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TiliLeaks: Exclusive Documents Reveal That Tilikum Was Trapped In A 31-Foot Pool For 17 Consecutive Days

Thanks to dolphin advocate Russ Rector, and his FOIA persistence, a large set of documents related to SeaWorld's purchase of Tilikum from Sealand of the Pacific has now been released by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Last week, I commented on SeaWorld's November 1991 application for a permit to import Tilikum (along with Sealand's two females -- Haida and Nootka). The documents (which I have posted in full here) included a very revealing back and forth between NOAA and SeaWorld over how to handle the fact that the Sealand killer whales had killed trainer Keltie Byrne.

This week, I am looking at a set of documents related to SeaWorld's December 1991 request for an emergency permit to transport Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld Florida as soon as possible. What is most notable to me, is that the documents reveal a new level of potential trauma experienced by Tilikum which until now has been little understood.

SeaWorld's request to move Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld Florida in Orlando on an emergency basis was triggered by Haida, one of Sealand's two pregnant female killer whales, giving birth to a calf on Dec. 24, 1991. The newborn orca upset the delicate social dynamic in which Tilikum, the subdominant male, was often on the receiving end of aggression from Haida and Nootka, the other female. This was an issue for both Sealand and SeaWorld, because Sealand was purportedly making millions from the sale of its three killer whales, and SeaWorld was spending millions to bring in new killer whales who could help expand its breeding program (which was especially in need of a breeding male). Neither Sealand nor SeaWorld wanted the valuable merchandise damaged. Consequently, Tilikum was placed in Sealand's tiny medical pool, or module, a small, enclosed space usually used to house the killer whales overnight to protect against the possibility that someone might cut the show pool net to free them.

Both The Killer In The Pool and Blackfish documented the trauma and physical issues Tilikum might have suffered as a result of being cooped up nightly in this tiny enclosure with two females who did not always treat him gently. According to these newly released documents, after the birth of Haida's calf, Sealand and SeaWorld felt it was necessary (for his protection, and for the protection of the calf) to isolate him in the module 24-hours a day. Even when the gate to the module was opened after New Year's Eve, according to the documents, if Tilikum ventured out he would get chased back into the module by Haida and Nootka. So for weeks before he was finally moved to SeaWorld in early January the 20-foot Tilikum was confined in a space -- just 23 feet wide and 12 foot deep -- that was barely large enough for him to turn around in.

Here is a summary of the situation, and SeaWorld's emergency request, written by NMFS Office Of Protected Resources Chief Nancy Foster:

The emergency permit application was controversial, and a number of animal welfare organizations, such as Sea Shepherd and Humane Society Of The United States, opposed moving Tilikum to SeaWorld Florida on an emergency basis. NMFS, however, seems convinced that there is a real problem:

Of all the captive enclosures that exist for killer whales, it is hard to imagine a worse place for a killer whale to be than Sealand's module, a claustrophobic space which Sealand's killer whales disliked so much they would sometimes refuse to go into it at night even though that meant they did not get fed. And the fact that Tilikum was more or less confined to that tiny, dark space on a full-time basis for what turned out to be weeks (he finally left Sealand in early January) is both difficult to comprehend and also another potential traumatic layer in his captive experience that should be factored into any analysis of how his life at Sealand affected his psychology and behavior at SeaWorld.

Here is more detail, from a January 3 letter from SeaWorld to NMFS, on what happened after Haida gave birth:

One doesn't need much imagination to understand what a "high level of maternal protective activity" involved. Steve Huxter, who managed the killer whales at Sealand at the time, offers a similar account:

Just before Haida gave birth, she had forced both Nootka and Tilikum into the module. We had a pretty good idea that Haida was about to give birth so we closed the gate and sure enough it wasn't many hours before there was another Orca in the pool. We kept both Tilikum and Nootka in the module pool for three days but after three days and because she was pregnant, we needed to get Nootka out where she could be more active and we also sensed that tension was building between Tilikum and Nootka.
We held Tilikum's attention and opened the gate, allowing Nootka into the main pool with Haida and the calf. Haida's initial reaction was to protect her calf and she displayed fairly strong dominance behaviour toward Nootka. Once Nootka understood the limitations of the situation, Haida gradually showed less concern.

