By Cara Wilson-Granat
This is the sixth in a series of ten in which we meet one of the San Diego 10 orcas and hear from an advocate who continues to be one of the voices of these imprisoned voiceless, never stopping until the whole world listens.
This week’s Advocate is Steve Christianson. After reading about Prisoner #6, Shouka, please scroll down this article and “meet” one of the top San Diego 10 Prisoner Advocates. [Here is Prisoner Orca Profile #1 and #2, #3 ,4 and #5 .]
Prisoner #6: Shouka
Imagine living in quiet desperation in solitary confinement for 10 YEARS. Pretty horrendous, right? The crime for such enforced aloneness? Nothing more than being held captive by those who considered her merely a source of entertainment and breeding opportunity for them. Nothing else. Just a money commodity. That’s Shouka’s story–the first orca to be born at Marineland in Antibes, France on February 25, 1993.
Shouka, (her name is Inuit for “Beautiful One”) is 100 percent Icelandic, her mother is Sharkane and her father is Kim 2. Shouka grew up under the care of her mother and fellow captive, Freya. When Shouka was three years old, Freya gave birth to Shouka’s half-brother, Valentin. The two siblings were very close. Soon, Sharkane gave birth to two more calves, Inouk in 1999, and Wikie, in 2001.
These births were most valuable to Shouka in helping to teach her skills in taking care of a calf. Had she been allowed to live her life within this secure pod with her family she might have experienced a quasi-state of contentment even within the confines of a park prison. But at the young age of just nine years old, Shouka was removed from her pod in France never to see them again.
In 2002, she was loaned to Six Flags World of Adventure in Ohio. Orcas are known to be one of the most social mammals on the planet and yet, for the ten years that followed that first move for Shouka, she was fated to live utterly alone without another orca companion. The contrast to her life with her parents and siblings and what she now had must have been devastating for her.
By 2004, Shouka had been living by herself for two years when she was transported from Ohio to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, where, once again she was alone, living in a far too small tank for a killer whale. Most of the time the pool water was murky and her tank was left unsheltered.
In total, Shouka lived alone for 10 years. Though attempts were made to bring male orca, Kshamenk, to her from Argentina, that plan failed with both orcas fated to live in alienation. (Kshamenk is still living a heinous life in his horrific state of solitary confinement at Mundo Marino Argentina and though the efforts to save him hopefully still exist, his health is deteriorating. We pray it’s not too late to save him. Read more about him in the #2 of this San Diego 10 Series.)
Eventually, Six Flags found a friend for Shouka in Merlin, a wild-caught, male bottlenose dolphin. Because orcas are technically the largest members of the dolphin family, Shouka and Merlin were legally considered appropriate companions. Though past cases of orca-dolphin cohabitation have shown to be less beneficial than orca-orca arrangements, park officials hoped it would be an improvement over the past several years of Shouka’s life.
But it wasn’t to be. In a 2008 inspection by the Animal and Plants Health Inspection Service it was reported that Shouka was being “single housed”—meaning the park was keeping the animals separate though, reportedly, “next to each other a majority of the time.” Making matters worse, in November 2011, Six Flags separated the two animals completely citing “recent compatibility issues” and ensuring it would seek another “suitable companion” for Shouka—another dolphin named Cupid. But in time, Shouka remained alone yet again.
According to Section 3, 109 of the Animal Welfare Act, it is illegal in the United States to house social marine mammals in captivity without “at least one compatible animal of the same or biologically related species.” That’s federal law. Despite this, there have been far too many long-standing cases such as Shouka’s that have shown flagrant disregard for this particular government regulation.
By law, orcas need to be with other orcas or cetaceans and Six Flags was in trouble for not complying with that decision.
Meanwhile, Shouka, 19-years-old at the time, was beginning to display some behavioral issues during shows. Footage originally uploaded to YouTube on July 7th, 2012 showed Shouka leaping onto the main stage of her show tank and lunging towards her trainer. Considering her frustrating physical and mental situation it is no wonder she was showing aggression. Who in their right mind wouldn’t feel this way?!!!
In the videos, the trainer can be seen being lifted into the air and knocked back into an open door area that leads to the back of the stage. Even after the trainer is out of view, Shouka leaps two more times onto the stage. Dedicated activist, Wendy Brunot—who was Shouka’s constant advocate fighting to free her for years, noted that video was “…the first time Shouka had been captured being aggressive towards her trainers by a spectator during a public performance.”
