SeaWorld Orlando said Thursday that it intends to keep Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that has now been involved in three fatalities in 19 years, but it hasn't decided whether Tilikum will perform in front of audiences again.
The mammoth male orca has been valuable property for the resort through the years, both as a stud who has fathered 13 calves and as a performer who delights audiences with outsized splashes.
But the characteristics that make the killer whale so prized — testosterone and size — also make him especially dangerous for the trainers who work with him, some orca experts say.
Tilikum on Wednesday pulled veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail into his tank and drowned her. Since the tragedy, the resort is taking extra precautions with the animal, with trainers forbidden from putting their bodies close to him.
The only mature breeding male at SeaWorld, Tilikum is big and randy. As a result, SeaWorld must often keep him separated from the seven other killer whales in its collection.
Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of animal behavior for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said the park's female killer whales typically only want Tilikum around them when they are sexually active. All of SeaWorld's other orcas are either females or juveniles.
"Any one day he could spend the whole day by himself, and the next day he could spend the whole day with the females," Tompkins said. He added that Tilikum spends as much as three days alone, though never longer. But some experts say extended periods of isolation can be stressful for a killer whale, an inherently social animal. That, they say, can in turn make them prone to unpredictable behavior such as that exhibited Wednesday.
"The more isolated they are, the more stressful the situation because, in the wild, social contact is just a constant for them," said Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network in Greenbank, Wash., which advocates for killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.
Wednesday's tragedy was the third death linked to Tilikum. In 1991, he was one of three killer whales that drowned a trainer at the Sealand of the Pacific aquarium near Victoria, British Columbia. And in 1999, authorities discovered a dead body draped across his back; authorities determined the man had sneaked into SeaWorld's orca tank at night and drowned.
"We've proved in the past few years that putting people in solitary confinement makes them crazy. How can we expect anything different from marine animals?" said Edward O. Keith, an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center. "When animals get under stress, they act out; they do crazy things."
In addition to aggressiveness, the 12,000-pound orca's size makes him uniquely threatening. Tilikum is the largest killer whale at any of SeaWorld's parks — roughly twice as big as the next-largest in Orlando.
Because of his size and his history at Sealand of the Pacific, SeaWorld prohibits all of its trainers from entering the water with Tilikum and allows only the most experienced handlers — who included Brancheau — to work with him from the edge of the tank.
Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, said Tilikum is simply too big for SeaWorld. Keeping an orca of that size confined to a man-made tank could also make him agitated and unpredictable, she said.
"In terms of his stress levels, his size is a factor," Rose said. "He is so big, I don't care how big SeaWorld's tanks are, they are too small for him."
SeaWorld officials are emphatic that neither isolation nor confinement contributed to any erratic behavior with Tilikum. Tompkins said the orca never exhibited any signs of frustration or stress, even in the moments leading up to Wednesday's tragedy.
He also said the park's handling of the male killer whale's interaction with the females "is very similar to what we see in the wild."
"We spend hours and hours each day observing and learning about these animals," Tompkins said. "We live by the rule of watching them every day and knowing them."
Park officials say, and many orca experts agree, that it would be difficult to release the whale back into the wild after more than two decades in captivity. Tilikum is 30 years old, and SeaWorld says it expects him to live until 35 or 40.
And despite his past controversies, Tilikum is a valuable animal.
Tilikum, for instance, has fathered 13 calves for SeaWorld at a time when marine parks and aquariums have all but abandoned efforts to acquire new killer whales from the wild, at least in part because of negative publicity. Though the National Marine Fisheries Service has the authority to issue capture licenses for marine mammals that would be used for public display, a representative for the agency said it hasn't received such a request in more than 20 years.
A spokesman for SeaWorld said Thursday that the park is putting together a team of animal-behavior experts, likely to include representatives from the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and International Marine Animal Trainers' Association, to review existing procedures with Tilikum.
Sentinel staff writer Dewayne Bevil contributed to this report. Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times