Ace Ventura, Whale Detective

Today The New York Times had an unintentionally hilarious story examining the intentions of a killer whale involved in a trainer’s death at SeaWorld two days ago. (Headline: “Intentions Of Whale In Killing Are Debated.”)

If you’re not familiar with the story, the member of the Orcinus orca species, a.k.a orca, a.k.a. killer whale that goes by the name “Tilikum,” (street name, “Tilly”) killed his trainer at SeaWorld by grabbing her by her hair while she stood in shallow water and dragged her into the deep end of his tank where she died of drowning and “multiple traumatic injuries.”

The piece starts off with an understandable, if tired, premise, asking the sort of questions that are asked every time an animal attacks a human: Was this normal behavior for a wild animal? Or did it snap because of stress from captivity? Should the animal be euthanized? Let’s talk to the experts and find out.

Unfortunately, the experts attempt to divine the whale’s thinking in a way that attributes human emotions and rationality to an Orca. Yes, I know they’re smart creatures. Mammals, even. Still.

And yes, somebody died and, yes, you’re the New York Times. You have to report it straight. You can’t make fun of the over-earnest animal experts who have a tendency to anthropomorphize non-humans. That’s our job.

But The Times doesn’t help matters by framing the question as if the whale were a defendant in a criminal case. The article quickly devolves into a farcical examination of the whale’s record (apparently it was a serial killer whale, involved in two other human deaths) and whether this most recent killing was a premeditated act or not.

The article quotes marine conservationist Richard Ellis, who says it was. After all, he says, the whale was of sound mind — no insanity plea will work in this case.

“This was not an insane, uncontrollable act,” Mr. Ellis told The Associated Press. “This was premeditated.”

But Graham Worthy, a whale expert at the University of Central Florida comes to Tilly’s defense, saying the whale didn’t intend to kill his trainer.

“These are animals that can tear apart a blue whale,” Mr. Worthy said. “If this was an animal that was trying to be aggressive, what would have happened would be much more gruesome.”

Oh, okay so maybe it’s just manslaughter then? After all, Worthy says this wasn’t the Tilly he knows. Where’s the motive?

[Worthy] said that in a handful of his own interactions with Tilly, “He struck me as a laid-back guy who is kind of lazy, frankly. He’s a misunderstood big kid.”

It all brings to mind shades of Jim Carrey’s performance in a scene from “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” in which he pretends to be the trainer of the Miami Dolphins’ kidnapped bottlenose dolphin mascot. (“Do you know ze dolphin? Do you call him on ze phone? Do you have a dorsal fin???”)

The piece starts off reporting that homicide investigators were on the scene. With the whale experts’ above comments laced in, it quickly goes downhill from there.

There were no signs of foul play on the part of anyone other than the whale, but questions about the animal’s intent continued to linger.

Did they have a lineup of SeaWorld’s orcas to identify Tilly? Was there an interrogation? And if so, was Tilly read his Miranda Rights? I hope so, because judging by all the Law & Order language, Tilly is apparently heading to whale jail. The Times writes:

Tilly, more than most, has been hard to defend. His record is hardly clean. In 1991, he and two female killer whales drowned a trainer, Keltie Byrne, at an aquarium in Canada before a crowd of spectators. Eight years later, SeaWorld officials found the naked, lifeless body of a homeless man who had sneaked into Tilly’s pool …

It isn’t until the end that The Times reveals that Tilly could be protected by SeaWorld from fair punishment for his crime because he is the aquarium/amusement park’s “largest, oldest male and he has sired 14 calves — making him the park’s top stud.”

So in biological and economic terms Tilly is essentially one of the animal kingdom’s most valuable defendants.

This is going to be the trial of the century. I cannot wait!

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.