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Tilikum, an orca who killed his trainer at Sea World in Orlando in 2010, is the focus of a new documentary lambasting the keeping of killer whales in captivity. (AP file)

'Deplorable' condition of captive Puget Sound orcas in renewed spotlight

When a killer whale killed its trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida back in 2010, it sent shockwaves through an industry dependent on the regal mammals. But orca expert Howard Garrett tells the Ron and Don Show it shouldn't have been a surprise.

"Tilikum hit the peak of frustration at that point and you can see it ," says Garrett, the co-founder of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network. "He's been isolated and kicked around his whole life. It's no wonder. At some point he just cracked."

The attack is the focus of "Blackfish," a documentary getting plenty of attention thanks to a major push by CNN that traces the 39-year history of killer whales in captivity leading up to the 2010 killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca.

"Blackfish chillingly shows that this incident of violence is hardly an isolated one, along the way, exploring the extraordinary nature of orcas, thought to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom," says a description of the film on CNN.com.

Garrett is prominently featured in the film, which paints a scathing picture of SeaWorld and the taking of orcas from Puget Sound and other West Coast waters.

Experts aren't sure how many orcas were captured and shipped to parks around the world during a ten-year period, but Garrett says it's likely near 100, including Tilikum.

"It's horrendous. They herded them with speedboats, aircraft, and bombs," he says.

The whales were rounded up like cattle, then put in slings on flatbed trucks, he says.

"They literally took them down to the ferry, drove them across and down to the Seattle waterfront to a holding tank, and then shipped out."

The film chronicles the fate of a number of orcas held in what Garrett calls "deplorable conditions." Among them, Lolita, a Puget Sound orca captured in 1970. Since then, she's been kept at the Miami Seaquarium, where she's been held for over 40 years.

"She can barely turn around. I mean it's not as deep as she is long. It's really a horrendous condition. The amazing thing is that she's survived all this time, somehow."

Garrett and other animal rights activists have worked for years to win the release of the captive orcas into sanctuaries. And he's hopeful the awareness raised by the film will add to growing pressure and ultimately lead to their freedom.

The negative attention seems to be having an impact, even before the release of the film. SeaWorld has seen a significant decline in attendance and its stock price in recent years. But Garrett says it's clear the company won't give up its orcas without a fight.

"The distressing thing is that they're doubling down. They are impregnating as many females as they can."

In the case of Lolita, he says the Miami Seaquarium isn't about to let their cash cow free despite a long-running campaign.

"They're making a million bucks a year off of her and they're not going to let her go until they get the last dime."

Garrett hopes the film will lead more people to avoid SeaWorld and other aquariums, and instead visit them in their natural habitat, such as in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.

"We really should appreciate the way that they actually live because it's really impressive."

Josh Kerns, MyNorthwest.com Reporter
Josh Kerns is an award winning reporter/anchor and host of KIRO Radio's Seattle Sounds (Sunday afternoons 5-6p) and a digital content producer for MyNorthwest.com.
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