In the early hours of Monday morning around 12:45 AM, Six Flags' solitary orca, Shouka, was loaded into a container and placed on a flatbed truck ready to begin a new chapter in her life at SeaWorld San Diego. In the darkness, at the side of the road, Wendy Brunot tearfully watched the orca leave.
Exhausted and emotional, Brunot was on the second night of a long vigil. Her connection to Shouka was strong and she knew the marine mammal would be leaving, she just didn't know when. For the cetacean activist, when the truck finally pulled out of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, it marked the culmination of years of campaigning by the activist, for this one orca.
Shouka had been housed at Six Flags for the past 10 years after being imported from Antibes, France, in 2002. Born in 1993, the female killer whale's first nine years were spent with her parents and siblings overseas. Once in California however, the solitary whale had but a few bottlenose dolphins for companions.
In November 2011, Merlin, a male bottlenose dolphin who had been with Shouka for 7 years was removed from her enclosure and placed in another area of the park, leaving Shouka alone. For Brunot, the thought of this highly social and intelligent cetacean being isolated was too much to bear, and she launched a campaign to either get Shouka a companion, or have the orca shipped back to her family in France.
For the past three years, Brunot has delved as deeply as any person could into the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), specifically with regard to marine mammals.
"In the summer of 2010," Brunot said, "I looked up inspection reports at Six Flags since I live right down the street, and found that in 2008, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), had found the park indirectly non-compliant with the AWA for not having a shade structure over the back pools at Shouka stadium."
APHIS gave Six Flags until January 1, 2009, to correct the issue.
Upon digging further into the report, Brunot also learned that Shouka was housed alone. Although a dolphin companion was next to the orca, the two marine mammals were separated the majority of the time.
According to the report Brunot said, Shouka's situation was to be 'reviewed by APHIS" because it violated a part of the Animal Welfare Act. Under Section 3.109 of the act, it states that "Marine mammals, whenever known to be primarily social in the wild, must be housed in their primary enclosure with at least one compatible animal of the same or biologically related species."
After yet another APHIS inspection report dated March 4, 2009, Brunot learned that "no non-compliant items" had been identified at Six Flags Discovery Park at all. One might have assumed that the park had rectified the issues of shade and companionship the activist said, but she was tipped off by a park-visiting friend, that this wasn't the case. Shouka was still without shade, so Brunot decided to investigate the situation herself.
"When we went to the park," she explained, "we found no shade structure," and "several other AWA violations including the horrendous conditions of the water quality in Shouka’s back pools." The activist even documented her seven hour visit for her blog, Without Me There is No You
, and captured the following evidence on video:
For Brunot, the apparent disregard by Six Flags for the AWA, was the beginning of an ardent campaign for Shouka.
"I got a season pass the following year to document if the shade and fencing had been corrected, and to see if they were keeping Shouka and Merlin separated by gates," Brunot told Digital Journal. "The fencing was corrected and the back pools were cleaned, although over time, the back pools became murkier and cloudy making it hard to see."
The park had erected a shade structure, but it "was completely useless for shade and so flimsy that it could have snapped right off," the activist explained, "potentially causing a dangerous situation if Shouka or Merlin got tangled in it." So, "I sent several complaint letters last year to APHIS regarding the shade structure and Six Flags eventually put up a proper sturdy shade structure."
Brunot continued to observe and assess Shouka's conditions. "The majority of the time last year," she said, "Shouka performed shows alone and was frequently separated by gates from Merlin. When I went to the park in September, I couldn't see Merlin in the tanks anywhere at the stadium, which is when I originally sent a complaint letter to APHIS regarding Shouka’s isolation."
The activist was told that Merlin wasn't moved away from Shouka until late October or November, "so it's possible that day in September," she said, the pool water was too murky to see him. Either way though," Wendy said, "Shouka ended up alone."
For six months, the only response Brunot received from APHIS was that the "situation was being reviewed." Unsatisfied, she reached out to the public and set up an online petition
at Change.org. The petition, directed at APHIS, asked the government agency to enforce the law or send Shouka back to France; it amassed over 7,000 signatures.
"In early July," Brunot continued, "APHIS sent me a one page response to my FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, for the results of my September 2011 complaint." Dated June 30, 2012, the missive contained a brief summary of the activist's many complaint letters, along with their response to them. APHIS said:
An inspection was performed and disclosed indications of incompatibility between Shouka and Merlin. The two animals have been separated and the licensee is addressing the issue of a solitary killer whale. Shade has been corrected. Water quality met the standards. The inspection report is under appeal.
Brunot continued to call APHIS many times and sent several emails asking for more information about the appeal process and how long it could take. "Not one person I wrote to or left a message with at APHIS, ever called me back," she said.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Shouka was beginning to display some behavioral issues during shows. Footage originally uploaded to YouTube on July 7th, 2012 by traviscorbin
, showed Shouka leaping onto the main stage of her show tank and lunging towards her trainer.
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. In a blog post
, Brunot noted, it 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."
Meanwhile, USDA Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) spokesman David Sacks, told the Times-Herald
, "We know that they were trying to work through the issues after the dolphin didn't work out. Sometimes, as regulators, you've got to step back ... For some of these issues, it is a little more protracted."
For Brunot, who has dedicated years fighting for Shouka's welfare, the move was bittersweet, but welcome:
Given the situation Shouka was in by being isolated, I am happy inside for her. Shouka spent almost 4 of the 10 years she was under the care of Six Flags without any companionship animal, the first 3 years after her move from France and this last year. Granted, I would rather she wasn't in captivity but since reality is what it is, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. She definitely needs and deserves companionship, so hopefully she will develop some good relationships at SeaWorld. Time will tell.
So what's next for SeaWorld's newest addition to its orca family?
Shortly after her arrival, Shouka was introduced to Corky, another SeaWorld female orca. The two apparently got along very well together. But for SeaWorld, Shouka brings fresh genes for the park's breeding program. They are a welcome addition, considering SeaWorld's latest calf
, born at Loro Parque in Spain, is blood-related to 21 of 26 SeaWorld whales.
"SeaWorld has already stated there is no reason Shouka couldn't be part of their breeding program," Brunot said, "and indeed the long term breeding loan that Shouka is on, was extended from Six Flags to SeaWorld."
But it all comes as no surprise to the activist. "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. If she conceived a child with a male other than Tilikum's offspring, it would definitely add diversity to SeaWorld's breeding program." 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 over Shouka's welfare, she was quick to acknowledge how tough it must have been for the park to let her go. "I am delighted that 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.
So what's next on the list for the activist?
The cetacean advocate is working on some other issues for captive marine mammals but is unable to disclose them to the public at this time. "I thank everyone who signed Shouka's petition and supported her need for companionship, especially my girlfriend Dyz and my dear friend Alex, who had spent endless hours reaching out to everyone they could to help Shouka," Brunot said.
Meanwhile, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has still not put up a shade structure for the dolphins, as recommended in the 2008 report.
But that's a story for another day.