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Remembering the Horror of Orca, The Killer Whale!

The recent tragedy at Sea World caused me to remember a film I haven’t thought about in many years. A bit older than my Bloody Disgusting brethren, I actually have a very vague memory of going to see “Orca: The Killer Whale” when I was very young. I remember very little of it, but one image that always stayed with me was the scene in which a harpooned female killer whale has been hauled aboard a boat, then miscarries her fetus on the bloody deck. The crew uses a hose to spray the dead fetus overboard. Needless to say, this event pisses off the daddy whale, who spends the rest of the movie seeking revenge.

The Sea World tragedy, which remains under investigation, is by now well known to everybody: an experienced trainer and performer was attacked by a killer whale who grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater. Not only did she drown, she was also crushed by the massive creature; the average male killer whale weighs about 8 tons.

This may be a difficult article for some people to read, because not only do I intend to revisit “Ocra” and many of the other “killer animal” movies that were mass produced in the wake of “JAWS”, I also intend to talk about some real life occurrences of animal horror. You’ve been warned. Let’s proceed.

The wave of killer animal movies was of course kicked off by the mind boggling success of Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS” which was based on Peter Benchley’s bestseller. Fred Dekker (the man who gave us “Night of the Creeps” and “The Monster Squad”) considers “JAWS” the greatest movie ever made. There are times I come pretty damn close to agreeing with him. It was the summer blockbuster that gave birth to the term “summer blockbuster”. Adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the biggest hits of all time. It was one of those movies in which everything came together perfectly: the directing, the acting, the music, and especially the editing. I personally prefer it above any of Spielberg’s other films, and that’s saying something, because I consider “ET” and “Raiders” to be classics as well.

Although the inspiration for “JAWS” is a matter of some dispute, we do know that the seed was planted in Benchley’s mind in 1964 when he read about a fisherman who caught an enormous great white shark off the beaches of Long Island. He wondered what would happen if a shark that size started attacking people and what the people would do if the shark wouldn’t go away. Another event that’s often cited as inspiring “JAWS” is the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, in which four people were killed (and a fifth person was injured). The deaths wet the media’s appetite, and the story appeared on the front page of The New York Times and all the other major newspapers of the time. A great white was eventually caught and killed by a lion tamer, at which point the attacks stopped.

Throughout the years, there have been scattered occurrences of sharks attacking — and sometimes killing — humans. This is natural. Sharks are predators. People should, if at all possible, stay away from them. But as long as people go in the water, and as long as sharks exist, the danger (however remote) will be there.

I live close to a popular beach, and I vividly recall a series of attacks that took place essentially in my backyard in the summer of 2001 — dubbed “The Summer of the Shark” by the media; the event made the cover of TIME magazine (read it here). Even though the number of shark attacks was down somewhat from the previous year, it only takes one high profile story to catapult any given issue into the national spotlight.

Some people refer the area of Florida I come from as “the Redneck Riviera” because of its proximity to the deep south. If you live in the Florida Panhandle, you’re much closer to Mobile and Atlanta than you are to Miami. Spring breakers flock here every year. And why not? We’ve got some gorgeous beaches here with sand so white, it looks like God poured a bag of sugar along the coastline. The summer of `01 was a scorcher nationwide — football players were dropping from heat stroke and a couple of them died. People were naturally drawn to the beach. State officials patrolling the coast by helicopter reported spotting hundreds of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, but that didn’t deter anyone.

In June of that year a bull shark attacked an eight-year-old boy, biting off the poor kid’s right arm. His uncle managed to pull the shark ashore by its tail. While the boy (who thankfully survived) was rushed to a hospital, they cut open the shark and retrieved the boy’s arm, which was subsequently reattached. Soon after this event, in the same waters, a shark bit a surfer’s ankle. The media descended on the area.

Most of the attacks weren’t serious, but they continued. The sharks seemed to be everywhere. A New Yorker vacationing in the Bahamas lost his leg to a shark. In September a ten-year-old boy was killed by a shark in Virginia. Two days later, a shark attacked a young North Carolina couple; the young man died, and his girlfriend lost her foot. The story wouldn’t go completely away until the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

The Florida beach where the boy was attacked was, incidentally, famous for being the beach where much of “JAWS 2” was shot. Watching that movie is always a trippy experience for me because I’ve been to so many of the filming locations, like the fancy Holiday Inn that Roy Scheider enters at the beginning. I climbed down those same steps during a friend’s wedding on the beach. And when you compare the color of the sand in “JAWS” to the sand in “JAWS 2” there’s no mistaking which one was filmed on the Gulf Coast.

Of course, “JAWS 2” was nowhere near as good as its predecessor, but then how could it have been? A decent movie, though. And “JAWS 3” was filmed….at Sea World.

