Quickie Post — The Agony of Tilikum, or Sentience is Sentience, no matter what the package


Conor and Graffiti, Underside of the Revelstoke Bridge, New Years Day, 2017, taken by brother Braden

A story came flying across my desktop yesterday, with true dual meaning, involving the death of one of the most famous orcas or recent memory, Tilikum, at Sea World San Diego.  Tilikum was the whale featured in the movie documentary, Blackfish, which I honestly can’t bring myself to watch. Too much empathy or something on my part.  Orcas are inherently social, mesoscale predators that rely on intensive collaboration as they hunt — much like wolves, dolphins or humans.  And those types of evolved behaviors fire up the social empathetic brain in their species, much as they started humans on the long path to the coordinated societies we live in today.

For those not in the know, Tilikum was the killer whale that over the course of his lifetime, killed three people — two handlers, and a person that slipped into his pool late at night.  The first death hastened the shutting down of the first marine park he stayed in — Sealand of the Pacific, in Victoria, BC.  The third death, of trainer Dawn Brancheau, started a backstage revolt at SeaWorld Orlando, and the total movement to ban orcas from being held in captivity.

Tilikum’s life history reads like any murderer’s monologue.  He was captured in the open sea by killer whale hunters plying the oceans for the marine park trade at the age of 2, and taken from his mother.  Orcas exist in matrilineal pods, so this must have been especially traumatic.  According to Wikipedia, males sexually mature at age 15, but do not typically reproduce until 21.  That implies a long period of developmental neoteny, and with it the likely consequences of disruptive attachment on the orca brain. The timescale matches humans so much, it is eerie.

From the open ocean and his mother, Tilikum was placed in a holding pool with two other orca females, that relentlessly bullied him, scraping him with their teeth and otherwise battering him.  Upon being transferred to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum was set up as a very typical ‘Target of Blame’ for other orcas, and was also bullied.  As a result, he spent most of his time alone in his own holding tank.

Critics of any notion of animal sentience will likely blanch at the idea of transferring learned human social behavior as being trans-species, and argue that it’s human transference that got us into this mess in the first place.  SeaWorld as a corporation has always projected an image of orcas as happy-go-lucky splashy performers that love kids.  But anyone with experience with any sentient, group-oriented, empathetic being (how in the world did those other orcas figure out this orca was a bullying target?) knows that taking such a creature and isolating it in a box at a mental age of 2 is a recipe for bizarre pathologies.  I’ve discussed solitary confinement before.  What does solitary confinement look like for an open ocean creature like an orca?  SeaWorld is the equivalent of a Supermax federal correctional facility.

If there’s a hopeful note in all of this, it’s that SeaWorld is phasing out orca shows because of pressure from the larger society — yet another sign of increasing empathetic levels around the world.  I have to take hope in that, even if only a little.  At the same time, when are we going to get to the point of realizing the intrinsic role of connection among all sentient beings, especially inside the species in-group?  When will we factor obvious psychic distress in how we construct our institutions?  It’s a long journey in front of us.

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