinely embarrassed that I didn’t realise orcas are dolphins.

    Kind of ironic, calling them “killer whales”, then selling them as cuddly toys. The whole thing smacks of fact taking a back seat to entertainment.

    • Matt says:

      Nothing to be embarrassed about….it’s not a piece of information that gets wildly disseminated, especially since the “killer whale” moniker seems to have stuck. And to be fair, they really don’t look like other dolphins.

      “Fact taking a back seat to entertainment” is pretty much SeaWorld’s M.O. And somewhere I still have one of those cuddly toys, too.

  25. Aaron Dietz says:

    Oh my goodness, this whole thing just really bugged me! (Understatement.)

    What a terrible event, and thanks for supporting the orca with your great write-up!

    There’s a battle looming about 300 years in the future that will force humans to deal with captivity in general, not of humans, anymore, but of animals, of interdependence, of communication with animals, and all that. Some zoos are already going forward with a lot of this stuff (yay!), but I think the issue still needs some massive proponents to join up before it becomes a mainstream thing. Thanks, Matt! This helps.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Aaron.

      If I recall correctly, the revolution will be lead by a talking chimp named Ceaser. Oh, wait…that’s Planet of the Apes.

  26. kristen says:

    Sensitive and humane, insightful, educational… Thanks for this, Matt.

    “It seems an inescapable part of the human condition that many of the wonders of our childhood turn to sadness as we slip into adulthood”: YES. Well-put.

    • Matt says:

      Well, my childhood, at least. The gaining of new information always seems to reveal unpleasant truths in things once thought innocent. However, greater understanding does seem open pathways to new sources of awe.

      And at least the dinosaurs will never let me down. But that’s because they’re all dead.

  27. Richard Cox says:

    I enjoyed this piece a lot, Matt. It was informative and well-written, and your feelings about zoos and animals in captivity are pretty similar to mine. The first time I went to a zoo was as an adult, and I was in awe of the animals. The lion roar in particular was chilling. But the next few times I went, I realized I was looking at a wild animal prison and I grew to dislike the whole idea.

    However, I’m also quite interested in what Becky wrote above about the tendency to assign human emotions/feelings to animals. As easy as it is to feel sorry for animals in captivity, we don’t really understand how Corky might feel being separated from her pod, do we? Clearly it seems there is an adverse effect, based on the behavior of animals in captivity compared to in the wild, but perhaps that’s more due to these animals being removed from the environments in which they have evolved to thrive? It would be interesting to understand more how they really “feel,” or if they “think” about their past, etc., but how to study anything of the sort without some sort of intrusion into their lives?

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what Becky wrote. To me her questions/thoughts are valid, even if they are more clinical than most of the comments you’ve received on this excellent post.

    • Matt says:

      Haven’t quite had the chance to give Becky’s comment(s) the proper, measured response they deserve—or that of the last few commenters as well, yourself included. Hope to whittle my way through my workload this morning and take care of that this afternoon.

      More to come.

  28. I’m pretty sure my parents took me to SeaWorld during an excursion to Florida my family did when I was three. I think I grew up with an inflatable Shamu for my backyard pool.

    Amazing how malleable and fleeting memory can be.

    Years later I went to a SeaWorld knock-off, hugged a sea lion, all that.

    What strikes me nowadays about such places is our hubris. We didn’t, as Vonnegut said, simply inherit a lush, beautiful world and gobble it all up; we also made a prisoner of nature, as though it were here for our amusement.

    I, for one, hope I’m not around when Nature turns around and makes the world its bitch again. That is going to be one giant shitstorm I hope I don’t last to see. Then again, I think most every generation has figured they wouldn’t last to see it.

    • Er. Forgot to note how much I liked this, Matt. I know how difficult these sorts of posts can be, striking the right tone and all; I’ve abandoned a fair number because I got most way through and just couldn’t pull it off, boring even myself. Thoughtful and interesting, with a great balance of information and anecdote. Well done.

      • Matt says:

        Thanks, Will. I think I can attribute any sort of narrative cohesion in this thing how intensely angry I was at all of the chowderhead “duh–KILLER whales!” commentary I heard when this first happened.

        The thing that struck me as odd about SeaWorld SD when I went back as an adult was how so many of the animals on display were indiginous to coastal California: sea lions, sea otters, bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoises. All animals I can go see, right now, on one snorkeling trip. Even stranger considering SeaWorld SD actually sits right on the bay.

  29. Autumn says:

    Applause. This was beautiful, insightful, and provocative both intellectually and emotionally.

    It annoyed the piss out of me when people responded to the recent attack with, “They’re killers. They are called *killer* whales.” As I understand it, they’re called that because people saw orcas hunt other “whales.” In any event, its not like getting into a tank with a Great White shark or a saltwater crocodile. The killer had nothing to do with us, until we started kidnapping them, confining them, force-breeding them, and generally treating them like really big circus dogs.

    I’m not categorically anti-zoo, but I have seen a lot of zoos that sacrifice an animal’s true nature in order to get it in front of a crowd.

    The one zoo memory I will never, ever shake: I’d spent the day at the zoo with my wonderful, Native American writing teacher (who protested the field trip) and we’d both already shed tears for the bison in a space as big as a suburban backyard, the macaws in cages, the Florida panthers with their backs turned to the crowds, and the bored orangutan, watching us watching him.
    They had a red wolf alone in a paddock. Just as we walked past, the wolf let out a long, mournful howl. It broke my heart to hear such sadness, such loneliness. I titled my story, “Caged Rainbows” and never went back to that zoo. (**Though I hear that in recent years they’ve redesigned and redeveloped it, so maybe its better than it used to be.)

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Autumn.

      Out of curiousity, which zoo was this?

      That wolf anecdote (so sad) reminds me of something. The zoo here as a wolf that was rescued from the wild as an orphaned cub after it’s mother was killed. They didn’t have any other wolves to help raise it and socialize it, so they tried raising it as littermates with a golden retriever puppy–which worked swimmingly. The two are often on display as “brothers,” and serve as animal embassadors for education events.

      • Autumn says:

        What a wonderful solution! We have so many wolf-hybrids in Florida (because people make bad decisions about pets down there all the damn time), I would have suspected them to try one of them as a companion. But no, the poor little guy was all alone.

        Let’s say it was a zoo in Tampa, and it was not Busch Gardens. I’d rather not slander them outright, since I know they’ve worked hard to be a better home for their animals.

        • Matt says:

          Florida?! Make bad decisions about pets?! No way! You’re off your rocker, red!

          Uhhh…what’s that Burmese python doing to that alligator?

  30. Zoe Brock says:

    Friends of mine made The Cove, which won the Oscar last night for best Doc. they are extremely proactive anti-Seaworld activists. I urge everyone to see the documentary and learn about how most mammals in captivity come to be there.

    • Matt says:

      Highly agreed. Fabulous, heart-wrenching film. And it will really piss you off towards Japan.

    • You know, one of my favorite things about Zoe Brock (for there are many) is that she is one of the very, very few people in the world who can pull off a sentence like “Friends of mine made The Cove, which won the Oscar last night for best Doc.”

      I mean, anyone else, and I think we all know we wouldn’t love the person saying it like we love Zoe Brock.

  31. Slade Ham says:

    I have a fascination with animals. I’m by no means an activist though. Only recently have I come to terms with the fact that, while I really enjoy seeing wild animals up close, the repercussions to the animals are hardly worth it.

    This killer whale killing another human is no more shocking to me than any of the other wild animals attacks that have occurred in captivity – from the Berlin polar bear, to the panda, to the tiger that ate the kid throwing rocks. That’s what animals do, but the stress of captivity amplifies those tendencies.

    I’m sad for the trainer, but not for the heat Sea World has taken over this.

    • Matt says:

      As I age, I find myself gradually, but with increasing speed, slipping down the slope from animal admirer towards animal activist. Doubt I’ll go the full PETA route, though. Firstly, I can’t stand the woman who founded PETA, and think they’re ridiculously hypocritical for maintaining kill shelters while they parade themselves as the spearhead in the animal-rights movement.

      Also, I eat meat and wear leather, and I enjoy doing so, though I’ve been adjusting the ratio of vegetable-to-meat in my diet more towards the latter. I just make sure to make my purchases from shops and suppliers that practice humane methods for raising and procuring the meat & hides.

      • Slade Ham says:

        The PETA people frustrate me too. They also miss with their ads. Showing me hot women threatening to stay naked is not the way to get me to eschew leather or fur.

        As for the animals, I just try to do my part in making sure I don’t cause any suffering. I’m admittedly hypocritical though, in that when it comes to meat and clothing, I am very “out of sight, out of mind” about the whole thing. I’m growing out of that though.

        • Matt says:

          Oh, I don’t mind those ads. I’d show up for PETA fundraisers if some of those women–dressed as they are for the ads–turned up as well.

