Killers–Is Captivity Driving Killer Whales Mad?


Is captivity driving killer whales mad?

             Talk turned to the deadly dangers of a fisherman’s life at sea.  Enormous waves capsizing a tiny vessel in a ferocious storm and sending it to the bottom in minutes; becoming lost in a blinding fog so thick the familiar bow of the boat is gone, and crashing on the rocks; becoming ensnarled in the rigging and being towed under with the crab pots to a watery grave.  John Hurwitz, a white whiskered, salty Dungeness crab fisherman speaking from the deck of his boat the Irene Marie confessed his greatest fear to me.  “The only thing that scares me out there are the killer whales.  When I see one we clear the deck.  I’m worried that they will leap across the deck and grab me.”

            That was three weeks ago, before the circus whale known as Tilikum, snatched its trainer, Dawn Brancheau by her hair and pulled her into the tank at Sea World.  Shaking her like a rag doll, Dawn Brancheau was killed in front of hundreds of shocked spectators.  Disillusioned and confused the public has tried to understand the dysfunctional psyche of this beloved animal turned murder.  This particular individual is a serial killer.  This is the third trainer this whale has killed. 

            As a marine biologist my specialization was shark research, but the most vicious attack I ever witnessed at sea was a pod of killer whales tormenting a helpless grey whale.    Grey whales are much larger than killer whales, but the killers come in packs.  Like a mob, the killer whales had circled the grey whale turned belly up defensively to protect her vulnerable belly.  The killers raided in turns from every direction as the rest of the pack circled the helpless animal.  Taking turns a killer would leap out of the water with the amazing speed and power of a dolphin and crash their 9 tons of weight down on the grey whale as the others bit at the victim as she was driven under or biting when she rolled over to gasp a quick breath through the blowhole on the top of her head.  Killer whales go for the grey whale’s rich tongue.  They leave the carcass for the sharks and other scavengers.

            These whales were named by people of the sea who knew them well.  All animals prey on some other life form, but these whales are called killers.  They were given this name because these animals have the intelligence to organize themselves into social groups and attack ferociously with military cunning.  Invincible at their pinnacle atop the food chain, killer whales are the supreme hunters in the world’s oceans. 

            But to call them murders, and to wonder in disbelief how an animal so beloved and nurtured by human beings could become psychotically deranged and attack its handler, is to mistakenly project human qualities on an animal that has no concept of human beings or the ability to comprehend the capabilities that our remarkable brain provides.  The human brain so far outstrips the mental abilities of every other animal on the planet, comparison between the human mind and the cognitive abilities of any other animal is absurdly disproportionate. 

            Whales have the biggest brains on the planet in absolute size, and in proportion to body size the whale brain is one of the largest.  Throughout the animal kingdom brain size correlates with the social abilities of animals.  For the same reason evolution endowed Homo sapiens with a large brain, whales, and some species of sharks, have very large brains because they need them to coordinate their sophisticated social interactions.   But you cannot gauge intellect simply with a meat scale or a ruler.

            Superficially the whale brain somewhat resembles the human brain.  The whale’s cerebral cortex is highly convoluted—looking like kinky hair in comparison to the wavy convolutions of the human brain, but the whale cerebral cortex is thin and the cellular structure is much simpler than that of the human brain.  The human cerebral cortex has six layers of intricately wired brain cells in the cerebral cortex.  In animals like cats and raccoons the cellular structure of this part of the brain responsible for higher level cognitive function in humans is more complex than it is in whales. 

            The tragic death at Sea World has opened debate about whether the confines of captivity are so cruel they drive these intelligent creatures mad.  Whales are wondrous creatures, but the reality is that the true nature of these animals is unfamiliar to most.  People are eager to project human thoughts and emotions on creatures that are adoringly intelligent–for an animal.  Adoring pet lovers who tenderly care for a dog or cat never feel that the abnormal life they provide these creatures is cruel, even though a dog may bite and a cat may scratch its owner.  These whales, called killers, are simply doing what they do.