>>Stress drives orcas to kill trainers, according to research
By JONATHAN LEAKE from the Sunday Timeshttp://bit.ly/17d0oSc
REMARKABLE killer whale displays attract tens of thousands of tourists to marine parks across North America and southern Europe.
But, according to research, the spectacles mask the grim secret that the animals have killed four people and tried to kill or injure dozens more in recent years.
New research lends weight to claims that the huge predatory mammals are so traumatised by years spent in tiny pools, rather than roaming the ocean, that they turn on their human captors.
One animal, called Tilikum, has killed two of his trainers and a man who broke into his enclosure at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, to swim in his pool.
Another, called Kasatka, pulled a trainer underwater at SeaWorld's San Diego marine park, and held him there until he almost drowned.
Similar incidents have happened in Europe with a trainer rammed and killed by Keto, a killer whale at Loro Parque in Tenerife, one of two marine parks in Europe to hold the creatures. The other is Marineland in Antibes, France, where dangerous incidents, but no deaths, have been recorded.
“I spent two years tracking down all these incidents. There have been four deaths and many near misses and injuries, I suspect possibly hundreds - no-one likes to report them,” said Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the American director of Blackfish, a film screened last week at the Sheffield documentary film festival. “These are huge and highly intelligent animals. They should not be in captivity.”
Killer whales have been used for entertainment since the 1960s when it was realised they could be trained to perform tricks which, combined with their huge size, would attract millions of visitors.
They have since been used in dozens of marine parks including some in Britain such as Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire, where an Orca named Cuddles starred in the 1970s. Research by Cowperthwaite and Whale and Dolphin Conservation has shown, however, that Cuddles became so aggressive that his keepers had to clean the pool from the protection of a shark cage.
Britain has since banned zoos from keeping whales and dolphins but around the world there are still 44 in captivity. SeaWorld has the most with killer whales at three of its parks in San Antonio, Texas, San Diego in California and Orlando.
David Kirby, whose recent book Death at SeaWorld traces the history of killer whales in captivity, found that Tilikum was captured off Iceland in the early 1980s when just two years old. He was kept in a tiny covered pool for two years before being sold to a marine park in Canada which closed after he drowned a trainer.
He was then sold to SeaWorld in Orlando which needed a male for breeding. Cowperthwaite has tracked down trainers who worked there who claim they were never told how dangerous he was.
In 1999, Tilikum killed the man who jumped into his pool and, in 2010, he killed again, this time battering trainer Dawn Brancheau to death.
Kirby said: “Tilikum is a very disturbed and dangerous animal but I know of at least 20 other captive animals showing similar behaviour.
“They bite people, ram them, leap out of the water on top of them and pull them into the water from the side. These are aggressive powerful animals. They should not be in captivity and humans should not be working closely with them.”
Killer whales are among the planet's most impressive predators, growing up to 10m long, reaching as much as seven tonnes in weight and living up to 90 years. In the wild their prey ranges from salmon and herring to seals and even other whales.
Recently, scientific interest in them has surged with evidence that they are highly intelligent, have a form of language and a rich social structure.
There is also a growing campaign by animal welfare groups to ban whales and dolphins from being kept in captivity.
For companies such as SeaWorld, however, whale and dolphin displays are at the heart of their business. SeaWorld is controlled by Blackstone, a New York-based investment fund whose portfolio covers UK attractions including the London Eye and Legoland.
Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld, said: “This film appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times by our opponents in the animal rights community. The company is dedicated to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals. SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution ... and we are held to strict standards of federal and state laws.”
The days of killer whale displays may, however, be numbered in America after regulators fined SeaWorld dollars $38,500 last week and banned it from allowing trainers to work closely with killer whales.
Jacobs said the company was appealing, adding that the regulators' actions showed its “continued and fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly and safely care for and work around these animals”.
However, Cowperthwaite warned: “These are dangerous animals in captivity and they will kill again.”<<