When the orcas mouthed a friend, they closed their mouth slowly, allowing the friend to decide whether or not to participate. This seemed to be something the orcas did periodically both to test their friend's trust and as a friendly offer to join them in their world.
Respectful treatment of the orcas seemed to be another key to forming friendships. Their human friends mostly showed respect in what they did not do. They imposed no agendas on the orcas, notably opposite from what their trainers were doing. They did not feed the orcas in trying to buy a relationship. Food was part of the orca's training regimen. The orcas were also kept hungry so they would readily take fish sold to visitors at the concession. The orcas would take offered fish, but as soon as they cleaned out one visitor's fish they moved to the next. They stayed and played with those offering no fish, their friends.
It should be noted that during these petting pool years, recently captured orcas and untrained humans were quite free to explore each other however their curiosities directed. There was practically no, and sometimes actually no supervision. The interaction was physical and real friendships developed. The orcas experienced humans where the relationship was not based on agendas of training or performing. This circumstance was unique in the history of SeaWorld.
Eventually, these orcas completed their training and moved on to a life of full time performing, all that is except Canuck 2 who died while still in his petting pool days. Within 3 to 7 years of leaving their petting pool experience, these same orcas began to exhibit the dangerous behaviors, logging the incidents noted previously. These orcas went from a history of friendly and gentle behavior to being the major part of SeaWorld's most aggressive and incident prone orcas. Some of their children and children's children are also in this aggressive, incident prone group, although diminishing with succeeding generations.
We can't get inside these orcas' heads, but the most straight forward interpretation seems to be that the orcas who had once experienced human friendship, respect, and trust were the most negatively affected by the accumulated effects of life in captivity.
All of SeaWorld's orcas experienced growing from calves to adults. They all became outsized for their pools. They all experienced a life of relentless performances. Yet it was almost exclusively the ex-Petting Pool Orcas and some of their offspring who became so problematic. Their history was practically the opposite of Tilikum's.
The upside to this alternate story line is that there is a more fulfilling and positive relationship possible between orcas and humans than Blackfish posits. Humans and orcas can be quite good friends.
In the wild, orca pods for the most part benignly ignore humans. Even given opportunity, orcas don't hunt humans. There are no instances of orcas killing humans and only one instance of an orca harming a human. A major reason the orca capture industry worked is that orcas didn't attack humans in the water even as their children were being kidnapped. Once in captivity, orcas quickly became friendly to their captors, if only for a few years.
Even in the wild orcas occasionally have friendlier relations with humans:
• Solitary sociables, like L-98 Luna and A-73 Springer who got separated from their pods and sought out human friendships
• Dr. Ingrid Visser's friendly but arm's length relation with New Zealand pods
• Roberto Bubas' relation with orcas off the coast of Patagonia
• The "Killers of Eden" Australia who for 90 some years cooperatively hunted baleen whales with humans during the days of hand thrown harpoons and rowed whaleboats It is illegal under U.S. and Canadian laws for humans to fraternize with wild orcas. The likely rehabilitation and release to sea pens of SeaWorld's orcas provides the most substantial opportunity for establishing real friendships between humans and orcas. This is a real opportunity for the two species to learn about and from each other.
Commentary by Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network:
Experience teaches. The newly captured orcas given free rein to meet and greet at will in the petting pools at SW San Diego in 1979-1980 had been violently grabbed from their families and taken away from their native waters off Iceland. We can assume they were treated harshly, like wild beasts needing to be trained. A few months later they met some friendly human companions at a petting pool. There they found that humans can be kind and curious, and willing to build trust over time. Genuine affection seemed to flow both ways over the walls of the pools.
Then the petting pool visits ended, and the only interactions with humans reverted to the systematic dominance of rigorous training schedules and being shunted from pool to pool, with food deprivation used as leverage to force behavior all day long.
But those companions at the petting pool had shown those few young captives that not all humans practiced domination. The precocious young orcas had learned that humans didn't have to be like that.
These same orcas became the most hostile and aggressive of all the captives at SeaWorld. Did their experiences with their human companions at the pools teach them that humans were actually capable of being friendly, making the coercion practiced by the trainers seem just that much more onerous and frustrating? It's always risky to try to look into the mind of an orca, but sometimes there are enticing clues to how they think, and the histories of those petting pool captives may give us a window into how they learn and process information.
(1) All references to orca incidents are based on the table at http://www.orcahome.de/incidentanalysis.htm
(2) It is likely that Kandu 5 spent time in the petting pool, but we don't have definitive proof as yet. Kandu 5 and Canuck 2 were both captured in fall 1977 and both arrived at SeaWorld in Dec 1977. They began training together and likely spent time in the petting pool. Canuck 2 certainly did. Kasatka and Kotar arrived at San Diego in Oct 1978, then Kandu was sent to Aurora in Apr 1979. It is possible that all 4 were being rotated through the petting pool. At least Kandu and Canuck were tankmates and probably Kasatka and Kotar as well during their respective times in the petting pool. Cetacean Cousins' bio of Kandu 5 states, "Kandu probably spent some time at the "Petting Pool" along with other young orcas shortly after her transfer."
(3) "SeaWorld's Most Rewarding and Traumatic Job" by Tim Zimmermann in "Outside Online", 19 August 2014, interviewing Jim Horton.