That left Tilikum alone in the confinement of the module, and in the documents, SeaWorld then goes on to lay out a very dire picture, and the potential consequences for Tilikum and the calf:

NMFS did not really take issue with SeaWorld's assessment of the problems arising from Haida and Nootka's pregnancies. But it clearly resented the fact that the situation had been allowed to develop in the first place, and very bluntly expressed both its frustration and its belief that Sealand and SeaWorld were both culpable in creating a situation in which Tilikum suffered a high level of stress that put his well-being at risk:

Sealand's Steve Huxter confirmed to me that this was an avoidable situation:

We were very certain that Haida was pregnant by August of 1990....I am sure that Sealand's owner, Bob Wright, would have been told of the potential problems of having a male in with two females and a calf. I don't know why he didn't take action and make alternate accommodations for Tilikum. Perhaps he was considering his options when Keltie Byrne died and the shit hit the fan. It was only a few months after the coroners judgement in June, 1991 that Bob Wright announced an end to our killer whale performances and I know that his first call with an offer of sale, was to Sea World.
It is my opinion that another pen could have been added to the Sealand facility by relocating some of the boats in the marina and reconfiguring the existing docks to form some of the flotation for a sea pen, utilizing the existing dock pilings to anchor the pen.
As an alternate, there was a yacht club located in a bay, not far from Sealand, that was well protected and could have been an option to install a sea pen for a year or so. Although, it would have been the more complicated option and would have taken more time to get approval and install.
It would seem that Sea World, and Sealand's owner, waited until the circumstances were such that the timeline to do anything about finding alternate accommodations for Tilikum was impossible. They would have known well in advance that both the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland of Ontario could not possibly take in Tilikum. It's easy to speculate that Sea World and Sealand allowed a crisis situation to form; forcing NOAA into a position whereby they had no other recourse but to, grudgingly, issue an emergency transport permit.

As Huxter notes, NMFS, concerned about Tilikum's welfare, did bow to the situation and on January 8, 1992 ended up granting SeaWorld emergency authorization to move Tilikum to SeaWorld Florida. But in its letter to SeaWorld setting out the terms of the agreement, NMFS's frustration at being put on the spot was evident in the following warning:

This set of documents includes plenty more detail about how the stress of confinement was affecting Tilikum, such as a memo from SeaWorld vet Jim McBain to SeaWorld VP Brad Andrews, which painted an ominous picture. Even taking into account the fact that SeaWorld was trying to make its case for an emergency transfer, McBain's memo, I think, does further suggest that Tilikum was experiencing one final trauma before departing Sealand:

Andrews took McBain's assessment of Tilikum's stress levels and the possibility that it could lead to greater problems, and used it to issue a heavy-handed warning to NMFS, contained in a letter from January 7 to Ann Terbush, chief of the permits division:

In short, Andrews was saying that if Tilikum died, his death would be NMFS' fault. A day later, NMFS granted SeaWorld the permission it sought to transport Tilikum to SeaWorld Florida on an emergency basis. And according to SeaWorld's Marine Mammal Inventory Report, Tilikum was on his way to SeaWorld one day after that.

Huxter agrees that Brad Andrews was going a bit over the top with his efforts to paint the most dire picture of Tilikum's situation. But he also emphasizes that in his view the impact of confinement on Tilikum's well-being was very real and in some ways profound:

We continued to keep Tilikum in the module to ensure that there was no disruption to the Haida's nursing of her calf. However, we began to get concerned. Tilikum had spent time in the module before, it was a familiar circumstance for him. However, in this situation there was a distinct change in Tilikum's behaviour. In all his years at Sealand, I had never seen him so immobile in the module; he was listless at the surface all of the time. He floated for hours on the surface at the gate and facing the pool that held Haida, her calf, and Nootka. He seldom moved around and primarily only when he was offered food. For the first few days he ate well but his appetite seemed to fade and there were times when we would give him food and he would simply let it slide out of his mouth and let it sink to the bottom of the module pool.
The skin around and behind his head and blowhole was always dry and it started to split. An ointment was applied to keep the skin moist, which prevented further splitting of his skin. His behaviour was so troubling that it was decided to open the gate and allow him to enter the main pool. Haida's calf was nursing well and it was determined that Haida and her calf were well bonded.
When Tilikum entered the pool, Nootka immediately swam toward him, forcing Tilikum back into the module. Over the next few days, every time that Tilikum ventured into the main pool; as soon as Haida or Nootka noticed him, Tilikum would immediately re-enter the module and lay on the surface at the gate. Sometimes he would lay on the surface with his head and half of his body out of the module but he wouldn't venture any further.
There is no doubt in my mind that Tilikum was under great stress but it was worse than that. I had observed Tilikum under stress before but this was different. It felt to me that he had fallen into a deep depression. It was both alarming and depressing for me to see him that way.
His behaviour did not change until the day we lifted him from the pool and he was transferred to SeaWorld, Orlando.

I have posted all the documents that Rector pried loose from NMFS on SeaWorld's emergency bid to remove Tilikum from Sealand in early 1992 (review them here). There is lots more good detail related to SeaWorld's emergency application that is worth perusing (including SeaWorld's explanation of why all the other options, such as building a temporary holding facility at Sealand, moving Tilikum to Vancouver Aquarium or releasing him back into the ocean, weren't feasible).

But to me, the most important truth revealed by this set of documents from Rector's FOIA haul is that Tilikum's final weeks at Sealand were even more stressful and traumatic than we had previously appreciated. Yet, as we saw last week, SeaWorld wasn't particularly worried about what that might portend for Tilikum's life at SeaWorld.