Justifiable homicide or just a ‘neurotic’ captive?

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Perhaps you’ve heard about Tilikum’s murder indictment? If I were defending him, I would outline a defense of justifiable homicide and argue for release from captivity.

Tilikum is a 12,000-pound orca (killer whale) who is currently in confinement at SeaWorld in Orlando, swimming laps in small pools and performing tricks for humans in exchange for seafood treats. On Wednesday, Tilikum grabbed SeaWorld employee Dawn Brancheau, 40, by the ponytail and pulled her underwater at Shamu Stadium. Brancheau died from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning,” according to CNN’s source, the Orange County Sheriff’s office.

Tilikum has been linked to two prior homicides – a trainer at a Victoria, British Columbia, marine park in 1991, and a man in 1999 who “was the apparent victim of Tilikum’s horseplay” at SeaWorld.

An orca can travel easily 100 nautical miles every day, and to put them in a pool where they swim around in circles continually, and kept away from their families, “takes a toll on their brains,” said Jim Borrowman, who has worked with whales for 30 years and runs Stubbs Island Whale Watching on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

“‘Neurotic’ is the word that we’ve used, and I sense that that’s probably what’s happening,” he said. “Perhaps that’s what drives some of these issues.”

According to the CNN report, orcas are dangerous in captivity because of their massive size. Spectators at the scene of the Brancheau murder say the whales were not behaving – that “they weren’t following instructions,” Lori Miller, SeaWorld visitor, said.

“It’s probably reasonable to suspect that something going on amongst the whales themselves may have triggered the frustration,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, who worked at SeaWorld for 8 years and had been a senior trainer there, on the same level as Brancheau. But, he added, it is “impossible to speculate what triggered the aggression.”

“The SeaWorld system is the best of all seaquaria in the world, but if I was an orca, that would be the last place I’d want to live,” he said. “They are in what is essentially an acoustically dead cement pond, compared to the vibrancy of the ocean.”

There you have it. What more needs to be said? This is clearly a case in which an innocent being was captured off the coast of Iceland in November 1983. The inmate has been moved from site to site while being held in captivity against his will – in an environment that totally isolates him from his family and community. It prevents the inmate from moving around comfortably and following innate migrational patterns as the seasons change each year. It would be the same as a species with a higher intelligence than humans capturing a man living in isolation in Alaska and putting him in a secluded cell for the rest of his life, occassionally coercing him with procreative drugs to breed with other captive female humans and, on the hour, opening up a screen so the paying public could watch him do sit-ups or random IQ tests in exchange for hamburgers.

The CNN report cites authorities who question the value of releasing all killer whales into the wild. They say the once-captive killer whales may kill humans in kayaks, or not survive in the wild. And meanwhile, they still have to find a safe way to feed the captive Tilikum 300 pounds of fish each day, administer medication “and perform other daily tasks with the animal.”

Tilikum is also part of an artificial insemination program, which means someone has to roll him over and extract sperm from him.

My reading of this case leads me to the only conscious decision of releasing all whales and dolphins – and perhaps other species – from human captivity. Let the sea aquariums go out of business and let marine life rejoin their families and communities. Past experience has proven that humans are not the most advanced beings on the planet:

Annette Eckis Godsey, the victim of a 1972 incident, had to have 200 stitches from the waist down when a killer whale attacked her at the aquarium where she worked, she said on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” She said she didn’t know why it happened, but “heard later that no one had ever ridden the whale without a wet suit, and no women had ever ridden the whale.”

Arguments will be made that we’re only dealing with a “stupid animal,” and that saving human life should be at the forefront of concern. I beg to differ. Whales have more complex brains compared to humans, with an additional fourth lobe compared to three in all other mammals, and humans don’t even know what that fourth lobe does. Whales also are highly social beings with the ability to communicate with each over vast distances of ocean. Scientists say they can solve problems and use tools, exhibit joy and grief, and they live in complex societies.

And one more testimonial: Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society notes, “I happen to measure intelligence by the ability to live in harmony with the natural world. By this criteria, whales are far more intelligent than we are.”


Read actor and producer Fisher Stevens’ perspective here

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The kidnapping and captivity (as well as, consumption) of animals for human’s selfish entertainment purposes is atrocious! I hope society will eventually evolve from these barbaric practices as we move toward enlightenment.

  2. There is another side to this – while I mostly agree with the writers point of view, I would like to share my experience.

    There is a nearby aquarium, not as big as SeaWorld, and it doesn’t house whales. They keep dolphins and other animals. The dolphins truly seem happy to do the shows – are kept in groups in large tanks. Some have medical issues and simply would not make it in the wild.

    This facility does a lot of good, cares for a lot of animals with issues – and releases most once they are well enough. The dolphin shows help pay for all the other good work they do. I’m not saying one animal is worth more than another, but if they appear happy, healthy, and socialized why shouldn’t I support a company that routinely saves needy sealife?

    I do believe all animals should be treated with respect, and all their needs so be taken into consideration. Social animals are meant to be social, and when they are isolated, it is hurtful to their mental state.

    A better balance needs to be achieved at locations like SeaWorld – and everyone, including the animals will benefit. Please continue to support zoos and the like that are in it for the right reasons. With the economy less than perfect we all are tightening our purse strings, and that can lead to closures and displaced animals.

    My heart goes out to those that lost loves ones.

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