Sea World killer whale attack

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A marine conservationist with the American Museum of Natural History says killer whales are intelligent creatures that don't do things accidentally. He says he believes the whale's actions at SeaWorld Orlando were intentional.

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Richard Ellis
Marine Conservationist, American Museum of Natural History
Thursday, February 25, 2010; 12:00 PM

A veteran Sea World trainer was rubbing a killer whale from a poolside platform when the 12,000-pound creature reached up, grabbed her ponytail in its mouth and dragged her underwater. Despite workers rushing to help, the trainer was killed.

Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History, was online Thursday, Feb. 25, at Noon ET to discuss the attack, his theory as to why it happened and everything else you wanted to know about killer whales.

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Greensburg, Pa.: Was there anything they should have done to prevent this tragedy with Tilikum?

Richard Ellis: Probably the whale that had killed somebody already should not have been part of a show.

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Columbia, Md.: Another lesson to teach the idea that maybe wild animals should not be kept in small spaces and be forced to train and do silly tricks. IMHO

Richard Ellis: Unfortunately, it is part of human nature to keep wild animals in small spaces and train them to do tricks. I'm against it because I think it humiliates the animals

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Richard Ellis: I'm Richard Ellis, Marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I'm here to answer your questions about killer whales and killer whale attacks

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Arlington, Va.: Just wondering if you'd seen the documentary "The Cove" and what you thought of it. It's not about killer whales, but it does talk about how dolphins are obtained for the "Sea World"-type market.

Richard Ellis: Yes, I saw The Cove. Most dolphins in oceanarium shows are born in captivity, but some are collected from wild populations. The Cove is more about the killing of dolphins than corralling them for captivity.

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Bowie, Md.: Doesn't the adjective "killer" say it all?

Richard Ellis: They are called "killers" because they kill their normal prey: whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, penguins. The number of attacks on swimmers and diverts in the wild is zero.

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Washington, D.C.: Would the whale have a good chance of surviving if released in the wild?

Richard Ellis: If Tillicum was released into his original family group, he would probably survive.

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Baltimore, Md.: It seems obvious that it is time to accept that orcas should not be kept in captivity but returned to the sea. The behavior that was exhibited by Tilikum was completely natural, when seen in the wild it is awe-inspiring, but when humans and not penguins or seals are the prey -- we are horrified. The argument that people do not appreciate what they can't interact with does not hold sway here, there are plenty of places in the world to see wild orca -- you don't have to keep them in small pools and train them to chase balls in order for people to appreciate what majestic animals -- and efficient predators they are!

Richard Ellis: I agree completely. But human beings have a long, ignoble tradition of keeping wild animals in captivity.

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Capitol Heights, Md.: What can they do with this whale now? I thinks a lot of money was spent to re-train Keiko for the wild. Was that release considered a success?

Richard Ellis: I lost track of Keiko after he was released into Icelandic waters, but I don't think the release was a complete success. They can probably isolate this whale, but obviously, they can never use him in a show again.

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Washington, D.C.: Whales are mammals like people and have a range of emotions and moods like people too. That's part of the reason we love them so much. Certainly the whales can sense the disruption to the human side of their world, which is unquestionably their most important priority. Accordingly, will the whales at SeaWorld receive any grief counseling over the loss of their regular trainer?

Richard Ellis: LOL

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D.C.: If humans continue to stick their heads in lions' mouths, swim with killer whales or sea Rays, they will continue to die.

Richard Ellis: Very few people have had their heads bitten off by lions. Steve Irwin did get killed by a sting ray, however

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Ashburn, Va.: How many Orca do you think it would take to beat up a Bull Sperm Whale?

Richard Ellis: Orcas hunt in packs, like wolves. They have been known to take down sperm whales, but probably not big bulls.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think PETA is a reasonable organization?

Richard Ellis: I think any organization that is dedicated to saving animals is a good one. Sometimes PETA goes too far, however....

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Bellevue, Neb.: I don't like to see any undomesticated animal in captivity. Don't they hate being caged as much as humans do?

Richard Ellis: We don't know if they "hate" being caged. Some people think it's a pretty cushy existence for whales and dolphins

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Washington, D.C.: What is the plan for the whale? Will he be released, killed, moved to another facility?

Richard Ellis: I don't know what they're planning to do with the whale. They obviously can't use it an a show any more...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Killer whales are beautiful animals, but they are animals and they hunt and kill seals in much the same way that this incident played out. What is wrong with everyone? It's a killer whale, not a puppy.

Richard Ellis: I agree that killer whales are beautiful animals. Maybe that's why people like to see them in tanks.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I read once that they think killer whales and most of the dolphin family are actually aliens that crash landed into the ocean 10,000 years ago. Their spacecraft was destroyed so they had no choice but to live out their lives in our seas. Since there was an abundance of food, they thrived and expanded across most oceans. You think that's true?

