Captain’s Blog

3 Killer Whales Who Had An Unfortunate Brush With Fame in Captivity

May 12, 2016

Do you remember going to the circus when you were a kid and staring in wonder at the amazing tricks being pulled off by animal and human alike? Seriously, how is that bear balancing his unicycle on that giant beach ball? OMG look at that elephant standing on his hind legs like a person! Oh look, there’s a trainer sticking his head in that lion’s mouth!

Nothing could possibly go wrong here, right?

Well, one doesn’t have to search long to find examples of horrible circus disasters involving elephants or lions or people. (Please, I’m only linking to those pages to prove a point, don’t watch the videos.)

It’s sad when animals become famous for the wrong reasons, but it’s a reality that’s had its share of time in the spotlight when it comes to famous killer whales in captivity. Most experts agree that killer whales have never attacked a human being in the wild, but when it comes to orcas in captivity, sometimes it’s impossible to hide from the fame.

1. Tilikum

He wasn’t the first famous killer whale in captivity, but he’s certainly hogging the spotlight right now for all the wrong reasons. On February 24th, 2010 a killer whale held in captivity in San Diego’s SeaWorld named Tilikum clamped down onto his trainer Dawn Brancheau and refused to let go as he dove underwater. This was the third aquarium death involving a human being in which Tilikum had been involved. Tilikum’s allegedly premeditated attack on Brancheau has sparked worldwide controversy regarding the sense of keeping naturally predatory animals this large in captivity.

Also, Tilikum is still at SeaWorld and he isn’t doing so well.

2. Kasatka

In the wild, killer whales have earned their name for a reason: they hunt large prey to feed massive family units like Victoria’s J-Pod. For a human being accustomed to receiving their food without having to track, deceive, and, ultimately, take its life, it can be difficult to watch a killer whale hunt in action. That’s why it was so disturbing when a killer whale named Kasatka took hold of his trainer’s foot and pulled him around in circles underwater in 2006. There’s no way to know if Kasatka was hunting or merely sending a message. The trainer, Ken Peters, was ultimately let go, but not before a shocking video of the incident was captured, forever immortalizing Kasatka for all the wrong reasons.

3. Corky

The research for this post has been difficult for so many reasons, which is why I was initially excited when I discovered a female orca named Corky from good old British Columbia being held at SeaWorld. She was originally brought to Marineland in Los Angeles where she became the first killer whale in captivity to give birth on February 28th, 1977.

Corky’s calf died eighteen days later.

Corky gave birth six times at Marineland, but the longest a calf survived was 18 days. There are several theories about the reasons behind the young orcas’ deaths, one being that Corky was captured at an age too young to have properly learned how to care for her offspring. The small circular pools at Marineland have also been blamed. Corky was eventually moved to SeaWorld in San Diego where she suffered a miscarriage.

We might never fully understand why Tilikum and Kasatka attacked their trainers. We can learn from Corky’s tragic story simply by realizing that orca whales have basic needs just like a human being that aren’t met in captivity. While we’d love to completely understand their hunting and birthing habits, some behaviours are clearly better left in the wide open ocean where they can occur naturally.

For orca whales, the intrusively bright lights of fame simply aren’t all their cracked up to be.

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