Baby Orca Born into Troubled ‘Family’ at SeaWorld

SeaWorld San Diego is celebrating the birth of a baby killer whale on this Valentine’s Day, backstage at Shamu Stadium. But not everyone is delighted with the news.

Anti-captivity activists say the newborn has a hard life ahead, in a grotesquely unnatural world.

The calf was delivered early Thursday morning by Kasatka, a 37-year-old female yanked from Icelandic waters in 1978. He or she will grow up in an artificial pod of dysfunctional orcas, many of them with long histories of aggression, abnormal behavior, self-injury, and serious attacks on each other – and humans.

Kasatka herself is one of the most notorious orcas in SeaWorld’s collection, and made worldwide headlines last July when I released this video of her attacking trainer Ken Peters in San Diego in 2006. It was far from her first incident, and trainers have been barred from entering the water with her ever since.

Kasatka has gone on the rampage several times. In most, if not all of the incidents, her calf was calling to her from a back pool during training or a performance. Like any human mother would, she becomes extremely agitated when not able to comfort her own crying child.

As I wrote in Death at SeaWorld:

Kasatka was not an easy animal to work with. To begin with, she was fiercely protective of her calf, Takara. Sometimes when Takara called for her mother, Kasatka would split from the trainer’s control to spend time with her calf at the gate, or swim in angry circles around the pool until finally responding to a call-back signal to the stage. Kasatka grew more aggressive with trainers in the water after Takara was born.

Kasatka was also aggressive toward subdominant whales, especially the males, whom she would rake repeatedly or even bite with her teeth. Her aggressive tendencies became more pronounced when social conflicts erupted among other whales, or when trainers had her switch behaviors with little or no positive reinforcement. Kasatka had racked up a long rap sheet In addition to minor foot-mouthing incidents, she had jaw popped (snapped on) a trainer’s foot and whacked a trainer in the back with her fluke. In April of 1993, Kasatka had progressed to mouthing the legs of a trainer. Three months later, she grabbed a trainer by the knee and dunked him under water, and then grabbed a foot and dunked him a second time.

Then, in June, 1999 Ken Peters was doing the Shamu show with Kasatka and her calf Takara in the main pool. Takara unexpectedly split to a back tank. Kasatka left Peters in the water and began circling the perimeter at high speeds – a known sign of frustration and a precursor to aggression. She opened her jaws wide, moved in to grab Peters’ legs and tried to throw him from the pool. He was pulled from the water before she could reach him.

In 2006, Kasatka turned on Peters, now for the third time, nearly killing him. During that incident, her calf Kalia was calling for her from backstage, right in the middle of a show.

Kasatka is a good mother, but she can’t always protect her offspring at SeaWorld. Her son Nakai, born in captivity in 2001, received a horrific gash on his chin last year that kept him out of performances until very recently. SeaWorld said Nakai injured himself on something “in the pool area,” though some experts speculated he was attacked by other orcas in the tank, a charge refuted by federal inspectors.

Nakai’s father, incidentally, is Tilikum, the 12,000 pound bull responsible for three human deaths, including Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Tilikum also sired Nakai’s half-brother, Ikaika, who recently returned to San Diego after a misbegotten “breeding loan” exchange with Marineland Ontario. SeaWorld successfully sued to get “Ike” back from Canada, claiming that inadequate conditions at Marineland were failing to “ensure his ongoing physical and psychological health.”

Then there is Orkid, said to be the ruling matriarch of this bizarre little society. Orkid is smart, somewhat neurotic, and can become very aggressive. It’s not hard to figure out why. Her life has been anything but normal.

Orkid was born during a Shamu Show, in front of thousands of camera-toting tourists, in San Diego in September, 1988. Her mother was Kandu and her father was Orky II.

Orkid’s father died in misery from pneumonia and wasting just three days later. Ten months after that, Orkid saw her mother Kandu meet her own gruesome demise. It took place in August, 1989, again in front of thousands of fans in San Diego. It involved Corky II and Kandu (In 1987 witnesses reported that Kandu violently collided into Corky, leaving a three-foot-gash along Corky’s stomach.). As I wrote:

Kandu had been resting in a back pool with her one-year-old calf Orkid, along with Corky. Corky had shown intense interest in the calf, something that agitated Kandu intensely. Kandu slammed her head into Corky, severing a major artery in her upper jaw. Blood flooded the back pool and a 10-foot geyser of crimson spouted from Kandu’s blowhole. Over the next 45 minutes Kandu bled to death as SeaWorld staff and the audience looked on in helpless distress. Captivity opponents pointed out how stressful and unnatural it was for orcas to be confined to a tank with other whales with whom they shared nothing in common. Captive whales fought so violently because they had no place to run.

The orphaned Orkid was raised by humans, and two surrogate mothers, Corky and the erratic Kasatka. She also formed a tight bond with another male about her age named Splash. Splash was a preemie who developed acute epilepsy.  In 1995, Splash and Orkid were playing around when he suffered a serious seizure and slammed into a gate. Orkid and Kasatka kept him afloat until trainers could get him to the medical pool. His lower jaw was severely injured and infection set in. SeaWorld vets removed his lower teeth, leaving his mouth so deformed he could never fully close it again.

Then, in July 2002, Orkid and Slash dragged a female trainer into the water and roughed her up severely, fracturing her arm and leaving her hand a bloody mess. It was not Orkid’s first attack. Between 1990 and 2002, her profile listed 12 aggressive incidents: She head-butted a trainer’s head, bumped a trainer’s body, whacked several trainers with her fluke and rammed a number of thighs, all during water work. Several times she lunged from the water to go after people standing on the edge, pushing a trainer in the stomach, mouthing someone’s thigh, bumping a hip, and “jaw-popping” an arm.

Three years after attacking the trainer, Splash died of an acute infection in a back pool as Orkid looked on from an adjacent tank, along with another juvenile named Sumar. Sumar’s life had been no less abnormal than that of Splash and Orkid. He was born in 1998 at SeaWorld Orlando, the offspring of Taima and Tilikum. But Taima rejected and attacked him when he was just three months old and he was later shipped off to his new dysfunctional family in San Diego. Sumar died in 2010, just months after his own mother Taima, Tilikum’s closest companion, perished in Florida.

So you can see why not everyone is cheering this “miracle” of artificial insemination (sperm reportedly came from a captive bull in Argentina). Dr. Naomi Rose, Senior Scientist at Humane Society International and lead protagonist in my book, said that, despite Kasatka’s aggressive history, “she is also one of the best breeders SeaWorld has.”

Industry defenders contend that captive orcas have “somehow been domesticated,” Rose added. That requires selective breeding, but SeaWorld “is not actively choosing parents for characteristics – such as docility – that might fare better in captivity,” she said. “They’re breeding whales who produce viable offspring, even if those offspring go on to develop undesirable traits. That’s troubling.”

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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4 Responses to Baby Orca Born into Troubled ‘Family’ at SeaWorld

  1. Ivonne Teoh says:

    Thank you David for your important work to expose what is going on at SeaWorld. Together with the movie Blackfish, this could very well save more lives. If people like Dawn Brancheau knew the truth of Tilikum’s history, they would hesitate to get into the pool with him. Living for over 25 years in a small tank definitely changes any marine animal’s disposition, especially when you’re a Killer Whale. Sadly, Nellie dolphin at Marineland, celebrates her 61st birthday in Feb 2014. Lolita 44 years at Miami Seaquarium, Corky, Morgan… Winter [from Dolphin's Tale]… so many of them are waiting for their freedom. So many sad stories… I love happy endings, please let us continue to help them get their freedom!
    http://www.orca-zone.com/aboutorcas/corkysstory.html

  2. Anonymous says:

    How do we know that killer whales (or dolphins) are any more “happy” or less “miserable” in the wild? How do we know that these behaviours aren’t versions of play or mischief? The same kinds of things happen with our domesticated animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses snakes etc) but they are not large enough to cause as much damage as a whale, so they don’t get as much bad press. We seem to accept these incidents and just put blame “bad owners” and do not chastise the way we incarcerate our own pets. I’m not saying it’s safe to work in a pool with large wild animals .. working with ANY animal (wild or domesticated) has inherit dangers, period. I do however, believe that education is important and most parks are very disciplined in their care & welfare of animals.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Only a handful of existing killer whales today were caught intentionally. Most were inadvertantly caught and the current theme park whale population have mostly been bred in captivity. If anyone thinks that these whales could be released into the wild, they’re out of their minds. They would not have the skills or experience to survive (not to mention health care) and they would have a difficult if not impossible time trying to socialize or fit in with an existing wild herd. You most certainly would be sending this animal to its own miserable death. As evidenced by a dolphin release done in the Keys in the 90′s. The 2 dolphins died within 2 weeks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As a previous employee of Sea World in the education department, I can tell you that 95% of people I spoke to were completely clueless about marine animals. I enjoyed educated them but was amazed at the ignorance of these guests who I realized were people who could be running our government or fixing the brakes on my car… kind of scarey! We would compare stupid questions with each other at the end of the day… one question was more ridiculous than the next. Like.. how often do you paint the killer whales? Yes, I was asked that question and they were serious!! I asked why they would think that and they said because all whales are grey. Really. One mother of a 3 yr old asked me if dolphins ate chocolate chip cookies. Wow! I wanted to tell her that there were no chocolate chip cookie beds out in the ocean but didn’t want to be rude. The bottom line is I do not think these animals are being treated cruelly but there needs to be better policies and precautions in place to protect trainers.

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