Ask Shamu: The U.S. Tortures Both Human and Animal Prisoners
The terms “torture” and “solitary confinement” have surfaced over and over again in articles and commentaries about Tilikum, the captive killer whale who drowned his trainer at Florida’s SeaWorld last month. For the most part, the authors of these pieces have sought mercy for Tilikum. While the six-ton orca had been implicated in two previous human deaths, they argue, Tilikum’s torturous life in capitivity rendered his behavior understandable, however horrific its results may have been.
Many of Tilikum’s defenders highlight the rare intelligence and sensitivity of orcas and other dolphin species. And by way of mitigating circumstances, they point to his tragic youth, in which he was forcibly ripped from his family and community, and to the lonely and restricted life he has lived ever since, released from isolation in his tank only to perform or to breed.
While the FAQ section on SeaWorld’s web site, called “Ask Shamu,” emphasizes that the theme park often “rescue[s] sick, orphaned, or injured animals,” Tilikum’s history is far less benign. In the Harrisburg Patriot News, Karen Steinrock wrote:
Tilikum’s idyllic life came to an abrupt halt in November 1983 at the age of 2, when he was snatched from his mother and siblings off the coast of Iceland—a traumatic experience for any young orca. For the next 28 years, he learned to perform tricks for food in a confined “ocean” measured in feet instead of fathoms, circling endlessly with an artificial family… Holding a highly social creature in solitary confinement for decades and asking him to perform repetitious stunts in unnatural surroundings seems cruel.
One of the more compelling opinions of the SeaWorld tragedy came from Psychology Today contributing writer Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D. She specializes in human-animal relationships and trauma recovery… Bradshaw believes after suffering a violent and premature separation from his mother, Tilikum’s diagnosis conforms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Tilikum suffered shock and relational trauma from the capture, disrupted development and chronic stress during imprisonment for three decades,” she writes.
Even legendary marine explorer Jacques Cousteau weighed in years ago, stating “There’s about as much educational benefit studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary.”