Habeas Porpoise

In the wake of the February drowning of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in the jaws of Tilikum, a six-ton, 30-year old, three-peat killer whale, public sentiment has largely favored letting the massive marine mammal go – this, despite the orca’s involvement in two earlier human fatalities in 1991 and 1998. “They deserve their freedom just like anybody else,” noted a typical response in one online forum. Another commenter implored SeaWorld “to not euthanize Tilikum the Killer Whale” while also exclaiming “God bless Dawn Brancheau.”

Though a handful of voices have called for Tilikum to be put down – one of them, a blogger for the right-wing American Family Association, cited Exodus 21:29 on punishing beasts by stoning them to death — for the most part, calls for reprisals have been minimal. Rather, the majority of observers — animal ethicists, marine biologists, and the mediatized masses alike — have highlighted the cruelty of spending one’s lifetime in a cramped pen and suggested that in light of its incarceration, the cetacean’s actions were “only natural.” “I’m sure it was a high stress situation,” speculated one biologist, underscoring the impact of Tilikum’s capture as a young calf, decades in confinement, and sexual subjection as a lucrative and prolific stud animal. (Of Tilikum’s 17 offspring, at least one of them, Ky, has attempted a similar attack on its trainer in a San Antonio SeaWorld.) Venturing the notion that the orca was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, another marine researcher lamented, “He’s been trying to communicate, and nobody’s been listening.”

An Elephant Strikes Back

These reactions –from psychoanalytical and sentimental to environmentally outraged – are a far cry from the response shown nearly a century ago to another notorious entertainment-animal -turned-killer, Mary the Elephant. Said to have snatched up her handler and stomped on his head in a fit of rage, Mary — until that moment a beloved Tennessee circus performer — was dead within the week, executed in a grisly and protracted public hanging via reinforced chain from the top of a crane. Despite her prior popularity, public clamor revolved mainly around how she should be killed, not her mental state or the conditions of her captivity. We’ve come a long way, it would seem, from the days when the can-do, by-Jingo spirit of the lynch-happy South extended not only to African-Americans in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also to an irate Asian elephant striking back against her slaver.

Or have we?

Nobody’s listening

Strikingly absent in the outpouring of public compassion for Tilikum, who was taken from the wild in 1983 and has been captive to adoring Orlando audiences since age eleven (following his role in a previous trainer’s death), is acknowledgement of the comparable effects of lifelong incarceration for Florida’s unfree human denizens. According to a 2009 report by the Sentencing Project, more than 140,000 people in the U.S. are serving life sentences without parole. Over 6,000 of them are in Florida. And, perhaps most striking of all for the state that serves as home to some of the nation’s most widely revered family-friendly attractions– the land of Disney World, Epcot Center and, yes, SeaWorld — the Sunshine State leads the country in the number of juveniles serving life without parole(LWOP) for crimes in which no one was killed. Like Tilikum, these young offenders — 77 in all, out of the 100 LWOP juveniles serving time nationwide — live in cramped, stressful conditions, are regularly subject to pressure for unconsensual sex, and face the likelihood of permanently severed ties from their families.

To be sure, their actions, including rape and armed robbery, were reprehensible. But neither were they murderous. In contrast to the benefit of the doubt shown Tilikum — Florida’s orneriest orca, wiliest Willy, most-flipped out Flipper — who was given second and third chances to interact with humans long after even his corporate managers recognized him as dangerous, the state’s non–lethal juvenile offenders are imprisoned without hope of release on the basis of their potential threat to society. “We have to create an environment where our children are safe and our elderly are safe,” State Representative William Snyder, chairman of the House’s Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, has noted.

Swimming upstream

Regardless of their proclivities for violence, proven or perceived, one thing’s for certain: neither Tilikum nor the nation’s life-without-parole inmates are likely to be swimming the open seas any time soon. Leaving aside the pathogenic and cetaceae-social issues associated with captive orcas’ release, Tilikum’s status as a “valuable asset from a breeding standpoint” suggests that his existence will remain pool-bound for as long as SeaWorld’s Shamu shows continue to turn a profit. As for Florida’s juvenile lifers, their primary value is measured in negatives: the total number of years they can spend removed from society, at the lowest cost to taxpayers. Tilikum’s fate, it seems, is sealed. The appeal of two of Florida’s LWOP juvenile offenders currently remains before the Supreme Court.

KIEKO MATTESON is an environmental historian at the University of Hawai’i.