          I made a decision a few years ago to start doing more research on where the food/clothing I’m buying is coming from. For example, if I find a cattle outfit that a.) feeds their stock on grass instead of corn; b.) doesn’t practice the “factory farming” slaughterhouse method; and c.) makes sure both the meat and the hides are used, I’ll seek out shops that use them as a supplier. Admittedly, living in southern California makes that easier.

        • Slade Ham says:

          Yeah, much easier. In Texas, they’ll kill it with a hammer in front of you, and then use none of it.

        • Matt says:

          I give it about ten years, max, before Texas has “pick and shoot your own!” steak houses.

        • Slade Ham says:

          I’m surprised we don’t already. Or at least seafood places where you catch your own fish. I see a business model developing :)

  32. James D. Irwin says:

    Ridiculously good post man.

    Not a fan of the whole animals-as-entertainment thing.

    I mean I’ll happily laugh at a dog chasing it’s own tail or a cat being spooked by it’s reflection, but I wouldn’t stick ‘em in a cage and make them do it at regular intervals for a paying crowd.

    I certainly wouldn’t do that too a giant bloody whale…

    • Matt says:

      Being as you’re just a wee Englishman, I have difficulty imagining you to coercing a whale into doing anything at all. “Leap, Shamu, leap! Close your eyes, flap your flukes, and think of England! No! Over here! OVER HERE!!! Bloody porpoise.

      ,,,eh, sod it. Let’s off down to the pub, then.”

      (Thanks!)

  33. Alison Aucoin says:

    I lived on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State for several summer before and during grad school. I went whale watching a number of times but never saw one up close. Just fins off in the distance.

    Then in August of 1996 I was on the ferry to the mainland moving back to NOLA for the school year. The ferry ride back to “America” at the end of the summer was always so sad but I made myself feel better by thinking about how I’d be back in just nine months. Then, as I stood on the deck, I saw a pod of orcas in front of the ferry. It was like they were leading us east. They jumped crazy high and did all sort of tricks. I, and everyone else on the ferry, got super excited. And then I felt something in the pit of my stomach. Maybe somehow they were saying goodbye. I had no idea, but it was the end of an era. I never lived there again.

    • Matt says:

      Wow. That’s both beautiful and sad.

      And it’s entirely possible those orcas WERE saying “goodbye.” They’re smart, and they figure things out; it’s entirely within reason that they had learned to associate that ferry with human arrivals & departures on the island.

      During some of my search, I came upon several accounts from different sources about a pod of resident orcas up in Alaska who would approach human fishermen in shallow, rocky shoals and present their tongues for scratching (this is the orca version of scratching a dog behind the ears). When people weren’t around, they were seen licking the rocks to get the same effect.

  34. Joe Daly says:

    Wow.

    This is awesome. Fact-intensive, yet eminently readable, this piece should be distributed throughout classrooms all over the world. Thanks for taking the time to write such a sensitive, informative, and empathetic piece in which you don’t just point out problems but suggest solutions. Bravo.

    One thing I kept thinking while reading is that prison is a condition so detestable that we subject criminals to it in with the expectation that it will so dishearten them that they experience a complete change in their world view (which we’ve also seen, is not the case). Nonetheless, there is an even harsher measure of additional punishment, reserved for crimes committed between criminals- solitary confinement. As a society, short of execution, we therefore decree this to be the worst condition a human could endure. Yet for the sale of stuffed orcas, we subject emotionally and intellectually complex creatures to this every day in parks all around the world.

    Thanks for this remarkable piece of writing.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Joe.

      It’s funny you mention prison. As I was researching this, I was struck by how similar the behavioral pathologies captive orcas manifest are to those displayed by humans who’ve been incarcerated. Captive orcas form “gangs” that bully and dominate other, weaker ones; they self-mutlilate (by rubbing against and/or ramming the sides of their enclosure), their personalities and temperments become more aggressive, and hostile. It’s really difficult to look as this information and think, “Wow, SeaWorld’s really doing some good.”

  35. Great piece, Matt. I think my favorite of yours.

    I agree with Greg that Tillikum and Montecore should have a support group.
    Actually, Tillikum is probably a bit of a hero to his peers because this has certainly raised awareness.
    These animals are slaves being forced to perform. Free them! Let them go! It’s demeaning – these tricks they have to do. I always felt sorry for the animals at the zoo – I remember a cheetah just pacing back and forth – looked like he was going insane and he probably was. All so I could see a cheetah through glass.

