When we were discussing Tilikum the killer whale a while back I mentioned another famous captive whale named Bimbo. A little more about him:
Bimbo starred at Marineland of the Pacific in the 1960s. At nearly 18 feet, he was the largest pilot whale in the park. For three years, he performed his spectacular tricks. The finale of the whale show had him plunge to three-story depths, then rocket to the surface and beyond. His landing literally shook spectators in their seats.
But, like a lot of stars, Bimbo went out of control behind the scenes. He began to pummel his pool-mates. Keepers retaliated by draining all but three feet of water from the pool. That left his dolphin victims free to maneuver while Bimbo was stranded and helpless. The smaller animals clustered around the distressed giant, offering whistles that sounded to human observers like comfort.
He went a month without food, dropping a thousand pounds. He refused to cooperate with his trainers and even knocked them around. Nobody was killed, but with a 4500-pound animal throwing the blows, it seemed only a matter of time.
Why did Bimbo turn mean? Several theories were proposed. A curator at Marineland thought training in itself was to blame. Bimbo had come to the park as a middle-aged whale, too set in his ways to endure the learning of tricks. Others felt grief was the answer. Bimbo's main companion in the pool was a female pilot whale. She may have been his mother. Her death, closely followed by the demise of a smaller dolphin companion, seemed to drive Bimbo into depression. He held his dead companions by the flipper and took them circling in the pool. Observers thought he was trying to resuscitate them.
A doctor called in to treat Bimbo rendered his diagnosis: manic depressive psychosis. That was something doctors could treat—though not always effectively. Bimbo got 6000-milligram injections of anti-depressants when he was down, then tranquilizers to calm his wild moods.
The turning point came with an act of destruction so awesome no one thought it possible. Bimbo slammed through two inch-thick layers of glass, each theoretically strong enough to withstand 15 thousand pounds of pressure. Three hundred twenty-five thousand gallons of water poured into a spectators' area. No one was hurt, but that was plain luck. Park officials knew they had to get rid of Bimbo. While they were working out the details, he tried to smash a fresh set of windows, but failed. Then, in a wrestling match involving ten handlers, a 50-ton crane, a super-sized stretcher, and massive doses of tranquilizers, Bimbo was removed from the park and shipped back to the sea. He immediately joined a pod of fellow pilot whales. Observer saw him racing in 500-yard stretches and pirouetting out of the water with what looked like joy. Some seven years later, he was spotted, apparently prospering, off the coast of Southern California.
In 1967, calling Bimbo "psychotic" seemed to explain something. It meant, in short, that something was wrong with him. He was defective, and that's why he would hurt people and other whales. Ideas have shifted, and now many of us—me included—find it more reasonable to look for explanations in the way people treated Bimbo. Surely captivity itself is the starting point for any explanation. After all, pilot whales don't eat people. They have no history of hurting swimmers in the ocean, though there's at least one case of them sinking a yacht. But it's really only in the pool that people are likely to get hurt by pilot whales—or killer whales, for that matter.