Last week, an orca at Florida's Sea World park killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. According to witnesses, Brancheau was standing at the edge of the pool when the orca, Tilikum, grabbed her ponytail and dragged her underwater.
This was not the first human fatality in which Tilikum was implicated. His career in show business began at British Columbia's now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific park. In 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne was killed by a group of three orcas that included Tilikum. In 1999, a drifter stoner named Daniel snuck into Tilikum's pool after hours, a stunt which earned him a Darwin Award.
There are other documented cases of captive orca attacks. Sea World officials make excuses. The animals don't do it on purpose, they claim. They don't understand that humans can't hold their breath that long.
Bullshit. They know exactly what they're doing. The abrasions on Tilikum's human victims indicate that they were dragged against the bottom of the pool. Daniel was stripped of his swim trunks by Tilikum's sharp teeth. The killing method is reminscent of the brutal dolphin-on-porpoise violence observed by researchers in Monterey Bay. Those dolphins were not captive animals made neurotic by confinement; they were wild, free creatures who chose to brutally hunt and kill another species of marine animal not for food but perhaps to eliminate the competition for food. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. They are just as capable of brutal and pre-meditated killing of another species for reasons of their own.
Dawn Brancheau's family believes that her death was an accident. I am reminded of Siegfried Fischbacher's contention that Montecore, the white tiger that almost killed Roy Horn in October of 2003, was trying to help Roy by picking him up and taking him offstage while he was suffering a stroke. People who work with these large and dangerous animals hold them in great affection. They want to believe that the animals hold us in affection as well. But we are their jailers. No matter how comfortable we make their prison, it is still a prison.
Sea World claims it is keeping and breeding orcas in order to help an endangered species survive. But in reality, they are making big money off their exhibition. It is the same reason why humans continue to keep elephants -- for profit. Elephants are big attractions (no pun intended) in zoos and circuses. They are also useful beasts of burden in India and Thailand, particularly in the logging and ecotourism industries.
Elephants also have a long history of attacking their human trainers. One brutal attack, in 1994, was captured on video for posterity. There is growing evidence that wild elephants are deliberately targeting humans and their property in revenge for previous poaching and culling incidents.
Orcas and elephants have some other common traits, besides their size and their troubled relationship with humans. Both species are highly social, with highly-developed vocalizations. It is likely that their vocalizations are a rudimentary language. It would not surprise me if the Defense Language Institute (conveniently located near Monterey Bay) were working on decoding cetacean vocalizations. Our navy already trains and uses dolphins for a variety of purposes.
Maybe someday we will be able to effectively communicate with orcas and elephants, and recruit some of them to work for us of their own free will (in exchange for an easy food supply and plenty of mating opportunities). Until that happens, we will continue to see news stories about orcas and elephants turning on their trainers.