Richard Ellis: No

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Omaha, Neb.: Are there any specific theories as to what would make captive killer whales aggressive towards humans? (Aside from "they're out of their natural environment and therefore act unnaturally.")

Richard Ellis: There are many animals that don't do well in captivity, but killer whales have a long history of adapting. We just don't know why Tilikum behaved the way he did.

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Hollywood, Md.: Mr. Ellis, What is your theory behind Tilikum's actions?

Richard Ellis: I think he just went a little nuts, like Amy Bishop at the University of Alabama

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Arlington, Va.: I'm wearing my killer whale tie today as support for the killer whales. If anyone is at fault, blame Sea World.

Sea World put people in harms way and look what happened. That like saying a guard goes into a prison cell (of someone who has either killed before or is violent by nature) and gets killed. Who is at fault?

The Olympics didn't destroy the luge course when the guy died last week. He put himself in harms way.

And why is this such a big news story? Nothing else going on?

Richard Ellis: It's big news because somebody died in full view of a Sea World audience. I'm wearing my killer whale tie too.

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Reston, Va.: You say you think the whale's attack was premeditated -- how intelligent are they? Could he have understood her language? Could she have provoked him by verbal actions? Tired of repetitiveness of shows? Stunts? Telling her enough is enough? Didn't like his food? What is your take that would cause him to retaliate against his trainer in particular?

Solution: In my opinion they should release him in the wild. He's paid his dues and wants out.

Richard Ellis: I said "premeditated" because most animals usually don't do crazy things. Killer whales have their own language. If they knew where he came from, they might let him go.

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Woodbridge, Va..: I was at the park when they had received the whale from BC and when I talked with the trainers at Sea World (mind you I was a 6th grader), everyone knew not to go in the pool with that whale. Heck, I have photos of the whale from a recent trip to Sea World and they still were not going into the water with him. He is a wild animal, even more than most killer whales in captivity because he was pulled from the wild in a time where it was common. Sea World is known for their research and train the animals to do what they would in the wild. At this point, I feel, they should do something like Keiko and try to get him to join his pod again, if Sea World is about research and exposure to killer whales, they should give it a try especially with him and his history at this point. I think they have a good chance of successfully putting him back into the wild.

Richard Ellis: I agree: bad idea to get in the water with this particular whale.

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NYC: What a terrible tragedy. So, so sad. Please tell me they are not going to euthanize the whale.

Richard Ellis: I don't know, but I don't think they're going to euthanize the whale

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Sterling, Va.: I had heard on the radio that the whales were acting stressed during the show and that it caused the show to be stopped. Could that have been a factor to what led the whale to grab the trainer and pull her under?

Richard Ellis: Could be, but until we can ask the whale, we'll never know.

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Not in a show: This whale had already been removed from shows since his previous "incidents." In fact, no trainers were allowed in the water with him. He was, however, observed through underwater viewing windows by the public.

Richard Ellis: Obviously, you don't have to be in the water to be "attacked."

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Bridgewater, Mass.: How do the members of a pod react to a reintroduced orca?

Richard Ellis: Have no idea. Can't ask them.

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard warnings not to sunbathe on beaches where sea lions live, because of the risk an orca will do its famous beach-lunge, and grab up a person by mistake. Has this ever actually happened?

Richard Ellis: No attacks by killer whales on humans in the wild. They can certainly tell the difference between a person and a sea lion

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Deliberate: By "deliberate" do you mean the whale decided, "I'm going to have trainer for lunch" or that he acted on his instincts to grab and shake and pull underwater?

Richard Ellis: Don't know. We do know that the whale didn't eat the trainer.

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Reston, Va.: I noticed the account of the audience member and the account of the PR people from SeaWorld were very different: "she slipped" came from SW. Any thoughts on this?

Richard Ellis: It's my understanding that the whale reached up and grabbed her.

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Alexandria, Va.: Was there anything about the act of rubbing the whale that was different in some way than what he was used to?

I understand that this whale has killed people before, many years ago. So he must be getting up there in years. Do some whales perhaps suffer dementia when they get old, as people (and dogs, for that matter) do?

Richard Ellis: Tillicum drowned a person several years ago. Not easy to compare whales (killer whales are actually large dolphins) with people or dogs.

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Manassas, Va.: Have other members of the dolphin family attacked humans in this manner before? I know the whale is much bigger, but could a bottle nose do the same thing or are they just nicer?

P.S. I thought the movie Orca was pretty lame and over the top. Can these things really hold a grudge?

Richard Ellis: Probably don't hold a grudge as in "Orca" -- or "Jaws," for that matter. Bottlenose dolphins are pretty tough, but I don't think they've ever killed anybody.

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Have no idea. Can't ask them. : Okay, but you're the expert. A scientist. Trained in observation. What has been the observed effect? What is your educated guess? You're here because your guesses are probably better than ours.

Richard Ellis: Lost the question. Ask me again.

