No Punishment for 'Shamu'

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Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP

An orca at SeaWorld in San Diego, where the killer whale Kasatka performs. Trainer Ken Peters was injured when Kasatka grabbed him and held him underwater during a show

Among the seven orcas who play Shamu in the famous killer-whale extravaganza at San Diego's SeaWorld, Kasatka is not the one to mess with — whether you're human or cetacean. At a mere 5,000 lb., she isn't the largest whale in the pod (the heaviest is 9,500 lb.), nor, at 30, is she the most senior. But she is what's called the dominant female. And in the matriarchal killer-whale society, that means she's the boss. On Wednesday, she decided to remind her trainer of that.

It occurred amid the setup for the "rocket hop," a stunt in which the whale virtually catapults its trainer into the air from an underwater start, allowing the human to make a spectacular arc through the air before diving into the pool. Kasatka decided instead to drag trainer Ken Peters under by his left foot, first for more than half a minute, and then, after allowing him back up briefly for air, for more than a minute. Only Peters' cool ministrations to Kasatka and his fellow trainers' use of hand signals and underwater sounds prevented tragedy as a large audience watched, stunned. Peters is now in the hospital for a broken bone in his left foot.

There is no respite for Kasatka, however. She was back performing at SeaWorld on Thursday afternoon. The marine park does not believe in punishment and will not deprive her of food nor inflict anything corporal. Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations for SeaWorld California, says the facility's tradition has always been the use of positive reinforcement: "We focus on what we like them to do." Indeed, he says, when Peters was dragged down, the trainer sought to calm Kasatka rather than do anything that would agitate her further. He rubbed her comfortingly in order to extricate himself, even as he struggled for breath.

The ease with which trainers and whales appear to interact often leads people to believe orcas can be as tame as household pets. They remain wild animals and, says Scarpuzzi, each trainer has to make a decision for every show whether he or she can get into the water with a specific whale and whether the animal is ready psychologically and physically for a safe performance. Trainers depend on their long and close relationship with each animal to read their moods. Kasatka is likely to undergo a lengthy period of evaluation, with trainers working backward with records from weeks and months past to figure out what may have led to this incident. (She'd had a minor run-in with Peters about nine years ago.) So while Kasatka is back onstage, her trainers will direct her performances from outside the water for now.

"I used to swim with Kasatka," says John Hargrove, formerly a senior trainer of killer whales at SeaWorld California. "She's an amazing animal. This incident doesn't make her a bad whale. People need to understand that animals can get upset or frustrated just like people and just like your cat or dog. But when it's a 6,000- or 8,000-lb. killer whale, the stakes are much greater." Hargrove has been dragged down by captive orcas himself while employed as a supervisor at a French marine facility that is unaffiliated with SeaWorld. "Those killer whales never had trainers in the water with them before, so there were many times I was pulled under. But at that stage, you're really teaching the whales what's acceptable and what's not, and it just takes a while. Things like that can be expected during the learning curve." Of both beast and man. Reflecting on his own training at SeaWorld — which requires intensive work with sea lions, walruses, otters, dolphins and the expert use of positive-reinforcement training before dealing with orcas — Hargrove says that experience was probably key to Peters' ability to get out of trouble. "When something does happen," he says, "you have the training and skills necessary to get through it safely."