Two killer whale trainers were killed by orca, two months apart. Alexis Martinez was killed by the adult male orca Keto at Loro Parque in Tenerife, Canary Islands, on Christmas Eve 2009, just 62 days before Dawn Brancheau’s death at SeaWorld, in Orlando, Florida on February 24th 2010. Brancheau was killed by another adult male orca, named Tilikum.
Since Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld orca Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of three people, has become undoubtedly one of the most recognized orca alive in captivity. His life-story has been turned into a book and documentary film, both including sections on Martinez and Keto, which have helped expose the tragedy at Loro Parque. However, our knowledge of Keto’s history and our understanding of his current state pales in comparison to what we have come to know about Tilikum.
The ‘Other’ Tilikum
Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, believes location and media attention have influenced this focus.
“It’s a sad fact that when Alexis Martinez was killed, the incident did not get any media attention at all. There was only one small Spanish media mention of his death and that was it. The owner of Loro Parque must have considerable influence over the Tenerife media, because the news simply did not leak,” Rose states.
Rose reveals that, after the Dolphin Project’s Ric O’Barry announced the death of Martinez on the Larry King Show, Larry King was unable to confirm the news, even with a staff member conducting a Google search for more information during a commercial break.
“Ric’s revelation on the Larry King Show was a complete shock to me (I was watching it live),” Rose recalls, “Within days it was confirmed by other sources but even still, it never got the media attention that Dawn Brancheau’s death did, not until Blackfish was released.”
After Brancheau’s death, the USA’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited SeaWorld for exposing trainers to ‘struck-by and drowning’ hazards, as well as other safety violations. SeaWorld’s knowledge of the death of Martinez at Loro Parque was called into question during the court hearing that followed when SeaWorld challenged the citation. A summary of the hearing by The Orca Project suggests that SeaWorld changed their protocol in dealing with such incidents.
Instead of routinely pulling their trainers from the water for a long period of time immediately following the attack by Keto, SeaWorld waited two days before acting on the news and in the case of the Florida facility, the trainers remained out of the water for only one day. Waterwork at Loro Parque was immediately (and is still) suspended.
“I honestly think the lack of attention to Alexis’ death was one of the most unethical things SeaWorld ever did,” Rose upholds, “They knew about it, yet SeaWorld never said a word to the US media, despite it being one of their captive-born whales who killed Alexis. If Dawn hadn’t died nine weeks later, it’s hard to know if anyone outside of Tenerife to this day would know about Alexis’ death.”
Swimming Under the Radar
In 2011, former SeaWorld trainers Jeff Ventre and John Jett released a paper investigating how Keto and Tilikum have expressed the stress that the captive environment places them under. A video of Keto enduring an endoscopy procedure at Loro Parque was also made available, documenting an example of the stress he endures in captivity. The same year, Tim Zimmermann, journalist and associate-producer of Blackfish, wrote Blood in the Water. The article documented Martinez’ death, as well as life at Loro Parque for the four SeaWorld orca who had been transferred there.
A recent article from journalist and orca advocate Elizabeth Batt explored the report issued after Martinez’ death. Batt’s article details the events leading up to the attack by Keto. Despite this, there is still very little available in the way of media updates about the current quality of life and state of welfare that Keto is experiencing at Loro Parque.
Batt thinks there might be a simple explanation, “Aside from being involved in the death of Mr. Martinez, we just don’t know as much about Keto as we do about Tilikum. We don’t know how many other incidents Keto has been involved in and we can’t talk with trainers who have recently worked with Keto, like we have been able to for Tilikum.”
It is of no surprise to Batt that news of Keto and the death of Martinez evaded public attention for so long.
“Consider the things we wouldn’t have discovered but for the OSHA versus SeaWorld trial. The video of the attack on Ken Peters, for instance,” Batt says.
The death of Daniel Dukes in 1999 is also another case Batt believes worthy of closer investigation. Dukes’ night-time death went reportedly unobserved at SeaWorld, Florida, where he was found dead one morning, draped over Tilikum’s back.
“All the cameras they have at SeaWorld and they didn’t capture anything. The checks allegedly done by trainers every night on the animals, including respiration checks, which involve far more observation than a passing glance. Yet nobody saw anything?”
What do We Know About Keto?
So what do we know about this other orca who killed his trainer? We know that Keto was born on June 17th 1995 at SeaWorld, Florida. His mother Kalina, the original ‘baby Shamu’, was a hybrid captive-born orca, conceived from Icelandic and Southern resident bloodlines.
Keto’s sire Kotar, who died before Keto’s birth, was a wild-captured orca of Icelandic origins. In 1999, at just under four years of age, Keto underwent his first transfer to SeaWorld, California. Little over one year later, Keto was moved again, this time to SeaWorld, Ohio and ten months after that, he was relocated to SeaWorld, Texas. Keto was still only five-years-old at the time of this third transfer. He has been moved an alarming number of times and Keto is one of only a few orca to have been kept at all four SeaWorld parks.
On February 13th 2006, Keto was flown to Loro Parque from SeaWorld, Texas, along with another male, Tekoa. At the time, Keto was aged ten and Tekoa only five-years-old. Kohana and Skyla, two females, were also relocated, at the same time, to Tenerife from SeaWorld, Florida. They were aged three and two respectively at time of transfer.
The Loro Parque orca have been described as the most dysfunctional group of orca in captivity, all having been removed from their mothers at an incredibly young age (something that would be highly unlikely to happen in the wild).
“Keto has been bounced around from park to park and perhaps there is a clue there?” Batt observes, referring to Keto’s aggressive disposition.
Since Keto’s transfer to Loro Parque, he has sired two calves with Kohana. Adán was born in 2010, when Kohana was only eight-years-old. Adán still resides at the Tenerife facility. Vicky, conceived only four months after Adán’s birth, was born in 2012 and died at just ten-months of age. Both calves were rejected by their mother, resulting in rearing intervention by park staff.
Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, orca biologist and co-founder of the Free Morgan Foundation, has spent many hours at Loro Parque, gathering evidence about their treatment of recently wild-caught Norwegian orca Morgan. Visser has found it increasingly difficult to observe Morgan and the other orca outside of the entertainment shows that run four-times daily at the Orca Ocean stadium.
“Loro Parque trainers do their best to keep interactions from the public’s watchful eye,” Visser explains, ” When I first started going to Loro Parque to observe Morgan, it was possible to see her between shows, but now [Loro Parque’s owner] has ordered park maintenance staff to build high fences and install canvas barriers around the orca tanks. Clearly, he and the staff have things to hide.”
A History of Aggression
Currently, weighing in at around 3,400kg and measuring about 5.6m in length, Keto’s issues with trainers have a consistent, albeit small dataset of events on record. Visser has gleaned, from various sources, four other events where Keto has displayed aggressive behaviour towards his trainers.
The first attack occurred in September 1998, when Keto was only three-years-old. Open-mouthed, with his teeth exposed, he pushed his trainer around the pool at SeaWorld, Florida. A similar incident occurred in March 1999, just days after Keto was moved from Florida to SeaWorld, California. Again, open-mouthed, Keto swam into his trainer.
In December 1999, still at SeaWorld, California, Keto snapped at his trainer during a training session. It wasn’t until August 2002 that another incident was officially recorded for Keto, when he again swam into his trainer, open-mouthed, this time at SeaWorld, Texas. The next event (that we know of) proved fatal: the death at Loro Parque. Should these previous attacks have acted as a warning?
As an adult male, Keto has one thing in common with all the other captive male orca: he has a completely collapsed dorsal fin. But this is where publicly available information about Keto is exhausted.
Not much is known about how Loro Parque staff have been responding to Keto since the death of Martinez.
“If you asked me if they treated Keto differently than the other orca then my logical assumption would be ‘of course, he is a known killer’,” Visser says, “but it is worth keeping mind that they also treat Morgan differently, keeping her locked in the extremely small medical tank for prolonged periods.”
The medical tank Visser refers to has a dimension of 12.4x7x4.2m (bearing in mind that Morgan is more than 4m long). Trainers have also been observed holding Keto in the small medical tank by himself for the duration of the orca entertainment shows, as well as placing the 19-year-old male in the same tank as the considerably younger Morgan, in attempts to impregnate her.
A Watchful Eye on the Future
Although difficult to say for sure with such little evidence, life doesn’t seem to have changed too drastically for Keto since he killed Martinez. Trainers can still be seen interacting with him and ‘petting’ him during the orca shows, even so far as kneeling in the slide-out area next to him.Is this a wise move? In Rose’s expert opinion, it is not possible to say whether Keto might kill again.
“We can speculate all we want, but we cannot know what is going on inside a captive orca’s head. We might know if an animal is depressed or engaged, as depression has symptoms, as do engagement and alertness. But we can’t tell if they are ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ The more sophisticated the cognition of a species, the less we can speculate about what any individual of that species thinks and feels.” Rose is, however, clear on one thing, “If anyone ever gets into the water again with Keto, they are taking an incredibly foolish risk.”
Keto and Tilikum aren’t the only orca in captivity to show aggressive tendencies. In fact, Visser reminds us that there are countless catastrophic stories to be told about the orca lost inside the captive display industry.
“No matter which orca you look at, Keto, Morgan, Kiska (in Marineland, Canada), Lolita (in Miami Seaquarium, Florida), Tilikum himself or any of the 53 orca currently in captivity, they all have extremely tragic stories to be told,”Visser continues, “If the facilities who currently hold them truly do care, as they continually claim, we can only hope that they will do the right thing and remove these orca from concrete tanks, stop breeding them, act like responsible custodians and allow them to live out the rest of their lives in dignity and with a better quality of life.”
It is difficult to say what the future will hold for Keto going forward and, without public pressure, it does not seem likely we will find out. The path of his life in captivity is, however, inevitable and it cannot be forgotten that Keto will be unlikely to reach the maximum longevity of 60 or 70 years of age that his wild counterparts can and do achieve.
He is unlikely even to reach 30 years, the mean life expectancy for males in the wild. In the meantime, Keto will continue to reside as a member of the world’s most dysfunctional group of captive orca. We can but hope the outlook for the Loro Parque orca soon improves and drastically too.