Thanks to persistent dolphin advocate Russ Rector, a large cache of paperwork related to SeaWorld's purchase of Tilikum, Haida and Nootka from Sealand of the Pacific has finally been released via FOIA requests. Rector has been pursuing documents related to SeaWorld's purchase of Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific for years, repeatedly sending emails and FOIA requests to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Finally, in early July, Rector received a letter from NMFS partially fulfilling his request for:
... all documents and memos including public comments (excluding letters from children), between the National Marine Fisheries Service, Government of Canada and Sea World regarding public display permit #774 (dated October 7, 1992) and the "Tilikum cooperative agreement" (dated January 9, 1992).
That yielded a total of 1,057 pages of documents (NMFS withheld 27 pages of inter- and intra-agency documents regarding Tilikum's permit, as well as a single page related to law enforcement.) The documents include everything from SeaWorld's permit application, supporting documents, letters between SeaWorld and NMFS over Tilikum's permit and public comments received (and SeaWorld's responses), among many other topics. Most have never been made public before, and in a series of posts on The Dodo, I will take a look at some of the many details in the files which can add to or deepen our understanding of Tilikum, his involvement in subsequent deaths and killer whale captivity.
On February 20, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a trainer at Sealand of the Pacific slipped and fell part-way into the pool. As she scrambled to try and climb out, she was grabbed by Tilikum (according to eyewitnesses who appear in "Blackfish"), and pulled back into the water. Sealand's three killer whales (in addition to Tilikum, Sealand had two female orcas, Haida and Nootka) had never been "desensitized" (or trained to be accustomed) to humans in the water. Over approximately the next ten minutes, Tilikum, Haida and Nootka dragged Byrne around the pool, prevented rescuers from reaching her, and drowned her. The tragedy led to the closure of Sealand and the sale of the killer whales to SeaWorld. The question is, did SeaWorld dig deep enough into the orcas aggressive history before buying them?
Byrne was the first killer whale trainer to be killed by killer whales, and an obvious and important question regarding SeaWorld's purchase of Tilikum, Haida and Nootka was: how much did SeaWorld worry about the fact that it was bringing three killer whales who had killed a person?
When I was reporting The Killer In The Pool, Thad Lacinak (who was in charge of training at the time) and others explained to me that full desensitization (which SeaWorld opted not to do) meant that a SeaWorld trainer would eventually have to get in the water with Tilikum. That evolution in the desensitization process obviously included some risk, even if the training up to that point had gone well. And after internal debate, that was a risk that SeaWorld decided not to take.
But the FOIA documents regarding SeaWorld's permit application to import Tilikum for public display offer interesting additional insight into SeaWorld's thinking about the fact that it was purchasing killer whales that had killed a human. The insight comes via a back and forth between SeaWorld and NOAA over the permit application that SeaWorld filed in November 1991, seeking the three killer whales for public display.
In response to SeaWorld's permit request, on Dec. 17, 1991 Ann Terbush, the chief of the permits division of NOAA's Office Of Protected Resources, sent SeaWorld a request for more information about the care of the killer whales, and their readiness for transport; a detailed description of the transport process; a description of how the whale would be isolated and/or quarantined upon arrival; and finally: