Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sea Wolves are not Sea Dogs

An experienced orca trainer died today at Sea World Orlando. The Shamu of the hour, Tilikum, a very large, very aggressive bull orca who lives in solitary confinement and performs in a "non-contact" capacity for the whale show, pulled her into his tank and killed her.

By request, then, and with a disclaimer, a reprint of a rant I posted to a trainers' list in 2004.

No, this is not by way of blaming the victim. Those who work with large animals -- horses, elephants, cattle, whales, sharks -- accept certain risks. The risks are greater when an animal is known to be intentionally aggressive, as Tilikum is, but they are always there, even with the most "docile" large animal. Animal trainers are big girls and boys. If they don't robustly understand the risks, then they need to get into a different business. I have no reason to believe that Ms. Brancheau did not accept the risks willingly. She has paid for what may have been a few seconds' complacency with her life; there but for the grace of God go us all.

Elephant handlers in contact management husbandry setups are often berated by the PROC* partisans for using "force" in training and handling. It's widely understood that the alternative to handling with an ankus and a certain amount of posturing by the human is a non-contact facility. Elephants who are not trained traditionally are simply too dangerous to have access to their keepers. Trained elephants are still dangerous, but much less so -- more on the order of a crabby stallion than a five-ton sociopath.

Trained elephants get to have more interesting lives than those warehoused or displayed in non-contact facilities.

The context was, once again, a PROC trainer's relentless claim that all dog trainers needed to do was emulate the photogenic folks in the shortie wetsuits at Sea World, and it will all be hunky-dory. That "you cannot force a whale" and "you cannot punish a whale" -- so whale training defines the desirable methodology and outcome of a training program for a domestic dog.

But dogs aren't captive whales. For which dogs -- and their owners -- have cause to be very grateful.

Thus, my rant:

* * *

Take for example, the killer whale. How would YOU get a urine sample from a killer whale with his cooperation?

Janey Shaddrick

Okay, first, I would hire men with powerboats and harpoons and nets to terrorize and kidnap the whale -- a powerful wild predator with complex social relations and strong family connections -- pull him out of the water, rendering him completely helpless, and take him away from his family and his home range of many hundreds of square miles.

Then I would put him in a tiny shallow sensory deprivation tank, full of stinking chlorinated water, where his sonar signals and all his distress vocalizations bounce off concrete walls and come back to blast him.

Then I'd deprive him of his natural food and opportunities to hunt and eat normally, and force him to eat the frozen chum that I provide, by hand. (Has the Geneva Convention kicked in yet?) After enough time he might be Keikoized -- incapable of catching his own prey, and so completely dependent on hand-delivered chum.

Then I'd make all access to that chum contingent on him performing the "behaviors" that I require of him. No trick, no eat.

I'd also make his access to any social interaction with other creatures contingent on these "behaviors." Ooh -- ever hear of the Stockholm Syndrome? Well don't trust it too far, because orcas as well as smaller ceteceans attack their handlers with fair frequency. A captive wild "trained" animal is not necessarily tamed, and is never domesticated.

And all access to a slightly larger sensory deprivation tank and opportunities to move, play, and exercise mentally -- also contingent on these "behaviors."

I'll declare 50-70% compliance with my trick cues to be victory -- a "trained" animal.

If, after many years of this brainwashing regimen, I try to transfer the pool tricks to "open water" and the animal actually declines to make for the horizon, or comes back when very hungry (remember, can't catch his own prey anymore -- too debased), I will trumpet my victory. This whale chose to stay with me! When, as is more likely, he disappears entirely, I will keep that as quiet as possible.

Want to know the rest, or has that been "gentle," "positive," and "kindly" enough for you?

I am so @!^%ing sick of the "whale trainers can't use force" argument. What is done to whales is the most sickeningly violent "training" in the universe -- no cattle prods required.

BTW, I have no trouble getting my dogs to provide a urine sample, and it didn't take a clicker or a single cookie to accomplish it.

Eliminating on command is pure classical conditioning, and the dog's "reward" during conditioning is the satisfaction of bladder relief. No +R or -P or any other jargon or gadgets or ideology enter into the equation. Just condition the pup to associate the word with the peeing, and be ready with a pie plate when you need a sample.

The mechanics of cetecean micturation are obscure to me and no doubt present practical challenges, but I'm sure it's pretty much the same training process, once the atrocities are done with and the animal is physically contained and subdued. Mostly.

What's the mystery?


