Yesterday, news channels aired the story concerning the unfortunate and tragic event at Sea World in Orlando, FL.  A 40 year old, female trainer was killed by a bull killer whale during a performance.  She was apparently taken off her platform by the whale and shaken to death.  This particular whale has been linked to other deaths according to reports.  There was a student who slipped and fell in the pool with the whale and there was a gatecrasher who tried to swim with the whale, both resulting in death.

In the hours after the trainer’s death, animal rights groups are already blaming organizations like SeaWorld for keeping animals in pools and requiring them to perform.  These killer whales are obviously huge animals, and cannot be forced to perform.  They perform because of the reinforcement they receive for doing so.  Although animal rights groups disapprove of shows like the ones at SeaWorld, there is no doubt that these magnificent animals have helped educate millions of people.  They have even helped to promote a greater concern for their wild cousins.

Dr. Scott Weber at UC Davis shared the following information about killer whales.  The whales are the largest members of the dolphin animals with adult males nearly 6-10 meters in length and weighing up to 10 tons.  The females are slightly smaller averaging 5-7 meters and can weigh over 7 tons.  Their life spans can be similar to humans in the wild.  They are toothed whales which have a wide variety of prey items that may include fish (schooling species, sharks, and rays), invertebrates, sea birds, and other marine mammals including other whales, walrus, sea lions, seals, and sea otters, making them one of the most formidable predators of the sea next to humans.

Dr. Weber explains that the Orcas are not considered threatened or endangered, although the true population numbers are elusive given the animals wide dispersal and their status may change.  Toxins such as PCBs are a potential threat for certain resident populations of orca, similar to the well documented research of toxin induced immunosuppression of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence seaway.  Since the 1990’s, greater than 40% of killer whales in captivity are captive born.  These animals are not suitable for return to the wild.

In truth, despite their captivity, killer whales are still wild animals and all wild animals can be unpredictable.  Whenever dealing with large terrestrial or marine mammals in captivity, these animals have the capability to injure trainers or handlers simply by the nature of their size and power, intentionally or unintentionally.  Some people may assign human emotions and thoughts to the whales, but in reality, even the experts cannot know what was going on in the mind of this, or any, of the whales.  Veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Valerie Tynes says trainers who work with these animals are aware of the danger, but their professional skills and training help them minimize the risks.

There is certain to be a sense of sadness and loss at the SeaWorld compound, but it is unlikely that any trainer who works with these massive animals is surprised by this extremely rare occurrence.  Dr. Tynes also says that animals like Shamu and the other killer whales, dolphins and other cetaceans are truly amazing ambassadors and can help teach all of us about our needs to be good stewards of the land and the ocean.   As a veterinarian, I believe the trainers of these animals would agree.