The recent death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau has focused attention once again on the issue of whales in captivity.
Many Washington residents don’t know the happy ending to the tragic story of whaling captures in Puget Sound that once netted dozens of whales for SeaWorld performances.
It was the intervention of former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, then aide to Republican Gov. Dan Evans, that helped put a stop to the brutal captures that split apart whale families and pods and resulted in the collateral damage deaths of dozens of marine animals. Munro witnessed one of the captures in which aircraft and explosives were used, and subsequently filed a lawsuit that led to an agreement with SeaWorld to stay out of Puget Sound. That was in 1976, after the Budd Inlet whale capture that same year when six whales were taken captive.
Writing just a few months ago in the Olympian, columnist John Dodge, who was also on hand that day, described the experience:
The Munros were in their sailboat that day. They watched the violent whale capture and heard the whales inside and outside the nets, crying to one another in their little-understood language.
I was on the shoreline, a (Evergreen State College) student, working as a reporter for the Cooper Point Journal, and was struck deeply by those same eerie cries. Those sounds are etched in my memory and the Munros’ memories forever.
“When we went sailing and saw this accidentally, it changed our lives,” Munro said.
It turned out to be the last whale capture in the United States, the result of lawsuits and public pressure championed at the time by Munro, his boss, Gov. Dan Evans, state Attorney General Slade Gorton and others in the small whale-conservation camp.
Capturing orcas for human entertainment began in the Pacific Northwest. Many people know the story of Ted Griffin who started what led to the SeaWorld whale performance extravaganza when he bought a whale captured inadvertently by fishermen near Namu, British Columbia, for $8,000, and shipped it back to Seattle in a floating pen. Some months later he captured a female he named Shamu in Puget Sound waters. The two performed together in the Seattle Aquarium until Namu died of an infection caught in his pen not many months after his capture. Griffin continued to capture and sell whales to SeaWorld and other aquariums until 1972. Testimony to the intelligence and “personality” of whales, Griffin developed a strong bond with Namu and said in interviews although he tried, he never again was able to develop the same relationship he developed with Namu. Shamu and Namu are now trademarked names for SeaWorld whales.
After folks like Munro bore witness to the horrors of the captures, Washington was the first state to ban SeaWorld from its waters. SeaWorld later turned to Finland and other countries, and now says it breeds its whales. It currently has 20 orcas in three parks.
Performing, captive whale and dolphin shows are a brutal business masked by a carnival atmosphere, sunny skies, blue pools, happy tourists and smiling, attractive handlers. The death of Dawn Brancheau was a loss, and senseless. But it shows us that orca whales do not below in captivity. They are not show animals to be rounded up, separated from their wild places and their clans. They cannot be domesticated into pens, large to us but tiny to animals that can travel 50 to 100 miles per day.
These behemoths are denied all of their natural, instinctual inclinations, and we humans tend to think, ‘Well, this is just a bad animal.’ But it is a wild animal, used to running free in an entire ocean, but now confined to a very small space,” Joyce Tischler, founder of and general counsel for Animal Legal Defense Fund, told the Christian Science Monitor. She compares an orca’s life in captivity in a tank to keeping a human being in a bathtub for his entire life. She says most Americans have romanticized notions of sea life perpetuated by such TV series as “Flipper.” But even dolphins are known to aggressively run their teeth down the backs of humans in hundreds of incidents that are not reported outside the conservation community press, she says.
Tilikum, 12,300-pound whale that killed Brancheau, had already been involved in the deaths of two others. He was a “transient” whale, meaning he did not belong to a pod, captured roaming independently off the coast of Finland. Transient whales are more aggressive because they don’t belong to pods and have established no territories. These are traits that don’t go away, say dolphin trainers like Russ Rector, quoted recently in Time Magazine. They don’t strike out of vengeance, of course. But they are wild animals, not show dogs. We can’t control them, and it’s folly to think we can make them into something they are not.