Chimps ‘mourn their dead,’ studies find

April 27, 2010

The top rung of the ladder of creation is within the hairy reach of the chimpanzee, two new studies suggest.  Scientists working independently in Scotland and Guinea will publish observations in Current Biology that suggest the apes mourn their loved ones when the Chimp Reaper calls.

Staff at Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, UK, used video to observe the passing of Pansy, a 50-year-old captive chimpanzee. 

As she ebbed away over the course of a few days, her troop became subdued, and held grooming vigils as she lay stricken.  When she had died, her daughter stayed by her side for an entire night, despite never having used that sleeping platform before. Later, the chimps cleaned Pansy’s corpse, and subsequently avoided the place of her death.

Dr James Anderson, of The University of Stirling, who used the footage in his study, suggests these may be funerary “rituals” of some rudimentary sort.

“Our … research makes a strong case that chimps not only understand the concept of death but also have ways with which they cope with it,” Anderson told New Scientist.

Also found in Current Biology is the work of Oxford University’s Dora Biro et al., who observed chimpanzees in Bossou district, Guinea, carrying the mummified corpses of their offspring for weeks after their deaths. The mothers eventually relinquished their dead, a decision which Biro thinks is linked to fertility cycles.

“The hormonal changes the chimps experience as their bodies gear up to reproduce may push them into ‘letting go’ of the corpses,” she told New Scientist. “We don’t know that for sure, but our observations suggest that may be true.”

Anderson thinks the chimpanzees’ behaviour further blurs the already-indistinct boundary between humans and the balance of creation.

“Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation, and self-awareness, for example. But science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think.

“The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon.”

The studies bring academic rigour to anecdotal observations published by The Times last October. Apes at the Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in Cameroon maintained a respectful silence as they watched the funeral cortège of Dorothy.

Whale kills trainer at SeaWorld Orlando

February 25, 2010

A SeaWorld employee was killed by a captive killer whale yesterday, 24th Febuary, The Orlando Sentinel, The Associated Press, and dozens of others report.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, one of the most experienced trainers on SeaWorld’s books, was addressing guests at the “Dine with Shamu” poolside buffet when tragedy struck.

Initial reports were confused, stating that Brancheau had slipped or fallen into the tank before being attacked by the whale. But eyewitness reports emerged later, indicating the trainer was taken by the whale while she stood at the edge of the tank.

“The trainer was explaining different things about the whale and then the trainer that was down there walked away from the window. Then Tilly [Tilikum – the whale] took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing [her] around,” Victoria Biniak told WKMG TV.

“He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent.”

Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, later confirmed to Reuters: “She was rubbing the killer whale’s head, and [it] grabbed her and pulled her in [to the tank]”.

Brancheau died from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning” having been pulled underwater by her pony tail, Orlando County Sherrif’s Office told the Orlando Sentinel. “Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance” owing to the whale’s “aggressive nature.”

The 30-year-old bull killer whale, Tilikum, is so large and dangerous that SeaWorld Orlando trainers are instructed not to enter the tank with him. Indeed the beast has been implicated in two previous deaths.

Prior to being sold to SeaWorld, Tilikum was held at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. In February 1991, 20-year-old University of Victoria marine biology student Keltie Byrne was killed by three whales, one of them Tilikum, after she slipped and fell into their tank. SeaWorld purchased Tilikum from the Canadian facility in 1992; shortly thereafter, Sealand closed.

In 1999, the naked body of a man was found draped across Tilikum’s back at SeaWorld Orlando. Daniel Dukes had apparently slipped through security at the amusement park under cover of darkness, stripped, and had either jumped or fallen into the tank. The cause of his death was later found to be hypothermia and drowning, but Dukes’ body showed evidence he had been in the whale’s jaws.

With its sorry history of whale attacks on trainers, SeaWorld has been the subject of intense scrutiny, including mine, and the latest incident has prompted the WDCS, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Orlando Sentinel to renew calls for a moratorium on killer whale captivity.

The behaviour of these captive whales contrasts starkly with that of their wild counterparts, among whom there are no documented attacks on humans.

The contrast is most poignantly illuminated by the case of Luna, a killer whale abandoned by his pod in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The subject of a recent BBC Natural World documentary, Luna looked to humanity for companionship in the absence of his cetacean brethren.

He became totemic in a three-way struggle between the First Nations of British Coumbia, well-meaning Canadians who wished to relieve the loneliness they perceived in him, and conservation workers concerned that human contact would end in tragedy.

In the end, their worst fears were realised when Luna was killed by a tugboat propeller in March 2006.

The question now is whether Tilikum will pay a similarly heavy price for his association with humanity, an association that, unlike Luna’s, is entirely outside his control.

Update: Three options are open to SeaWorld: keep, release, or destroy Tilikum. Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, has ruled out euthanasia. When asked whether SeaWorld should release the killer whale into the wild, Tompkins answered, apparenly without irony: “I think it’s unfair to do that to an animal.”