*Positive Reinforcement Operant Conditioning -- i.e., people who claim to believe in the Behaviorist quadrant** schema of all animal learning, but who explicitly discard three of those quadrants and further claim that all animal training need be only in the form of "positive reinforcement," frequently in the form of "free shaping." Many accuse anyone who either uses the other quadrants, or rejects the Skinnerian paradigm altogether, of abuse -- even "torture."

** Often called the "four quadrants" of behaviorism. But really, how many quadrants are there gonna be?


Update: Sea World snatched tragedy from the jaws of decency. Had anyone in the captivity industry wanted to repatriate Tilikum in 1992, it might have been possible. Instead, Sea World essentially goaded the government of Iceland to Just Say No to releasing Tilikum and any other whales in the waters from which they were kidnapped.

The article that dropped the scales from my eyes nine years ago.


  1. It's a wonder that marine mammals aren't psychotic either from the sensory deprivation or the endless echoes of their own voices bouncing off their containment walls.

    Who knows. Maybe they are.

    Marilyn Burris

  2. This brings the trainer death toll of this single whale to 3. At what point do we call it quits and retire this animal?

  3. His second victim was a trespasser, not a trainer.

    This whale needs to be repatriated.

    He would go entirely mad in a tank if not occupied with training and performances.

    For the record, I do not consider it a sign of madness or aberration when a captive wild animal opportunistically kills a human.

  4. I have a relative who lived on Kodiak Island for about 5 years and witnessed a "transient" group of orcas kill and eat several full grown sea lions in the harbor. It's too easy in a context like Sea World to forget that these animals really are wild predators, maybe even for the trainers. A lot of people have a hard enough time understanding dogs or cats, maybe it is too much to ask to expect the general public to understand wild animals completely out of their natural context. That may be one of the biggest downsides of places like Sea World-they may promote serious misunderstanding.

  5. "Whale trainers can't use force!"

    Really? That--that looks like a DOG on the end of my leash. You were saying?

    "Whale trainers can't put a collar and leash on their animals!"

    But DOG trainers can! You were saying?

    "Look at the BOND between whale trainers and their whales!"

    That's funny. Look at the BOND my DOG has with me!

    Rinse and repeat with "Chicken," "Pigeon," "Elephant," or any other nonDOG animal in the place of "Whale."

    Argument FAIL.

  6. Best *ing post I expect to read on this topic, and a post that should appear on the editorial pages of all the nation's major newspapers, if only the nation's major newspapers counted for a damn thing these days.

    Thanks for writing this.

  7. I remember my first trip to Sea World as a small child, and my infatuation with "Shampoo." This was the 80s, but Shamu was already a franchise and "baby" Shamu had already taken up the Trademark.

    The fact that Shamu (II) drenched Grandma and the rest of us in our front row seats was a highlight of the trip.

    Later, the movie "Free Willy" changed this dynamic. I realized just how much of a farce it all is. The animals don't get to go home at night, and no matter how many millions of gallons are in those tanks, it's a prison.

    Whereas I think many zoos have created acceptable habitats for captive wild animals, I don't see how the same can be done for something so large, from such a complex habitat. A pool just can't offer the same experience.

    I wonder if there isn't some private sound somewhere, some little vacation spot where these animal employees can't have a little natural vacation every once and a while. Doesn't that sound nice?

    I think there's a graph you could make between the the level of artifice in captivity against the intelligence of the animal. On this chart we'd plot the welfare and happiness of the animal. For many, I think we have the ability to reach an acceptable level.

    I think this Orca is telling us that his minimum happiness surpasses our ability to provide it in captivity.

    So too have several tigers, lions, apes, and monkeys... always to great uproar and horror.

  8. P.S. Who else got a creepy feeling about why the trespasser was even there. Am I the only one who thinks said trespasser attended a Furry Convention or two, or perhaps removed his own swim trunks for less than honorable reasons?

    I did a little more digging and yes, the man was found without trunks. The report I read said that they think the Orca ripped them off, but um, I'm doubtful.

  9. We need to stop keeping killer whales in captivity.

    This is one issue that really "grinds my gears."

    I'm surprised (and heartened) that virtually everyone is approaching this issue from this angle.

    However, one point. I do think this animal snapped. These animals never attack people in the wild.

    The only attacks I've heard of have been from captive whales.

    And it's not really a whale at all. It's a giant dolphin.

    But even bottlenosed dolphins have attacked. Even wild ones.

  10. I think it should also be noted that Killer Whales are dangerous animals. It was once thought that only humans hunt white sharks... we now know that killer whales do as well and that the sharks will leave the area if a killer whale kills one.

