Forced Inbreeding and Bloody Battles—Killer Whales Live in Horror at Spanish Theme Park

Attacks against low-ranking orcas are not only intolerable—they’re illegal. Will U.S. officials step in and save them?

The battle scars of Tekoa, a killer whale living at Loro Parque, a Spanish theme park. (Photo: timzimmermann.com)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Animal welfare advocates are desperately seeking U.S. government intervention in the case of seven SeaWorld-owned killer whales on “loan” at Loro Parque, a theme park in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Armed with photographic evidence showing at least two lower-ranking orcas raked with teeth marks, and a new, damning report from a leading whale scientist, advocates say the federal government must repatriate the animals back to the United States at once.

“These whales are so young, without a normal upbringing, and now they’re in Spain together without any sort of adult orca supervision—it’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ over there.”

“The group of orcas held at Loro Parque is fundamentally dysfunctional and the trainers there are not experienced enough to recognize or address this. Remote oversight by SeaWorld has been insufficient to prevent systemic social problems within this group of animals,” Dr. Naomi Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International, wrote last month to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which shares jurisdiction over captive marine mammals with the USDA.

“The situation at Loro Parque cannot safeguard the orcas’ well-being and once again, we urge you to compel SeaWorld to repatriate these animals,” Rose said in a letter cosigned by the Animal Welfare Institute and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

The two low-ranking members of the artificial, dysfunctional pod at Loro Parque are routinely subjected to violent attacks, leaving deep scars etched in their skin that would be unthinkable among orcas in the natural environment, critics allege.

 

One victim is the young female Morgan, a wild orca who became lost off the Dutch coast and, following lengthy court battles, ended up in Tenerife. 

“Since her transfer she has been brutally and continually attacked and is subjected to excessive sexual pressure from a male orca who she is often locked into the same tank with,” Dr. Ingrid Visser of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust wrote of Morgan in the report, which has been submitted to USDA and NOAA as evidence in the repatriation effort.

Trainers at the park show “a clear lack of empathy for this animal,” Visser said, “who ignore her calls for attention and her cries for help and disregard aggressive attacks on her by the other animals.”

Visser observed Morgan for 77 hours over eight days, and witnessed an “unprecedented 91 aggression events” involving the newcomer, who arrived in 2011. “Morgan, was attacked, on average, more than once an hour,” she wrote, noting that a similar study of another captive orca “recorded an aggressive episode only once every 234 hours.”

In other words, Morgan is “over than 100 times more likely to be attacked at Loro Parque than the orca in the other study,” Visser said. Morgan has suffered more than 320 puncture and bite marks (all documented by photographs), she added. “This does not include the damage she has self-inflicted from abnormal and repetitive behaviors such as banging her head on the concrete tanks.”

The other abused orca is Tekoa, who Visser once called in court documents “the most attacked and bitten orca in the world-wide captive industry.”

The young, confounding life of Tekoa has never been easy, and he has been both perpetrator and victim of serious attacks that simply do not happen in the wild. But when one considers the messed up little society in which he has been forced to live, the aggression becomes easier to comprehend.

In 2006, SeaWorld sent four young whales, all born in captivity, to Loro Parque on a renewable 25-year loan in exchange for a percentage at the box-office and ownership of offspring produced at the park.

All four transplants, two males and two females, had already led lives that I described as “interrupted” in my book Death at SeaWorld.  The females were Kohana, and Skyla. Both males are related to Skyla. Keto is a half-brother though their mother Kalina and the oldest and perhaps most dysfunctional of the quartet. But it’s the ravaged Tekoa, Skyla’s half-brother through Tilikum, who caught the attention of many advocates.

Tekoa was born in Orlando to an unstable mother named Taima, a bizarre hybrid of Icelandic mother and Pacific-transient father who could only be bred in captivity. Taima attacked her firstborn and was equally aggressive with Tekoa. Mother and son were separated after Taima tried to kill him. In April 2004, SeaWorld sent Tekoa to San Antonio before “lending” him to Loro Parque in 2006.

Advocates were aghast at the trans-Atlantic arrangement. Killer whales, whether in the ocean or a crowded pool, are highly socialized animals who learn from elders about proper norms of behavior. Mothers, grandmothers and older siblings keep youngsters in check, and extinguish outbursts of disharmony that disrupt cohesion and proper pod functioning.

“These whales are so young, without a normal upbringing, and now they’re in Spain together without any sort of adult orca supervision,” one observer said. “It’s like Lord of the Flies over there.”

The little dysfunctional family has grown recently.

