Tilikum’s day (in fact, the day of every SeaWorld orca) is structured and governed by the trainers, veterinarians and management of SeaWorld. They decide who he will be with and for how long, which tanks he will have access to, which toys he will have and when he has and doesn’t have those toys. They control which shows he will appear in, what “behaviors” he will do during the show and when he will be fed (as well as the amount and type of food he gets). They decide who (if anyone) he mates with or if a trainer will collect his semen1 for artificial insemination (Robeck et al. 2004).
The ability to choose is an important aspect when considering quality of life for animals, including those kept in captivity. For example, see Hill and Broom (2009), who state, “By giving animals choices in their environment (‘asking’ the animals what they want), we can increase our understanding of their needs for access to resources, and for opportunities to express particular behaviors that are important to them” (p. 534).
Environmental enrichment is a common method among zoos and aquariums to improve captive animal welfare, through providing for the psychological and behavioral needs of an individual. It commonly involves, but is not limited to: husbandry training; providing appropriate and/or novel stimuli (such as water squirted from a hose); “toys;” social interactions (with trainers and with conspecifics); and species-specific enclosures that meet the physical and mental requirements of the animal (such as appropriate enclosure size or vegetation).
Mellen and Sevenich MacPhee (2001), when discussing the daily management of animals in captivity, note that the “[c]ritical elements of effective environmental enrichment are 1) assessing the animal’s natural history, individual history, and exhibit constraints and 2) providing species-appropriate opportunities, i.e., the animal should have some choices within its environment” (p. 211).
The growing concern regarding welfare in captive wildlife has been a policy and ethical issue for many years now. Dawkins (1990) stated, “Suffering includes a wide range of unpleasant emotional states such as fear, boredom, pain and hunger” (p. 1). Dawkins adds that it:
“is not just concern about [the animals’] physical health, important though that is. Nor is it just to ensure that animals function properly, like well-maintained machines, desirable though that may be. Rather, it is a concern that some of the ways in which humans treat other animals cause mental suffering and that these animals may experience ‘pain,’ ‘boredom,’ ‘frustration,’ ‘hunger,’ and other unpleasant states not totally unlike those that we experience.” (p. 1)
The following video taken by a visitor offers a brief look at Tilikum’s daily behavior. It was recorded three years after the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. In this recording (and for some time before and after), Tilikum spent the majority of his time stationary at the surface of the water. This behavior, called “logging,” is not typically observed for longer than a few minutes in the wild. The video SeaWorld posted shows Tilikum at one point logging next to one of his toys, effectively ignoring it.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how Tilikum spends his day. Our Curator of Animal Training Kelly Flaherty Clark talks about it:
SEAWORLD FACT CHECK:
Tilikum is the father of 11 living captive-born whales at SeaWorld’s parks. SeaWorld currently owns 25 captive-born orcas. Therefore, Tilikum is the father of 44% of the company’s whales. The other 56% were fathered by various males, several of whom are now dead andthe most prolific of which has three surviving offspring. The most prolific females are Katina, Kasatka, and Takara (still living) and Kalina (dead), who have four surviving offspring each. Therefore, Tilikum’s genes are the most represented in the breeding program by far, male or female1. Over-relying on a single stud, particularly one with a history of behavior leading to people’s deaths, is generally avoided in legitimate breeding programs.