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Baltimore, Md.: You say killer whales do not attack humans, but do you think they could some how be trained to? If so, how long until the Navy starts awarding research contracts...

Richard Ellis: I've never heard of any marine mammals being trained to kill people. I think the Navy has better (or worse)things to do than train killer whales to kill divers.

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Takoma Park, Md.: What is your opinion on Jack Hanna? He was interviewed last night and said that the reason these places exist (SeaWorld) is so that we can learn as much as possible about this endangered animals. Is this really a legitimate reason anymore?

Richard Ellis: It's getting weaker and weaker. We don't learn very much about dolphins or killer whales by making them jump through hoops, except that they are strangely amenable to doing stupid pet tricks.

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I have been told: of incidents of dolphins holding trainers under water. (By a trainer.) These trainers are aware of the dangers -- they do what they do because they love it. There is no way to predict what any of these animals will do in captivity.

Richard Ellis: By and large, killer whales and dolphins have done well in captivity.

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Corydon, Ind.: I notice that the media is using the term "killer whale" almost exclusively, but it had seemed to me that the term had been mostly replaced by "orca" in the popular press over the past 20 years. If this had been a story about a creature that had saved a boatload of people in a sinking life raft, would we be reading "orca" in the news stories instead. What is the accepted term for these creatures?

Richard Ellis: They're called "killers" in oceanarium shows because it makes them more appealing to the public. People want to see a dangerous animal subdued. Unfortunately, this time it didn't work out to well.

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Keiko: If I remember correctly, Keiko was able to eventually live in a bay somewhere and interact with wild orcas, but he was never able to completely return to the wild. He was always following boats and playing with his food like it was a toy, and he eventually died of pneumonia four years into his 'release.'

Richard Ellis: Right

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Utah: I agree with you regarding the humiliation that many species are forced to suffer for the entertainment of humans. That's why, no matter how much I might enjoy the acrobatic acts, the clowns, the pageantry and the calliope music, I will never go to a traditional Ringling Bros.-style circus again.

Bullfights are, of course, way beyond the pall -- a completely unnecessary and sadistic display. I'm a little more conflicted about rodeos. I've never attended one, but it seems to me like we could come up with competitions to test cowboy skills without abusing bulls and calves and other animals if we really wanted to.

I must admit that until this incident and reading your comments and some of the others in this discussion, I was less sensitized to these issues as far as Sea World type shows are concerned. It's been a number of years now, but I have attended such shows in the past and been entertained by the leaping porpoises and orcas. I realize now that this is no different from elephants, big cats and the like being subjected to all manner of indignities to perform in the circus.

My question for you regards a different aspect of humans keeping animals in captivity. So long as they are provided with an appropriate space for their species, as well as a suitable social grouping, do you see a value and purpose in zoos as a means of conservation? In addition to the efforts that good zoos with qualified staff make on behalf of conservation, it seems to me that zoos serve a valuable educational purpose, allowing many people who would never be able to travel to observe exotic species in the wild to view them and learn about their habits and habitats. Also, it seems to me that they help keep the plight of endangered species in front of people.

Richard Ellis: Most of what you say is correct, but whales and dolphins in captivity don't as much for "education" as films of the animals in their natural habitat -- and you don't have to pen them up.

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Alexandria, Va.: FYI, Keiko lived with human assistance in a bay in Canada until his death. He did not live successfully in the open ocean. I wonder if you are aware of any trained whale that has been successfully returned to the ocean? You mentioned that you don't know how a pod would react to a new whale coming in. Perhaps such research has never been done, due to the costs involved or for other reasons.

Richard Ellis: As far as I l know, most trained dolphins are not released into the wild. When two bottlenoses were released by activists in Hawaii, they tried to return to their pens.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Ask again: Bridgewater, Mass.: How do the members of a pod react to a reintroduced orca?

Richard Ellis: Have no idea. Can't ask them.

For example, do they attack them, ignore them, rush to greet them, ...? Or have there been no observed reintroductions?

Richard Ellis: Even though orcas are among the most surface-oriented whales, they still spend a lot of time under water. There have not been enough re-introductions to observe what happens.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is the area of your research expertise? Other than your saying you don't like to see orcas and dolphins in captivity, seems like a lot of your answers are "I don't know."

Richard Ellis: I have been studying whales and dolphins for many years. That doesn't mean I know all the answers. Cetaceans are among the least-understood of all large mammals. Some populations of orcas and other dolphins have been extensively studied in the wild, while other species are virtually unknown. I think "I don't know" is a perfectly reasonable answer.

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Fish in Aquarium: Do you support fish in aquariums? I am also against marine mammals in captivity but always have a hard time deciding where the line is. Is it okay to go to an aquarium that only has fish? I struggle with that one.

Richard Ellis: Absent scuba diving, aquariums are the only place where we can see fish in their natural habitat,

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Richard Ellis: Gotta go. Thanks for the interesting questions. Orcas in the wild live in family groups, so probably isolating one or two is not good for their mental health.

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