In October 2010, the very young Kohana gave birth to a male calf, Adan, who she immediately rejected. Last August, she gave birth again, to a female named Victoria, who was also promptly rejected. Keto is the father of both, but as Elizabeth Batt pointed out at Digital Journal, he is a blood relative of Kohana, meaning she was bred twice “to her own uncle.”

Killer whale society is highly stable, though at Loro Parque, it seems to be anything but. Trainers have paid the price for this instability, but so have the orcas, especially the subdominant members of this matriarchal world.

Lowly Tekoa has borne much of the physical abuse, as evidenced by photos taken before and after his skin was covered in “rake marks” etched from the sharp conical teeth of tank-mates. Unlike the ocean, when an orca is attacked at Loro Parque, there is nowhere to escape, nowhere to hide.

This image, first published by journalist Tim Zimmermann, shows that Tekoa’s dorsal side is scarred, scraped and battered by teeth-marks inflicted by his tank-mates, some of whom are related to him, in SeaWorld’s tiny, inbred universe of captive orcas.

“Tekoa is definitely subordinate, although he is probably no longer the lowest in the hierarchy—Morgan and the two calves are in that position now,” Naomi Rose told TakePart. “In wild orca society, no one gets beat up like this.”

In the wild, offspring likely inherit their mother’s status, which along with age determines pecking order. Thus, “beating each other up doesn’t need to occur and doesn’t, occur,” Rose asserted. Calves might nip others out of “youthful ignorance and exuberance,” she said, and relatives sometimes show a few nicks.

Other nicks, scratches and scars “are probably inflicted when discipline is meted out within a maternal group,” Rose said. But those are minor wounds that only sometimes become permanent scars. “We never see this kind of mish-mash of scars and rake marks and wounds when photo-identifying a wild orca,” she said.

Ingrid Visser concurred. “In the wild, even these playful nips are exactly that: You don’t see the outright attacks like I’ve seen at Loro Parque.” She compared such aberrant activities to what takes place in prison, calling it “seriously aggressive behavior, typically manifested on the lower individuals in the population,” as opposed to the “protective behavior” of more “normal” societies.

The beat-up Tekoa is himself no stranger to displaying “seriously aggressive behavior,” at least against people.

In October 2007, trainer Claudia Vollhardt was warming up with Tekoa when he became frustrated and took her arm into his mouth. Then he dove to the bottom. Tekoa held her underwater a moment, then dragged her to the surface. After escaping, even as Vollhardt lay injured and bleeding, Tekoa tried to lunge from the water at her. Her right lung was punctured and her forearm fractured into three pieces. 

Suzanne Allee, a former SeaWorld employee who worked at Loro Parque, recalled that in the summer of 2007, “Tekoa was forced to perform while injured and bleeding after the supervisor lost control of Keto and he raced into the show pool and attacked Tekoa.” The supervisor ordered the show to go on, but “Claudia was the one who continued to perform with Tekoa,” Allee said. “I still believe Tekoa remembered this incident when he attacked her just a few months later.”

Both Tekoa and half-sister Sklya were banished from “water work” with trainers, due to aggressive unpredictability. Now, only Kohana and Keto could be trusted to swim with humans.

That illusion shattered on Christmas Eve, 2009, when Keto brutally rammed and killed trainer Alexis Martinez, a close friend of Orlando employee Dawn Brancheau, who’d spent time in Tenerife training trainers. Two months later, Brancheau was killed by Tekoa’s father, Tilikum.

Because these unstable creatures belong to SeaWorld, they still fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Activists continue to lobby for action, but so far the feds refuse to intervene.

“We’re in touch with the U.S. regulatory authorities to pressure them to act under what we believe are their obligations under the law,” explained Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. But the government has “put the onus on us to prove there are issues over there, and I think that Ingrid Visser’s eyewitness accounts, and these other photos, provide all the evidence they need to intervene,” Vail said. “We are awaiting their response.”

Meanwhile, she added, the Canary Island orcas are “beating each other up over there.”

Activists say the time to return these hapless whales to the United States is now, before more injuries and deaths occur. And though some might scoff at “repatriating” marine mammals, scientists like Rose take the idea quite seriously.

Rose noted that SeaWorld repatriated the orca Ikaika from Marineland Ontario after decrying his sub-par conditions in Canada. “Clearly the company is able and willing to relocate orcas when conditions at a present holding facility put them at risk,” she wrote, adding that, “Loro Parque and SeaWorld must act—if SeaWorld will not, NOAA must compel it to.”

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