    I have to agree with Retrieverman and say that I think that orcas should not be kept in captivity.

  11. BTW, I'm also against keeping elephants in captivity.

    And whales sharks.

    I'm not convinced that either animal can thrive in a captive situation.

  12. Christopher,

    I think that guy is actually Troy McClure.

    You may remember him from such Simpsons episodes as one where he tried to marry Selma to cover up for his marine mammal and fish fetish.

  13. I am relieved to check back and see comments posted. This may be the best internet rant in the history of rants, and I'm glad to see it brought out for fresh reading.

  14. Whatever horrible things happen to whales and dolphins (and I don't think for a second that capturing unharmed wild animals and "transforming" them into performers is ethical, no matter how it's claimed to be accomplished), it also doesn't change the fact that there is no need to scare or cause pain to a dog in the name of "training."

    Humane is humane, folks. What we do to satisfy our egos can be a scary thing when it comes to animal training. Feeling angry because someone else chooses not to use force on an animal -- well, I dunno what to say.

  15. Sara,

    I don't know that any here would claim to be angry because someone else does not use force, maybe they would be pissed to hear someone who chose not to use force was berating them for using a adverse stimulus. Any one who thinks a leash pop forces a dog to do something should reexamine their understanding. Not to mention the irony of condeming a person for not being purely positive. . .

    I hope someone else gets this irony.


  16. I think this Orca is telling us that his minimum happiness surpasses our ability to provide it in captivity.

    So too have several tigers, lions, apes, and monkeys... always to great uproar and horror.

    I seem to recall reading about a trio of dummkopfs who taunted a tiger at the San Francisco zoo before she came and reminded them why that wasn't such a wise course of action, with permanent results for one of their number. I'm not sure what the applicability of that particular lesson is to this situation.

  17. Rob,

    I loved that story. Darwinism in action. I got the vibe that those kids genuinely wanted to cause that animal harm, the same sort of jackasses that would kick a puppy for giggles.

    They draw their humor out of how offensive they can be and not get reprimanded, but it's hard not to find them failing at their own joke to be a worthy punishment.

    In their case, I think it's amazingly lucky that their malfeasance didn't result in the harm of many other zoo patrons. If they had acted just a few minutes earlier, imagine the damage that could have been done.

  18. Sassanik, almost any animal has the potential to be "dangerous" as you seem to define it.

    Killer whales are predators, as are lions, dogs, etc. Some viruses and bacteria are pretty darned dangerous, too. It's a circular deal- life, death, life, death.....

    There is a general issue here-the keeping of genetically wild animals in captivity for entertainment and profit- that transcends the behavior of any one species.

    I'm not holding my breath, but it would be nice if the trainer's death served as a prompt for that larger discussion.

    I've posted my own rant about the issue over at which has a link back to....HH's terrific post here.

  19. Humane is humane, folks. What we do to satisfy our egos can be a scary thing when it comes to animal training. Feeling angry because someone else chooses not to use force on an animal -- well, I dunno what to say.

    I think it's actually something like the reverse. The positive-only trainers get a little ranty.

  20. I think the tie between these stories is this: we can not so easily enforce our will on animals that have the power to fight back.

    Although animals are dumb (formal definition), having the power and intelligence and awareness to cause us harm does give them a bargaining chip in the negotiation on how they should be treated.

    Sociopaths often act out on animals before they graduate to humans because you can evoke a response, but in general you are in the power position.

    Whether it is physically abusive or sexually abusive, or even just naive emotional abuse, both this whale and that tiger were victims of being a plaything to humans who didn't appreciate the risks.

  21. Sara writes:
    "Humane is humane, folks. What we do to satisfy our egos can be a scary thing when it comes to animal training. Feeling angry because someone else chooses not to use force on an animal -- well, I dunno what to say."

    Do tell. What exactly is humane about socially depriving an animal such as an Orca that lives in pods or family groups in the wild, stuff it in a swimming pool instead of allowing it the fullness of the oceans in which it was born and depriving it of food in order to get it to perform parlor tricks?

    Do you think for a minute that that degree of deprivation and social isolation is humane?

  22. stonesoup -

    You missed the boat. There are two issues we're talking about here and you've conflated the two.

    One is the animal welfare issues of keeping these animals.

    The other is the training methods popularized on dolphins (and killer wales) that have become revolutionary in dog training, and the two (plus) schools of thought on that endeavor.

    One is akin to should you keep your kids in a cage, the other is akin to should you spank them.

