TERRY PRONE: Seeing in high definition the folly of imprisoning wild killer whales

Way to go, if you want to create an adult killer whale ready, willing, and able to attack a human, writes Terry Prone

I COMMITTED to a smart HD TV before Christmas because Himself was complaining that he couldn’t see the golf balls when he was watching tournaments. He could see the lads swinging all right, but the swing was followed by soaring camera views of clouds with no ball visible. I was amazed. I thought that was normal. I thought the soaring camera views were designed to remind you of scudding clouds and of how irritating it is that the verb “to scud” applies only to clouds.

HD TV would solve all of those problems, we were told. Which was another irritant. Could someone please write an end to the onward march of the acronym (or initialism) before public discourse reduces itself to one cluster of letters and numerals after another?

The same week the HD TV arrived, a radio producer sent me a list of topics to be discussed on a planned programme, one of which was GE16. I asked Himself what GE16 was but he was too enthralled watching flying golf balls compete with scudding clouds to answer. For the next three hours, I asked anybody I encountered what GE16 was. Blank faces. Shrugs. I finally got lucky with a politician, who did that indrawn breath through teeth thing and said: “You’re joking, of course.” Deadly serious, I said. “You of all people,” the politician said.

I could get really tired of “you of all people,” I thought. My sister had moments earlier used it on me because of my An Post mistake. My An Post mistake was to describe Rathfarnham as Dublin 8 on an envelope containing a Christmas present for her. She’s been living in Rathfarnham for nigh on half a century, and I have of necessity known this. Hence her “you of all people” observation when the present didn’t arrive and has continued to not arrive. My excuse is that I haven’t physically posted anything in about 10 years, and you get de-skilled. This doesn’t seem to console my sister that much.

The politician said he couldn’t believe that I of all people wouldn’t know what GE16 meant. Because it means General Election, 2016. I distracted him by talking about the joys of HD, meaning High Definition, which in TV terms means you can see the presenter’s back teeth even when they have their mouth closed. I’m here to confirm that Brian Dobson’s back teeth are in incomparably stellar condition.

The politician joined the queue. When you tell people you are getting a smart HD TV, they immediately give you a list of what you should watch. Ten titles surface most frequently: Bloodline, House of Cards, Narcos, Hank, Fog of War, Enron, Blackfish, The Hot Blonde, Goodfellas, and Breaking Bad.

One outlier — Home Alone — was offered by someone who, having examined the list up to that point, described it as the kind of politically-correct load of bilge espoused by people who think they are intellectually better than the rest of us. I added it, but it’s a long way down the menu. That’s partly because it took us a while to get the hang of the new remote, which is why Himself watched a movie entitled Aloha and couldn’t figure out why Kevin Spacey wasn’t in it.

He thought he was watching House of Cards. When we got a grip on House of Cards, we were afraid to leave it, in case it wouldn’t play with us again, so we binge-watched. Binge-watching House of Cards means you overdose on murder, mayhem, betrayal, conspiracy, and sex between thin people.

Then we watched Blackfish. Even if you have read extensively about the patent immorality of setting out to capture huge wild mammals — in this case, killer whales — and transport them thousands of miles to dump them in what for them is the equivalent of a back garden paddling pool where the highlight of their day is being bribed by wet-suited swimmers into play-acting for an audience, Blackfish is a kick in the heart.

It shows the resources — boats, planes, and people — used to separate whale calves from the mothers, alongside whom they would otherwise live for the majority of their long lives. It shows them winched and stowed for transport to SeaWorld. It shows the mothers calling out for them and grieving.

The documentary tries to avoid anthropomorphism by taking evidence from Orca whale experts which doesn’t stress the obvious parallels between removing a pre-schooler from the mother with whom it has bonded and the family to which it belongs, and removing a young whale from the wild.

It does, however, suggest with some force that more than one of these whales has been so damaged that, while bouncing a trainer on its nose or obediently ‘bowing’ for a thrown dead fish, it is filled with a rage that requires only the coming together of a few factors to find lethal expression.

In 2012, precisely the right confluence of factors happened in SeaWorld. Tilikum, an Orca captured off Iceland in 1983, was turfed into a pool in a now-defunct marine park with two bigger female whales which beat him up so frequently he had to be moved to a smaller pool and kept in isolation there. So an already-traumatised member of a species noted for tight familial socialising was taken away from what he knew and put in prison with bigger thugs, this followed by long spells in solitary.

Way to go, if you want to create an adult killer whale ready, willing and able to attack a human. Whenever Tilikum was taken out of isolation, it was not to be with his own species, but to ‘play’ for bribe fish with a human trainer.

In due course, like a Victorian monkey or chained ‘dancing’ bear, Tilikum became a star in SeaWorld, after departing the other park. His dorsal fin wilted, as do the dorsal fins of almost all whales in captivity. He did his tricks. Until the day trainer Dawn Brancheau got on the wrong side of him. She was used to balancing on his nose, being thrown off into a graceful dive. On this day, however, she was running out of fish in the bucket and the highly intelligent whale could tell the supply was short because of the tiddlers being thrown. Face-to-face, the whale grabbed her arm and dragged her under, killing her through drowning and multiple brute force injuries. She was the third human he had done in. He still performs in SeaWorld.

SeaWorld, which has been losing share value steadily since the first showing of Blackfish at the Sundance festival, now says that in one of its locations, tricks won’t be performed by its whales, because visitors say — get this — they’d rather see them behaving naturally. As naturally as goldfish going round and round a bowl.

The tricks will continue in other SeaWorld locations where, one assumes, the sensibilities of visitors are less refined. This year, as the recession is over, thousands of Irish families will head to the US for their holidays. Hopefully, they’ll get to enjoy theme parks and nature reserves. Hopefully, none of them will go to SeaWorld.


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