    Our kids are a bit young and we have only brought them to some small aquariums and farms in our area. But they have the sense to ask why a shark is in a glass tank; “Why is it there? I thought
    you said I don’t have to ever be afraid of sharks because they live in the far away deep ocean.” Luckily we live in an area with some pretty great animal sanctuaries and farms that can teach our kids about our furry and feathered friends in a humane way. And if the only whale they ever get to see is on a whale watch, great! Have you ever been on one? They’re pretty awesome. Though you could wait all day and not see one. But it’s all the more special when one appears – because it’s special – it should be hard to see – you should have to work for it.

    • Gak!! – typos – sorry.

      • As Greg would say, “Typos? What typos?”

        I have indeed been whale watching. Gray Whales migrate south along the California coast every winter, and I make it a point to go out and see them. There’s usually a lot of dolphins out there, too, and -once-at least one orca, that was following the grays. And at least once per summer, I have a run-in with some dolphins while out surfing or boogie boarding.

        Actually, I nearly forgot! While on my way to work last Thursday (and while I was still mulling this post) I happened to look out over the Pacific, and by pure happenstance spotted a breaching whale. Probably a straggler, running late on his way south.

  36. Mary says:

    So, I read this the other day and didn’t comment on it right away, but I felt a little guilty b/c I re-tweeted that thing from Warren Ellis. There I go, spreading that nasty stereotype about “killer whales.” But really, what it comes down to for me is that humans are awfully stupid to believe an animal as large and powerful as that should be kept in captivity and forced to perform tricks just to get a snack a few times a day. I do think there is a roll for zoos in the preservation of endangered species and in educating people about nature, but things like this really are heartbreaking. Nonetheless, you did a really nice job with this piece. High five!

    • Matt says:

      I agree re: zoos, and that gets right to my point: SeaWorld, for all it’s PR and marketing, isn’t a zoo at all. It’s closest comparison, at least in terms of the marine mammal shoes (I’ll admit, their aquariums are stellar) is a circus.

      I cut Warren some slack. He’s a good writer (though I think his work has been on a downslope for the last few years), but he spends his days chugging Redbull and smoking cigarettes and hates dogs. Not someone I expect to be terribly well-informed about the animal kingdom.

  37. [...] Killer whales! [...]

  38. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this well-written piece, for the link to the Nat Geo article, and the company you keep.

  39. An old friend of mine told me a story about fifteen years ago. He was diving at a shipwreck off the coast of Alaska and swimming in a school of salmon when suddenly he saw the school part like the Red Sea. He said he swam up against the shipwreck, terrified, only to see a killer whale dart into the school and gobble fish. He said it was a giant fast-moving shadow, though he made out its markings.

    While he was scared, he realized he could have been eaten, but wasn’t. Because as you say, people aren’t killer whale food.

    This is an awesome educational article.

    • Matt says:

      Damn, that’s a great story. And even knowing that orcas don’t prey on humans (and the fish-eating ones don’t even attack other mammals) it’d probably still be scary to be in the water with one, just because they’re so damn big.

  40. bull says:

    No true there have been 2 seperate occasion in the wild where orcas have attacked.,. you dont like seaworld dont go, no one told you to pay to watch the animals. I like the place.. fuck you writer.

  41. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thank you, Matt.

    Perhaps some people who read this piece–including those who vehemently disagree–will consider that there are other ways to learn about animals, ones that respect them and their own unique world that’s entwined with the humans.

    The other night, I caught a snippet of a writer’s interview for his new book. He talked about 11 wild elephants being taken from their home and brought to a zoo. In a giant freight airplane. Years ago, I might have listened with curiosity. Instead, I turned it off, sad and horrified. My thoughts and feelings about animals have shifted so much. Elephants, too, live in families. Why is it so impossible to consider that they’d all grieve the separation–just like humans do? (You touched the edge of that point when you mentioned what a kidnapped human would do.) That’s not anthropomorphic–it’s recognizing the complexity and dignity of the creatures who share our Earth.

  42. [...] of San Diego.  Recovering Sea World enthusiast.   Dime [...]

  43. streetfighting uncaged bonus…

    The Nervous Breakdown…

  44. kladionica says:

    I am no longer positive the place you’re getting your info, but good topic. I must spend a while finding out much more or figuring out more. Thanks for excellent information I used to be searching for this info for my mission.

  45. Nikon S4000 Review…

    [...]Matthew Baldwin | Shamu Killed My Childhood | The Nervous Breakdown[...]…

  46. nicola cleverley says:

    tilikum is truly a gift from heaven, and should be treated with the respect he deserves, it breaks my heart to see him and all the other beautiful orcas in captivity, lets not forget hugo who was in the smallest pool ever! when you fed him his belly was resting on the bottom, you can see the pool on u tube, he entertained people for 10 years but he died from a brain haemorrage due to bashing his head against the walls and he took the top of his nose of when he smashed his face against the glass, when he died he was picked up by a crane and put on a rubbish dump, there are no plaques or statues for all the shows he done, its as if he was never there or was never alive, he was so beautiful, R.I.P HUGO.

