17 min read

How SeaWorld Turned Orkid Into A Troubled, Violent Orca And What Will Happen If She's Forced To Perform Again

Some killer whales appear predisposed to aggression. Tilikum, now at SeaWorld Orlando, has been implicated in the deaths of three people, two of them his trainers. Keto, a SeaWorld orca residing at Loro Parque in Spain, also killed his trainer in 2010. Splash, who died in 2005, suffered from ill-health for years and displayed aggressive tendencies. Kasatka, Kayla and many more whales have been involved in serious altercations.

But no incident has been more serious than the ones involving Orkid. Internal SeaWorld profiles of each captive animal were leaked online (you can view them at OrcaHome.de) and Orkid's behavioral patterns prove particularly disconcerting -- the park noting that the 25-year-old female whale has been involved in multiple aggressive incidents with trainers. When it comes to interaction with new trainers, the alleged SeaWorld documents advise, Orkid will "discriminate or test [them] out." Orkid has not progressed to killing a person – but she has been involved in 17 of 87 publicly recorded attacks on humans by SeaWorld whales, accounting for almost 20 percent of total attacks. What is making Orkid so aggressive? Is it her traumatic past, or because she is the offspring of two overly aggressive parents. Does this make her genetically predisposed or a product of the environment in which she lives? Perhaps it is a combination of all of these, along with personality and intelligence? "Given that both nature and nurture create an individual's characteristics, the reason Orkid is so aggressive is likely to be complex," said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence on the faculty of Emory University. Marino, founder and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, has spent decades studying self-awareness in cetaceans and evaluating the emotional-processing areas of their brains.

Her intelligence may not have a clear relationship toward her aggression, or it could simply allow her to find ways to outsmart or catch trainers by surprise, she says. Or: "It may be that Orkid, if especially intelligent, is acutely aware of her captive situation and its effects on her ability to express her natural behavioral tendencies." Understanding the role of genetics in Orkid's aggression is difficult, but Carol Ray, a former SeaWorld trainer and "Blackfish" cast member believes that other factors feature heavily. "To me," Ray told The Dodo, "it boils down to a combination of intelligence and personality characteristics, and orcas have both." Marino agreed. "Personality and intelligence are not entirely separable and often interact," she said. "Therefore, it is undoubtedly the case that certain combinations of both factors have converged to make Orkid who she is today. Given her parent's temperaments," Marino added, "a strong biological predisposition toward aggression cannot be ruled out."

Orkid has been keeping trainers on their toes for the duration of her 25 years at SeaWorld. In 2002, Orkid and another whale, Splash attacked a trainer named Tamarie. The incident, as described by John Hargrove in "Blackfish," left the trainer with a compound fracture of the forearm. "The Tamarie incident would have most likely proven fatal if the chain had not been taken off of Kasatka's gate," Hargrove said. "Both Splash and Orkid were refusing all attempts to be ‘called back.'" Splash and Orkid finally paused when they appeared to worry that Kasatka, the dominant orca, might enter the tank. That gave Tamarie just enough time to exit. (Local media reported that neither whale had a history of aggressive behavior, yet in a previously published Dodo interview, Hargrove reported that Splash often displayed "full-on aggression.") In 2006, Orkid attacked another trainer attempting to perform a sonogram. SeaWorld spokesperson Darla Davis told Fox News that the 35-year-old female trainer was "knocked off a ‘low-wall,'" and "taken to the hospital after suffering minor injuries," from a "bump." Hargrove, who says he read about it in a corporate incident report while still a trainer, described the incident much differently. Orkid was exhibiting strange behavior he said, which prompted the trainer to order the SeaWorld veterinarian "to step behind the wall immediately for his own safety." Orkid "shot up in front of the trainer," Hargrove said, and as a diversionary tactic, the trainer signaled to the whale to perform another maneuver. But Orkid refused, and came up out of the pool instead. "She drilled her [the trainer] in the chest with her rostrum, knocking her over the elevated wall," Hargrove explained. The trainer, "landed on her face and it knocked her out. She was taken to the hospital and it became a corporate incident report." On two other separate occasions, Hargrove told The Dodo, Orkid has dragged trainers to the bottom of the pool (these are confirmed in the documents allegedly leaked from SeaWorld). And once, on a stage slide maneuver, the whale hit another trainer, causing her to suffer internal bleeding that resulted in a two-day hospitalization. Orkid's 25-year-old history at SeaWorld is filled with tragedy. The independent whale data site Ceta-Base.com records Orkid's birth as 1988 in San Diego. She is a hybrid whale, the product of female Kandu V, an Icelandic orca, and Orky II, a Northern Resident. These are two distinctly and different types of whales, with differing social structures and languages. Orca expert Ingrid Visser cites a study suggesting that in the wild, even when similar whale species interact, they haven't interbred in about 10,000 years. Visser says, "these different groups aren't interbreeding so it is unlikely that the ones that SeaWorld has forced together, would in the wild either."

