Orca

When I was a little girl I went to SeaWorld Orlando with my grandparents. It was, at the time, one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Sharks, dolphins, fish! And, of course, the crowning moment of the day was seeing Shamu and Kandu perform at the Shamu Stadium. I left with a stuffed orca and a dream to be one of those daring animal trainers. I also left with a very healthy fear of orca.

I remember standing with my forehead pressed against the glass, staring down into the tank. I was so small...no older than 6, if memory serves, and looking down into that ginormous swimming pool was like looking off the edge of a cliff. And at the bottom were two orca, swimming in their mysterious ways. I remember wondering what would happen if I fell in. Would they eat me? Would they save me?

I don't remember the tricks they performed. I don't remember the show. I do remember how humbling it was to just see them swimming 40 feet below. Even now, more than two decades later, I feel incredibly small just thinking about that day and those creatures.

For many years, I studied marine mammals, particularly whales and dolphins, as a hobby. I learned whatever I could and did reports on whales at every opportunity. I watched every special on tv, read books; my parents even gave to a charity that would "adopt" a humpback whale in my name.

As time went on, my interests waxed, waned and shifted about. My passions have never really changed, and today I showed just how much cetation biology is one those.

What happened at SeaWorld Orlando today is horrible. A woman died.

Now, the media will tell you that a "killer whale" attacked his trainer. It sounds more newsworthy that way, more tragic and terrifying. But, let's get one thing straight: these animas are called ORCA. While they do resemble larger versions of certain species of whales, Orca are actually the biggest members of the dolphin family. As for the "killer whale" monikker that gets slapped on these creatures... actually, sailors used to call them "whale killer" because that's what they were seen eating in the wild. Do these animals kill? Yes, they are apex predators, the top of their food chain. NOTHING preys on them in the wild.

What this particular animal did (and has done) is, honestly, not surprising. The conditions at SeaWorld and other aquatic parks are well-maintained, I'm sure, however, they are not like zoos that strive to replicate an animal's natural habitat. While the giraffe at your local zoo has a good swath of grassland to patrol with other creatures, captive orca have a swimming pool. There are chemicals in the water that are not found in the wild, no natural features, and a disconcerting amount of walls. This particular orca is often kept isolated from the others in a smaller tank. Remember when you were sent to your room as a kid?

The other thing that I don't think people understand is that while we all know that whales and dolphins are social creatures, they aren't just being friendly. Orca have a documented social structure. Variations in lifestyle present themselves in the wild. Resident orca travel in large, matrilineal pods that can consist of four generations! These clans can actually form communities with other such clans! Then there are transient orca. Smaller pod sizes, different feeding habits and different vocalization patterns.

It's amazing to think that these animals even have different dialects from clan to clan!

Now, when you take an animal with this kind of life--transient or resident--and you put it in captivity, you're depriving it of not only its natural surroundings but also its natural societal structure. It would be akin to someone from 21st century America being dropped into a place where people speak muddled English and have completely foreign customs and social ideas. Drop an adolescent girl into Afghanistan. Culture shock doesn't necessarily begin to describe it. Taint her air and give her food she might not normally eat. She will be nourished, but only just. Suppress her natural instincts, limit her activity and confine her to a cell.

What do you expect to happen?

Now, I'm normally not a bleeding-heart anything and I'm not into PETA or things like that. I support zoos as educational institutions and conservation organizations. But orca do not belong in captivity. And yes, I'm going to say it about the circus too, these animals--wild predators--cannot truly be tamed! Orca--like lions and tigers--are built to hunt. Orca are made for speed, stealth and leathality in the water. You can condition them to jump when you blow a whistle, but beneath that layer of insulating blubber is solid muscle mass and millions of years of genetic memory-evolutionary strategy that tell this creature what to do and be. The orca doesn't care that you weigh a pittance in comparison, it doesn't care that you think you are the dominant life form on this planet and it certainly doesn't care if you're entertained.

Orca do not belong in captivity.

Even assuming that an orca is born in captivity and grows up with trainers and humans... assuming that this animal won't go insane due to confinement... you still run a dangerous risk playing with an animal of such magnitude. Also, it has been shown that some orca will treat trainers as podmates. Females are dominant in the orca world, and it has been documented that alpha females in captivity will assert their dominance over their female handlers. If an orca believes you are its podmate, then it will treat you as such. It will play with you with no regard to your diminutive size. Likewise, if an orca believes you are prey, it will treat you as such.

While I love the fact that I was able to see these animals up close as a child, while I love that it gave me a thirst for knowledge about these amazing creatures... I don't think it's right to have them in places like SeaWorld.

There is so much to learn about orcas. Rather than exploit them like circus animals, we should respect them.

Education is key. And let's start by knocking off this bullshit of "killer whales". It's insulting to them and to us.

I hope we can learn from this experience.

Don't blame the animal. And don't blame the trainer.

This situation sucks.