  47. Hello! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any problems
    with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing several weeks of hard work due to no data backup.
    Do you have any solutions to protect against hackers?

  48. jewels says:

    Great article Matt.
    My only difference is regarding zoos. Elephants have complex social interactions and large families; they are touching each other constantly. Living alone at a zoo (as many elephants do even though it’s against the animal welfare act – Lucy, Tania, Mali…) is cruel. Elephants need to roam about 40-50 miles per day to keep foot disease at bay and many in captivity die because of this.
    To take an elephant out of the wild is inherently violent, as it is for all wild aniimals. Elephants are traditionally tied up and beaten for days-weeks to ‘crush’ their spirit.
    A zoo may be better than a circus but they are still handled with bullhooks and suffer.
    As for the treatment of elephants in San Diego, Dunda the elephant was beaten repeatedly for several days by 5 keepers with axe handles as punishment in 1988.
    I have seen the pictures of Dunda’s horrific scars.

    From the LA times July 1988:
    “Announcing the results of a six-week investigation by the San Diego Humane Society for his office, City Atty. John W. Witt said the “discipline” administered to Dunda by five elephant keepers at the park “involved chaining her four feet, hauling her down to her knees and repeatedly smacking her on the top of the head, where the skull is thick, with ax handles and the wooden end of elephant hooks”–baton-like instruments with metal hooks at one end…
    Alan Roocroft, supervisor in charge of elephants at the Wild Animal Park and one of those who participated in the discipline of Dunda, said Thursday that the incident had been blown out of proportion and that elephants have always received “a high standard of care.”

    However, the decision drew immediate criticism from state Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose), chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, who said he was “disappointed that they didn’t take the responsibility to take the investigation a little more seriously than they did.”

    McCorquodale said he will hold a public hearing on the issue in San Diego on July 29.

    The elephant keepers at the San Diego Zoo, whose complaints brought the controversy to public attention, said Thursday they were angered by the results of the inquiry.

    “If people are willing to accept this whole episode as being OK, then they need to see exactly what it is they are defending,” said Lisa Landres, an elephant keeper at the zoo. “If people could see the brutality involved, it would make them vomit. They would never tolerate it. No matter what this elephant did there is no justification for what was done to her.”…

    The controversy began last February when Dunda, an 18-year-old African elephant who lived most of her life at the San Diego Zoo, was transferred to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, on the northeastern edge of San Diego, near Escondido. The zoo and the park are operated by the Zoological Society of San Diego.

    Keepers at the zoo contend that Dunda, always a nervous animal, was transferred without proper preparation, including giving her time before the move to adjust to her crate and meet her new keepers while still on familiar turf.

    Once at the Wild Animal Park, Dunda was repeatedly beaten over several days by elephant keepers there, zoo workers said. Ragged pieces of hide are still visible on Dunda’s head.

    Witt said Thursday that the Humane Society’s review of the incident showed that it was “far less serious than at first thought and arose from a legitimate need to discipline and train a dangerous, four-ton elephant.”

    The chaining and beating technique is used by “reputable animal facilities around the country to establish dominance over the animal,” Witt said. That conclusion was based on interviews with two elephant keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo and a keeper at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, according to Larry Boersma, a spokesman for the Humane Society. He declined to name the keepers.

    McCorquodale said Thursday that based on his staff’s research, he disagrees with the Humane Society’s assessment. “We talked to a lot of zoos around the country and we find almost nobody willing to admit that they beat their elephants to discipline them,” he said. Witt acknowledged that the discipline administered to Dunda was “unpleasant for trainer and elephant alike” and said some keepers involved “reported feelings of nausea and sleeplessness as a result of their participation.”

  49. To blame SeaWorld alone for its brutal and abusive treatment of captive mammals is leaving out the main culprit……the US Government which permits it, and the heartless and cruel public which support this horrendously abusive industry.

    The US Government which has passed laws to protect marine life, especially endangered species, continuously permits marine parks to display marine mammals, most in violation of its own laws. If it wasn’t for the US Government permitting these hell holes, they would not exist.

    If the public was not brainwashed to support this industry of misery and death, it would not exist. So we must work towards shutting down these facilities, and keep spreading the word about its ugly truths.

Leave a Reply