Six Flags immediately cancelled Shouka’s show and implemented safety measures. When they resumed, trainers were no longer allowed on the stage area, but stood near the audience behind safety bars. In a later interview between Brunot and the senior scientist for Humane Society International, Naomi Rose, Rose told the activist:
“It is very tempting (and parsimonious) to attribute these aberrant behaviors shown by Shouka to her isolation. She has been without another orca for a companion for over a decade, however, and the appearance of these behaviors is relatively recent.
Of course, she now doesn’t even have a dolphin with her, as Six Flags has recently moved Merlin, a bottlenose dolphin, into another enclosure. So it may be that being entirely solitary is in fact affecting her mood and she is now acting out of frustration over this untenable social situation.”
With Shouka going “off behavior” and Six Flags unable to find a suitable companion for the orca, Shouka was shipped off to SeaWorld San Diego. Michael Muraco, the park’s animal care director, said in a Discovery Kingdom release, “We have long understood and recognized the need to pair Shouka with a suitable companion, as orcas are highly social mammals.” Really? How long does it take to make an orca go insane from sorrow and abandonment?
So what’s next for SeaWorld’s newest addition to its orca family?
The good news is that her long stint of isolation from other orcas finally ended. Shortly after her arrival, Shouka was introduced to Corky, another SeaWorld female orca. The two apparently got along very well together. But the bad news is that she’ll never be allowed to live out her days as a normal orca within a pod she knows and loves. Not as long as she is being used for profit within the SeaWorld prison.
Shouka represents something more important to Sea World. Fresh genes for the park’s breeding program. They are a welcome addition, considering one of SeaWorld’s latest calves, Vicky, born at Loro Parque in Spain, was blood-related to 21 of 26 SeaWorld whales – including her great-grandmother, Kasatka (#2 of this Series); sadly, this inbred infant died last year. More and more inbred orcas are continually being added to SeaWorld’s “collection.” Katina, the maternal grandmother of Keet (#5 of this Series), was impregnated by her own son, Taku, at SeaWorld Orlando.
But it all comes as no surprise to the activist, Wendy Brunot.
“I don’t know if they can say she has good genes,” Brunot explained, “but Shouka does bring in ‘new’ genes to SeaWorld, depending on who she mates with. Over time though,” Brunot said, “the park will run into the same situation they are in today … lack of diversity.”
Despite the fact that the activist has hounded Six Flags for years over Shouka’s welfare, she acknowledged that, “I am delighted Six Flags stepped up and gave Shouka the opportunity to again have the companionship of other orcas,” she said. For this reason alone, Brunot was happy to see Shouka leave, even if it was emotionally devastating for her to say goodbye.
Our hope is that Assembly Bill (AB) 2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, will be passed next year after its Interim Study this year. With its introduction by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, people who have been concerned for the safety and welfare of captive orcas and their human trainers have a concrete legislative proposal to advocate.
“There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes,” Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, said when he introduced the bill. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives.”
AB 2140 is designed to: end the use of performing orcas in theme shows, ban captive breeding and prohibit the import and export of the so-called “killer” whales in California. Currently, SeaWorld San Diego is the only place in California where orcas are kept captive, with 10 currently held and profiled in this series.
Let’s all do what we can to make sure that Shouka –and all the other captive orcas–will be retired into compassionate orca sanctuary at last. We can no longer stand by and witness their demise…
Did his love for orcas begin when Steve lived in a small town called Bella Coola in British Columbia? Hard to say. But that is where he remembers being so taken by those beautiful marine mammals that swam off the coast of that Great Bear Rainforest. It also seemed natural that he would be so drawn to them, because Steve, himself was born to love the water. An avid scuba diver in college, he also took up surfing while living on the north coast of California.
During his college years, Steve took numerous classes in zoology and plant biology while obtaining a degree in political science. It was then that he worked for a field biologist who was an expert in wetland ecology and Steve got a taste of how ecosystem restoration and species protection worked together.
At that time, the timber wars were just heating up and the spotted owl was the scapegoat for ecosystem protection in the Pacific Northwest. The resource extraction industries were beginning to fine tune their green-washing campaigns and started to label animal and environmental activists as “extremists” for wanting to protect ecosystems and endangered species.
