Killer Whale on Trial: Tilikum vs. Brancheau.

seaworld orcaIs the case of of Tilikum vs. Branchaeu an instance of murder in the first degree or a simple act of animal instincts?

No one other than Tilikum knows what was going on in his head on Wednesday, February 24th, when he grabbed Dawn Brancheau, a veteran SeaWorld trainer, by the ponytail – and drowned her.

But, I would like to make an educated guess: Tilikum knew exactly what he was doing; I would even go so far as to say he waited for an audience to make his point ever clearer.

Am I anthropomorphosizing? Totally.

Do I have any basis for my hypothesis? You betcha.

First, a few facts about killer whales (aka Orcinus Orca, aka Cetaceanus premeditates killius) to make my case:

1. Tilikum is intelligent- in fact he’s a straight up Genius.

KWAlthough Scientists argue over how to measure true intelligence (self awareness tests, tool use, etc…) almost all agree on one fact: brain/body proportions have a direct correlation to intelligence; The bigger, heavier and more ‘wrinkly’ the brain, in comparison to body size , the smarter the animal. This is known as the Encephalization Quotient or EQ. According to these standards, that would make Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) among the smartest animals in the world, second only to you, me and the rest of our fellow Homo sapiens. Although EQ varies widely between species, the Orca has an EQ of 2.57, which is below the human EQ of 7.44, but is still one of the highest among mammals.

Skeptical? Argue your point through SONAR. Oh right – you can’t.

2. Killer Whales that are trained get punished – and that sucks.

Take it from a former zookeeper-a lot goes on behind closed doors. Visitors don’t get to see it all, and this includes punishment. By NO means am I alluding to animal abuse, I’m talking about positive/negative reinforcement- a necessary evil in the world of trained animals. Just like a mom and her child, a trainer must discipline an animal as part of training. When Tilikum puts the ball in the basket he gets a fish, but when he throws it at another orca, he gets denied that yummy fish-that’s positive reinforcement; rewarding good behavior and withholding the award for bad.

Then there’s option 2, negative reinforcement. The trainer can punish a bad behavior- i.e., the animal may get a smaller fish for lunch or receive a tap of disapproval. You didn’t like it when your momma took away your ice cream, did you? What makes an Orca any different. It just so happens, on that fateful day that Tilikum killed his trainer, he was misbehaving at a prior show and was reprimanded for it; which brings us to the next point…

3. Killer whales have a killer memory.

Along With a huge brain comes a huge temporal lobe. This giant mush of cognition contains an almond –shaped, neuron-packed area called the amygdale, that holds onto memories- the good and the bad. In fact, the UK’s premier memory supplier for RAM and all things tech-memory related – is called ORCA . Maybe this was the day Tilikum retrieved some painful megabytes of hardrive…

4. It’s a hard knock life- Living in a bathtub.

bathtubLet’s face it – Orcas’ living conditions are not exactly ‘glamorous’. The United States Geologic Survey (USGS) estimates there to be 346,049,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water in the oceans (yup we’re in the sixtillions now), whereas the Orlando SeaWorld aquarium tank holds a measly 7 million gallons. On top of that, the orcas are ushered in and out of these tanks via smaller ‘holding areas’ with controlled gates. The trainers are the gatekeepers; And, Tilikum and his whale friends know this.

5. Killer whales have feelings too!

Orca Pods

Emotions. Animals. Two words that are so simple, yet when placed side by side in a sentence, cause a monsoon of debate.

Can Orcas feel? Scientific studies, field observations, and contributors on claim – yes!

Orcas travel in pods- complex social groups. Within the group, individuals partake in monogamous relationships, cheating, name it! They also experience jealousy, anger, bullying, and even exhibit revenge-seeking behaviors.

Tilikum is the saltwater Brad Pitt – this hunka’ chunka’ Orcan lovin’ has sired 13 kids- only to have each one taken from him as a whale toddler, ouch! that’s gotta hurt (the pop and pod). To top it off, he’s the biggest Orca in captivity – you gotta assume broski had some body issues going on.

6. Killer whales and humans are BFF.

orca and diverKiller Whales are not naturally aggressive to humans- This is a fact. In the wild, they have been known to swim alongside divers and even protect them from sharks. Occasionally, due to curiosity, they have upturned a boat but have left the floating humans in peace. Even in captivity, violence towards trainers in theme parks or aquariums is an aberration (hence the pandemonium over this incident).

So why, Tilly? Why’d you do it?

Now we come to the raw guts of the case: Team Tilikum’s defensive strategy claims that he wanted to inspect the ponytail of Brancheau (a human he’s seen every day for the past 15 years), and simply played with her as a ‘water toy.’

Was curiosity and playfulness responsible for the drowning one of his trainers in 1991, at SeaLand in British Columbia, or the death of the man that crept into his Orlando tank in 1999?

Give me a break! To assume so, would be to disrespect the species and is just plain wrong.

The Verdict:

GavelThe Verdict is therefore involuntary manslaughter with motive to injure-justified by self defense; Defending a life in captivity after being ripped from Iceland’s coast, at the tender age of 2, and losing his family, his freedom, and his right to live out his life as wild orca.

The Sentence: Exoneration and mandatory community service in the form of looking cute and Shamu-like for visitors (Be a trooper, Tills- you are an ambassador for your species and hey, you got off pretty clean).

At the end of the day no one wants to see an orca with a flopped dorsal fin, it might just be one of the saddest sights in the whole wide world. A majestic symbol of beauty and nature confined to a swimming pool of humankind.

orcas in the wildYet, I am not a proponent of closing down the parks and releasing all marine life to the wild; SeaWorld is a real-life educational operation – which ‘owns’ 25 orcas and annually receives over 13 million visitors. That’s an impressive number (over half a million visitors, per orca, per year)! If even one percent of the people that experienced the orca became moved to help their cause – as did I, and Brancheau, the dedicated, skilled, and happy marine biologist who lost her life – then was its purpose served?

I believe the answer is yes.

Whether or not you agree with me, there is a way we can all help: How can we save the Whales?

7 thoughts on “Killer Whale on Trial: Tilikum vs. Brancheau.”

  1. Hmmm… yes, you never quite know just how clever these things are and what’s going on in their heads. One day it wouldn’t surpise me if we were entertaining them – jumping about through rings, balancing balls on our heads etc. Or maybe we are already… (cut to twilight zone theme)


  2. This is really a pretty insightful and aimed content. Although my estimation may differ from that of the writer, I realize that this is amazing web site. I’ll surely become a member of Feed for this excellent as well as different weblog.


  3. Seaworld is not an educational establishment. It is a money-making profit oriented organisation. Is it educational to teach people/children that this is how marine animals live? In completely unnatural surroundings? Doing tricks for the entertainment and amusement of humans? They are teaching entirely the contrary of educational. There are plenty of TV documentaries showing how these creatures are supposed to be living. In the wild – not in a tank or pool doing back flips. All seaparks should be boycotted, banned and closed down.
    They are wicked and cruel places of animal abuse.


  4. Tilikum was a victim of an extraordinary rendtion when he was a pup. He’s lived his life in servitude to hairless apes who are smaller and weaker than him. One day he decides he’s had enough and explains his existential angst in a manner that whale and ape can understand. He can’t appeal his confinement. There’s no court to accept his writ (as if he could write) of habeas corpus. He’s a whale. All he has is water, air, teeth and song to file his complaint. Obviously, no one was listening…


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