  23. Oh Sarah, thank you for playing, but no Spongebob plushie today.

    Congratulating yourself on how "kind" your "training" is when the trainer's need to feel good about her moral purity overrides the dog's legitimate needs for earned freedom, leadership, clarity, and respect for his dignity and maturity may just possibly count as satisfying one's ego.

    "Managing the environment" to prevent a dog from making a mistake for years, or for the life of the dog, is different only in degree, not in kind, from "managing" an orca in a glorified bathtub. It just frontloads the coercion to a place where you can delude yourself that it is not part of the "training."

    I'd link to Suzanne Clothier's marvelous article "Of Hostages and Relationships," but it is, ironically enough, being held hostage in the spider hole of the author's mandatory-registration website now.

  24. What's with this unnatural aversion with pain? It's the most important sense by far. People who can't see, can't hear, can't taste, can't smell, all live very normal and productive lives.

    Those who can't feel pain are horrible messes who rarely live to adulthood.

    If feeling pain weren't vital, we wouldn't have developed such acute senses to feel it.

    I don't fear pain, I fear mediocrity and boredom. To overcome either of those you have to submit to pain and the ample rewards that come with LIVING instead of existing.

    Who'd want to live forever if it required the life of bubble-boy.

    The "positive only!" born agains would ask us to place said bubble around our dogs instead of trading what amounts to minor discomfort for an existence of trust and freedom.


  25. See, I'm not enough of a fool to get on this blog and talk training methods.

    I will say that a well-made e-collar is a wonderful tool if it is in the right hands.

  26. Christopher,

    Perhaps, perhaps not. What is being passed as the epitomy of all positive reinforcement training hails from the marine mammal ranks.

    That these mammals are ripped from their natural environments, forced to live in a variety of deprivation and put on display as entertainment speaks volumes for the endorsers and little for the animals themselves.

    In this case, I'm sorry, I fail to see the difference.

  27. Retrieverman, I was just thinking about that this morning in regard to the yappy little dogs that we have to go past every time we take our dog a walk.

  28. Incidentally, the blog mentioning Cesar Millan asking to come to the AHS conference is horribly flawed and not only for the biggest prevailing fact that they asked HIM to join THEM.

    Oh my, even the smallest victory is snatched from those gaping maws.

  29. Stonesoup -

    Argument fail. You're challenging Sara yet you are saying essentially the same thing.

    Sara says
    - Whales in bathtubs = bad
    - Aversive training = bad
    - Calling out the failures of positive only trainers = bad

    Stonesoup says
    - Whales in bathtubs = bad

    YET, the portion of Sara's post that you duplicated is speaking toward aversive training methods.

    I think you need to clarify your position because from my shoes you're arguing with yourself.

  30. A most excellent rant!

    Already the news is buzzing with experts speculating about the whale's motives. I'm sure that any minute now the facility's PR machine will spin into overdrive providing justification to keep a 12 thousand pound killer who can't be safely exhibited alive.

    I'm flummoxed not only by the pathetic excuses being offered for the cat and mouse game the animal played with his trainer - but why the facility chose to use a whale that had killed two people as breeding stock.

  31. Isn't captive breeding of whales kind of a tricky thing? As in, most of the time they don't want to mate at all?

    Maybe they bred him for the simple fact that he's willing when asked to. Those baby whales bring in top dollar from visitors, after all.

  32. The blame has now been attributed to "trainer error" (


  33. That might be the most hysterical thing I've ever read.

    "Her ponytail just drifted towards his mouth."

    So I guess he got scared of her ponytail that some how got stuck in her mouth, and he went ape.

    Great story.

    I sure believe it!

  34. So she broke protocol by standing on a platform that she was supposed to be standing on anyway, and her hair, on it's own accord (and seemingly the object that broke the protocol), decided to swim itself into the whale's mouth?


    And apparently, they're going to spare the poor creature's dignity and not isolate him...he probably just had a misunderstood childhood, and if people would just UNDERSTAND, they'd see what a GREAT and LOVING personality he is. Even though he, you know, KILLED 3 people and is apparently so aggressive that no one else could get in with him. Kind of like serial killers: their actions are just the result of a hard childhood and abusive past that they never really were able to put behind them. So let's keep working with them and hope they'll change, and when they strike again, we'll just rinse and repeat...

  35. Gina,

    Sorry, but the truth is so much worse than I originally thought regarding the 2nd Victim. I'd link to my post, but it's NC-17 and not for the feint of heart.

