What’s Eating ‘Keet,’ SeaWorld’s Captive Killer Whale?

The orca’s dorsal fin is in terrible condition—but did a virus or the bite of another killer whale cause the damage?

keet killer whale

Killer whale Keet poses for the camera, back in the days when his dorsal fin wasn't a mangled mess of flesh. (Photo: Courtesy via OrcaHome.de / Texasbettas)

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

As if having his dorsal fin completely collapse weren’t enough, something—or someone—has been eating away at the back of the massive appendage of Keet, an exceedingly itinerant 20-year-old male orca, currently parked at SeaWorld San Diego.

In a video recently posted on YouTube, visitors captured a treatment session in the medical pool. Other witnesses reported similar medical procedures on Keet over the past few months.

In the video, Keet obediently moves into position before the pool bottom, partly covered in green algae, rises up to beach him. Next, a female veterinarian gingerly applies what looks like laser surgery, apparently to cauterize the ragged flesh of his fin. At times you can see bits of his folded dorsal light up in orange as the laser burns away rotted tissue. The curator, heard on tape, is clueless as to what is going on.

I don’t how much pain, if any, the 7,000-pound killer whale is experiencing—he doesn’t seem to flinch. But it’s still a bit hard to watch. And one immediately walks away with the one obvious, but unanswered question: What on earth happened to this poor animal?

SeaWorld did not respond to a request by TakePart for comment, so it is impossible to know why his dorsal fin is in such dreadful shape.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, but maybe others have,” Howard Garrett, an experienced whale observer from The Orca Network, told TakePart. Dr. Ingrid Visser, of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust, said that she has seen wild orcas “with ragged edges to their dorsal fins which are very similar to this.” It’s not clear if boats, sharks or other orcas did the damage.

So what happened to Keet? It was either caused by disease—or another whale.

If another orca attacked Keet, or tore away bits of fin in a bout of extreme roughhousing, he wouldn’t be the first captive killer whale wounded by a tank-mate. In the most infamous contretemps, also at San Diego, in 1989, Kandu and Corky had a severe altercation during a show in which Kandu severed an artery in her jaw. She slowly hemorrhaged to death in a back pool, spurting red jets of blood from her blowhole as helpless staff and her calf Orkid looked on.

Keet’s dorsal looks like it could have been macerated. “Not knowing all the whales in this community, who knows who is doing what to whom, but it sure does look like someone has been chewing on it,” Dr. Naomi Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International, tells TakePart.

Visser concurs. “Without a closer look it’s hard to tell,” she says. “Some of it certainly looks like orca bites.”

It reminds me of the sad story of Tilikum, the three-time killer who spent his youth at the second-rate SeaLand of the Pacific, in Victoria, British Columbia, where he was subjected to almost unceasing abuse by the tank’s two females, who dominate killer whale society.

As I reported in Death at SeaWorld, trainer Eric Walters complained to Canadian officials about safety and animal-welfare issues, including:

The three killer whales were “housed from 1730 hrs until 0800 hrs the following day in what is called the ‘module,’” a small, dark, metal confinement that barely accommodated the animals, Walters wrote. “I have seen the male, Tilikum, with the ends of his flukes [tail] abraded and bleeding,” Walters said. The tight space “leads to conflict between the whales, which have no options for avoiding confrontations. Often the whales’ skin shows teeth marks from aggressive action between the three, which are not just superficial tooth rakes.” Some witnesses said his flukes looked like raw hamburger.

Keet’s injuries, if that’s what they are, look a bit like those inflicted on his father Kotar. The back of his dorsal fin, when he was young, looks chewed on in this photo: Kotar, incidentally, attacked another male, Kanduke, in Orlando, biting his penis. In 1988 Kotar was banished to San Antonio, where he died seven years later when a metal gate crushed his skull.

San Diego, of course, is also home to Nakai, who sustained a ghastly disfigurement on his chin last year. According to journalist Tim Zimmermann, it happened during a major fight between Nakai, another male named Ikaika, and Keet. SeaWorld said Nakai “came in contact with a portion of the pool.”

Then there’s the germ theory. It’s possible, but if Keet’s flesh-eating disease is infectious, he must be isolated and the algae-laden medical pool thoroughly sanitized after each use.

“It’s hard to say without knowing his diagnosis, but not all diseases are highly contagious. It could be his outbreak is related, say, to stress rather than something external that can be sanitized,” Jenni James, litigation fellow at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, tells TakePart.

Keet’s condition could be viral, James notes. “In rehab facilities, for instance, stranded sea lions with San Miguel skin disease, which is viral, don’t need to be isolated because the virus won’t generally spread unless they are housed with seals who also have open sores.”

SeaWorld may say Keet is not contagious and sanitizing is not necessary, James adds, “but I doubt they would address the correlation between stress and viral outbreaks. SeaWorld won’t want to admit Keet is stressed, particularly because housing incompatible animals together is a violation of the law. Of course, Keet’s stress is not necessarily from his tank-mates. If those are the only choices, his outbreak is stress-related or external, SeaWorld’s in a conundrum because the one shows that captivity is stressful, and if it's external, then why is he not isolated?”

As for algae, even in a medical pool, growth is not strictly prohibited under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Algae growth is recognized as a contributor to poor water quality and bacterial growth, but it’s not banned. “An argument could be made either way that the algae in this video is a violation,” Rose says. “It would be easier all around if they clearly stated that ‘visible algae growth is not permitted.’ ”

Whatever or whoever was eating Keet, he is obviously getting good care. But one hopes it won’t happen again. He’s had a rough, unusually ambulatory life. Ripped from his mother’s side in Texas at just 20 months old, he was shipped to Florida. In 1999, he was moved to California and, the next year, to Ohio. A year later, he flew back to San Diego. In 2004, he was dispatched to Texas and, last year, sent once more to California.

Meanwhile, the public deserves an explanation. If some microbe assaulted Keet’s fin, can we be sure it won’t recur? And if he was attacked by another orca, will SeaWorld comply with the AWA’s provision that, “Marine mammals shall not be housed near animals that would cause them stress or discomfort, or interfere with their good health?”

If that’s the case, then the hapless, wayfaring Keet might have to board a plane once again.

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