But not only was Orkid the product of an unnatural mating, her parents suffered bouts of aggression. Kandu V had been involved in at least five alarming interactions according OrcaHome.de creator, Stefan Jacobs. Citing reports from The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Erich Hoyt's, "The Performing Orca – Why the Show Must Stop," Jacobs describes how Kandu V has pinned several trainers to the wall, taken them into her mouth, and in one instance, dragged a trainer to the bottom of the pool. Orky II was equally worrisome. He entered captivity at Marineland of the Pacific before moving to Sea World San Diego in 1987. At Marineland, he was described as having an "imposing personality." He is proud and moody; not given to displays of playfulness. Gruff is the word used by Timothy J. Desmond, Marineland's former assistant curator, who worked with the whales for 12 years. A few times, Orky's temper flared into violence. Ten years ago, he nearly drowned a trainer whom he pinned to the bottom of the tank; other times he has warned trainers with angry shoves, but his outbursts are proceeded by warnings – eyes that turn bloodshot-red or a quick flip of his head. In November 1987, Orky executed a devastating maneuver on 26-year-old trainer John Sillick. Sillick was riding on the back of another whale named Nootka, when Orky came crashing down on top of him. The incident – captured on video, was included in "Blackfish."

The attack on Sillick generated trouble for SeaWorld. In the article, "How Orky and Kasatka Almost Sank SeaWorld," Jason Hribal of CounterPunch, described the Sillick incident as one of many that forced SeaWorld to sacrifice its own staff to survive. "The park president, chief trainer, zoological director, and public relations chief were all fired," in the process, Hribal said. Orkid lost both of her parents at a very young age – Orky II just days after she was born. Kandu V met with a tragic end on Aug. 21, 1989, after she deliberately rammed another orca. Videos of the incident showing Kandu bleeding to death after breaking her jaw. And by her side when she died was the less than one-year-old Orkid. She is noted swimming around her mother frantically as Kandu slowly dies. In Kandu's necropsy report, Barbara D. Heffernan, SeaWorld's director of Government Affairs, described the scene for federal authorities. Bleeding profusely, Heffernan said, Kandu: "Was directed into a specifically designed medical treatment pool. As Kandu began to lapse into unconsciousness, the veterinary staff concluded that her calf (Orkid) would be safer if the two returned to one of the larger back pools. Kandu died in a back pool shortly afterwards, with her calf nearby."

The psychological impact of such an event cannot be measured scientifically. But Marino believes, "Orkid represents the classic example of gene-by-environment interaction. Neither her biology nor her experiences protect her against a poor outcome," the scientist said. "Rather, both biology and experience have created an individual who is highly susceptible to mental illness in general and hyper-aggression in particular. While not a formal diagnosis," Marino added, "this is likely to be what has happened." In a quarter of a century, what has SeaWorld learned about Orkid's aggressive behavior? From observation, it appears very little. Several of Orkid's attacks on trainers were included in the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) case against SeaWorld. In 2012, Judge Ken S. Welsch sided with OSHA, and ordered SeaWorld to employ physical barriers to protect trainers from killer whales during performances. This ruling has never applied to backstage interactions. After 17 potentially life-threatening encounters between Orkid and her trainers, last January, fellow Dodo contributor, Tim Zimmermann, revealed video of SeaWorld trainers once again, conducting waterwork with Orkid. For Marino, the potential for further devastating altercations between this whale and the humans who work with her, is simply inevitable. "Orkid's disturbed and angry behavior will continue, while trainers keep placing themselves in harm's way," she said.

SeaWorld and marine parks profit off keeping orcas and other marine animals in captivity -- despite evidence that captivity not only induces unnatural behaviors in whales, but also endangers trainers. Join us in pledging never to visit SeaWorld or other marine parks until they empty their orca tanks.

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