KATHLEEN PARKER: Whales don't premeditate, but they can lose control

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON – Reaction to the horror at SeaWorld, a nightmare seldom seen outside Peter Benchley’s imagination, has run the exhausted gamut.
“Kill. The. Fish.” was one talk-radio host’s suggestion. “Save the whale” has been the sentiment of animal lovers, including the victim’s family. So goes life in the Land of Twitter.
Mostly people want to know: What was the whale thinking? Why did he do it? The truth is probably less interesting than our anthropomorphizing minds might wish. Most likely, Tilikum the Killer Whale simply had a “seeing red” moment. He lost control – and then it was over.
Sometimes the Discovery Channel eats Disney.
This, more or less, is the considered opinion of a former whale trainer and scientist, Heidi Harley, who happens to be my cousin. Naturally, upon hearing the news of Tilikum, I called Heidi, a former whale trainer and Orca-rider at Miami’s Seaquarium. She now teaches comparative cognitive psychology at New College in Sarasota, Fla.
Basically, Heidi is a dolphin shrink, though she wouldn’t put it that way, and probably wishes I wouldn’t. She remembers fondly her days in the 1980s riding a killer whale named Lolita, whom she describes as “exceptionally good-natured.”
Heidi is an intractable scientist, resistant to even a cousin’s urging to summarize and opine. Data-dependent, she declines to presume anything beyond the observable and provable. She does, however, offer a few objective observations that are relevant and, therefore, interesting.
First, she notes that the whale who mauled and drowned trainer Dawn Brancheau had a history of aggression and probably should not interact with humans in the future except under extremely controlled circumstances. That is obvious in retrospect and doubtless will be the case henceforth. But toward theories of human-like motives (premeditation, for example, as one “expert” suggested), she is highly skeptical.
For the record, Heidi is no run-of-the-mill dolphin shrink. Her accomplishments include teaching dolphins to sing the theme song to “Batman” and creating an alphabet that allows dolphins and humans to “speak.”
The idea that a whale could premeditate presupposes what science cannot prove, says Heidi. Sea mammals have many amazing characteristics, including the ability to communicate within species and to form long-term relationships. But there is no evidence that they can imagine a different world and act to produce that alternative reality, as humans routinely do.
Such “thinking” requires sophisticated cognitive functioning that data do not support. Meanwhile, only a whale knows what a whale knows. This is in part a function of our willingness to love and protect whales. They’re so valued as performers that they’re difficult to access for research, according to Heidi. That’s good for visitors to SeaWorld, but not so good for scientists who can’t pursue study that might provide answers.
What is known – and what is more surprising than “killer whale kills trainer” – is that so few such incidents occur. It is really quite remarkable that humans ever should feel comfortable, and statistically safe, sharing a tank of water with a behemoth creature that – for the most part – exercises significant self-control.
“There’s something remarkably restrained about the animals. That this happened is a tragedy,” says Heidi.
Even when whales and dolphins give signals of aggression, slapping their tails or nodding heads, they are really demonstrating their self-control. When they “see red,” as humans often do (crimes of passion), they simply lose it. No plan, no strategy, just a very bad moment.
What sets off a whale in such circumstances could be any number of factors unrelated to the trainer. Often the spark may come from anger toward another in their group. “You’re the pathetic swimmer in the group, and so they may come after you,” says Heidi.
The question that inevitably arises in these rare instances is, should whales be in captivity and exploited as circus acts? That, ultimately, is a values question. Should we have zoos? Eat meat? Drive SUVs?
Whales born and raised in captivity can’t safely be delivered to the open seas. Meanwhile, arguments can be made that interaction between pampered animals and humans ultimately raises awareness that leads to protection. Not long ago, commercial fishermen used to shoot killer whales on sight.
But if we want to understand more about what causes a massive male predator to destroy a human being in a sunny Orlando pool, we may have to protect whales a little less and make them more available to researchers.
Or else leave them to their own devices, possibly elsewhere.
Kathleen Parker writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact her at kathleenparker@washpost.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.