    I fear for humanity.

  36. Would this have been preferable Christopher?

    Whales in tanks = wrong
    Using what passes as their training as the model of purely positive training = wrong
    Using isolation and deprivation and couching it as 'positive' = failure

    I'm pretty sure I'm not arguing with myself.

  37. On the subject of morons dying in strange and pantsless circumstances in the tanks of captive sea mammals, anyone else read Carl Hiaasen's 'Native Tongue'?

  38. Amy,

    I keep thinking of "Native Tongue" with all of this too. The whole thing is sad. Sad that the Orca is being kept in captivity, sad that the trainer died, sad that Sarah has only her own emotions to bring to a training discussion.
    Working with wild animals is risky. Not giving dogs all the information they need to live as full, valid members of the family because it makes you (generic you) feel like a big meany and an not all warm and fuzzy, well that just pisses me off.

    Beth G.

  39. Sarah said: "Humane is humane, folks."

    Thank you for that little tautalogy that tells us exactly nothing about the world. What, exactly, does "humane" mean? Who decides? "Unnecessary suffering or pain" is often trotted out, but again, what does "unnecessary" mean, here? Who decides?

    "Cruel" and "humane" tell me exactly nothing about a training method. It just tells me what someone's emotional reaction is.

    Given that I firmly believe that dogs wont put up with training that isn't fair, and by "put up" I mean it wont work very well, even if the dog doesn't go so far as to bite you, I offer that the DOG is the ultimate authority as to the rightness of our methods.

    If the dog is learning what he is supposed to, and when training is finished the dog is able to work at liberty (off leash, sans ecollar and/or food lures or prompts) then that tells me pretty much all I need to know about the value of a particular training method (but not everything, because we also need to bother to define what "working" means when we say that a method is "working", i.e. what is the desired goal of training?)

    Sarah also said: "What we do to satisfy our egos can be a scary thing when it comes to animal training. Feeling angry because someone else chooses not to use force on an animal -- well, I dunno what to say."

    Well, the charge of cruelty is a pretty serious one. In part because "cruelty" is so poorly and contentiously defined. I can't defend myself against someone's emotional reaction. All I can do is point to my dogs.

    The anger you are referring to is also, I think, a reaction to the tragically common scenario of a "positive" trainer, wedded to their training philosophy, who would rather kill a dog than apply a correction that would likely solve the problem, assuming that all their usual techniques have failed them. It is frustrating indeed to know that there are solutions out there for problems that people frequently kill dogs for. And then to be condemned and accused of cruelty for being willing to apply those solutions...well... I'm just saying the condemnation flying back and forth from each side only has teeth when dogs are DYING because of it.

    Not all pain is created equal. It's the CONTEXT of pain that gives it meaning and makes it more or less acceptable and comprehensible to the animal. A correction applied in the context of a systematically built training relationship, after appropriate preparation, is not viewed BY THE DOG as the same thing as if a total stranger had just walked up and started beating on them or jerking around on their collar (something I think we would all agree on as being abuse).

    To give another example, borrowing from Vicki Hearne, it's the CONTEXT of medicine that makes surgery different from massacre, even when the patient dies. It's the CONTEXT of training (and it's ultimate goal of future safety, freedom, and responsibilities of the dog) that make any discomfort meaningful and acceptable to the dog, and different from sheer abuse.

  40. Tilikum is back in the show.

  41. It goes beyond just the strange and coercive keeping of the whales. They're also made to breed before emotional maturity (not that they have any chance of reaching maturity in a tank) and there have been cases of drowning and abusing babies by mentally ill pre-teen mothers. Kind of like the monkeys raised in the "pit of despair" (which is quite similar to being kept in a fishtank) who were then raperacked for breeding and subsequently demolished their offspring. Which provided no real insights, just confirmation that some people are sick fucks. Seaworld!

    Gosh, imagine stealing a toddler from its village and then forcing it to perform for a living in front of gawkers for its meals. The child will probably grow up to be seriously fucked up, socially isolated, without a language to communicate with, and probably act out violently, especially come puberty. This kind of exploitative freakshow was outlawed long ago, but still we subject our next of kin to these horrors.

    When I say "next of kin" I mean in regards to intellectual and emotional capacity - elephants, whales, apes, and the dogs who we have molded to reflect us.

  42. Heather,
    Very fine work. I loved the "four quadrants" - but then, ideologues spend their time memorizing their catechism and are short on circumspection. Here's almost an companion piece you might like...
    Keep up the pressure.
    Gary Wilkes


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