This is much of the same rhetoric that SeaWorld uses today directed at animal advocates. Steve says that,
“It’s the same language unethical corporations used 15, 20, 25 years ago. In that sense, not a lot’s changed labeling animal advocates as extremist, but social media makes it harder for Sea World to contain their alleged purist image with movies like Blackfish that exposes the inherent wrongs of housing captive orcas.”
But Steve loved the natural world—whether it was within the depths of the sea or rushing rivers or within the thick of forests—he felt a passion to not only be a part of it but to protect it all. He knew that he needed to take his studies to a place that would give him the power to make changes; to stand up for the innocents of the natural world; to be the voice for the voiceless.
Even if it meant the chance encounter with a natural predator.
Steve was working on salmon and old growth forest issues at the time and he remembers an incident that influenced him to pursue his love to advocate for the oceans and its inhabitants. While he was purchasing a wet-suit at a small local surf shop, Steve met a guy there who had survived a great white shark encounter while surfing.
The young man saw the shark coming and pushed his board at the shark and it took a bite out of his board. The surfer didn’t sustain any injuries, but it was in the newspaper and on the news. Steve was at the surf shop where this guy’s board was on display a week or so later. As Steve was trying on his second or third wet-suit, that same guy came into the surf shop.
Steve wondered what he was getting himself into, taking up surfing in cold shark-infested waters hundreds of miles north of San Francisco. The guy who had the shark encounter was okay, still wasn’t fearful of the ocean and was actually looking for a new surf board. Steve ended up buying his wet-suit, took up surfing (which he still loves today, but isn’t very good at it) and professes to paddle a lot more than he catches waves. He’s never seen a shark while surfing, but has seen over a dozen dolphins in the ocean while attempting to surf.
In 2006, Steve saw a movie titled “SharkWater” by Rob Stewart. In the film, Stewart seeks to deflate current attitudes about sharks, and exposes how the voracious shark-hunting industry is driving them to extinction. In 2008, Steve donated some money to a not-for-profit to help with the end of production and distribution of the academy award-winning documentary titled The Cove about the Taiji, Japan, dolphin slaughter. In return for his small donation back then, he’s owned a copy of The Cove and shows it to anyone willing to watch it.
Steve’s encounters with the dolphins he’s seen off of San Diego’s coast and years of actively trying to protect endangered species in the US and globally, led him to question whether places like SeaWorld are beneficial to wildlife species protection and wonders, “Are places like SeaWorld just circus acts with slick public relation campaigns and branding or do they really benefit wildlife species?”
To that note, Steve observes that:
“In Marin County, there’s the not-for-profit Marine Mammal Center that has rescued over 18,000 marine mammals since 1975 and educates about 30,000 people each year without housing any orcas or dolphins. In Orange County, there’s the Pacific Marine Mammal Center; up and down the eastern sea board, there are a number of marine rescue centers almost all of whom don’t house cetaceans and do great marine rescue and rehabilitation work.”
Steve moved to San Diego about five years ago to work for a group of attorneys who were assisting victims of the 2007 wildfires recover losses not covered by insurance or who were uninsured.
Today, Steve continues advocacy for the captives like Shouka and other endangered orcas like the Southern Residents in the San Juan Islands. Steve says,
“It’s an honor to be highlighted with Shouka, because it’s similar to what Wendy Brunot did when Shouka was housed at Six Flags in Vallejo. Ms. Brunot actively studied the Animal Welfare Act and got involved—ultimately being there for, and helping, Shouka.”
Steve is now less than a year and half from completing his law school studies and becoming a lawyer. What is his goal?
“…to take up cases advocating in the court system for animals in captivity or those wild orcas threatened with ecosystem degradation and misinformation done by corporations like Sea World.”
We certainly are all wishing you much success, Steve!
ACTION ITEM: How you can help end captivity
- Don’t buy, or accept, a ticket to a marine mammal show, or to swim with dolphins or other marine mammals in captivity
- If you want to see whales and dolphins, see them in the wild with a reputable company that follows the rules
- Watch “The Cove”; “Blackfish”; “Keiko, the untold story”; and read Death at SeaWorld
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France
Cara Wilson-Granat is an author, speaker and freelance writer. Years ago one of her advertising accounts was writing for Sea World. When she recently watched Blackfish the movie changed her perspective–and in many ways her life. (www.wordsfromcara.com)