“JAWS” rip-offs proliferated throughout the latter half of the seventies. One of the first such rip-offs was also one of the best. William Girdler’s “Grizzly” came out the year after “JAWS”. The film embraces the fact that it’s a rip-off, albeit a very competently made one. The story concerns a huge, 18 foot grizzly bear that’s been killing campers and forest rangers at a national park. Even the conclusion mirrors “JAWS” somewhat when the main forest ranger (played by the late Christopher George — one very cool dude) blows up the massive beast with a bazooka.

“Grizzly” became the most successful independently produced movie of all time until it was dethroned by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” a few years later — the film which perhaps inspired “Grizzly” producer David Sheldon to make his own slasher movie, the surprisingly good “Just Before Dawn” in 1980.

Bear attacks, like shark attacks, unfortunately happen. Clearly they’re both horrifying experiences. Given the choice, though, I’d rather take my chances against a shark. Shark attacks are generally more survivable than bear attacks.

Before I go any further, let me state the obvious. Humans kill far more sharks and bears each year than the other way around. Especially sharks. The disgusting practice of “finning” continues to decimate shark populations worldwide, and needs to be stopped. Bears OTOH, while they continue to lose their habitat, are experiencing a rebound of sorts. I know that first hand.

For the past three years, the damn things have been knocking my trash can over and scattering my trash (and my neighbors trash) everywhere: in the street, in the front yard, in the back yard. They come out of the woods in the predawn hours and hit as many neighborhoods as they can before the garbage trucks come. It’s strictly forbidden to shoot them unless you’re in danger. The problem isn’t going away. A few weeks ago a bear *was* shot after it entered a home through the back door and killed a man’s dog. These bears don’t fear humans anymore. Yelling at them doesn’t make them go away.

But you know what? If my garbage keeps the bears satisfied, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The most horrifying bear attack I ever read about involved the subject of the acclaimed 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man”.

Timothy Treadwell was to bears what Steve Irwin was to crocodiles. At times they both seemed absolutely insane, engaging in seemingly suicidal behavior with wild animals. For thirteen consecutive summers, Tim journeyed to Alaska to live among wild bears. His up close interactions with the bears made him a celebrity. During an appearance on David Letterman’s show, the host asked Treadwell if we would eventually read a news story about him getting eaten by bears.

Unlike Irwin, whose goofy yet benign personality was custom made for television, there was a manic intensity to Treadwell that went beyond his relationship with bears. He had an ax to grind. Human infringement upon bear habitat wasn’t the only thing that infuriated him — his beef seemed to be with civilization itself. In Treadwell’s mind, seemingly everyone and everything was the enemy….except the bears.

“Fuck you, National Park Service!” he yells at the camera as he stands on the shore of a lake surrounded by wilderness. One of his many tirades, this is one is largely bleeped out by the man who assembled Treadwell’s footage for “Grizzly Man”. The documentarian states: “Treadwell crosses a line here with the National Park Service that we will not cross.”

A few days before his death in 2003, with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard filming him, Tim brags about the fact that he’s living at “the most dangerous campsite on Earth” and that he is doing so without weapons.

Weapons, specifically firearms, are in fact banned within Alaska’s Katmai National Park, but campers are allowed and strongly encouraged to carry “bear spray” (which has proven to be remarkably effective at repelling bears without killing them). Tim never carried bear spray, much to the chagrin of various park rangers who worried about not only his safety, but also the safety of his girlfriend Amie. Nothing would deter Tim; calling him out on his reckless behavior only seemed to exacerbate his defiant determination to push the envelope no matter what the cost.

And the cost would be very high indeed.

Amie Huguernard didn’t possess Tim’s thirteen years of experience with bears. She was a physician’s assistant in Colorado who happened to read Tim’s book about bears. She jumped at the opportunity to meet the author at a book signing, and promptly fell in love with him. Tim cast a spell that compelled her to quit her job and move with him to Malibu, California, where he spent his winters. He even convinced her to spend the summer with him in Alaska to experience first hand what it was like to live in close proximity to wild bears. After three such summers, Tim’s spell started to wear off.

Aime was beginning to have second thoughts about their relationship when they arrived at Katmai National Park in June 2003. She came to believe that her boyfriend was hell bent on destruction, and Tim noted in his journal that she had decided never to return with him to Alaska. She was ready to go back to California where she was scheduled to start a new job. Unlike Tim, Aime never stopped being afraid of the bears.

Aime had three possible opportunities to escape the fate that was waiting for her with Tim. The first such opportunity was when she actually left Tim and returned to California in early September. She stayed there for a couple of weeks, but something compelled her to return to Alaska one last time, perhaps to persuade Tim to come back with her.

It almost worked. They were packed and ready to leave when Tim got into an argument with an Air Alaska employee. They missed their flight and Amie missed her second opportunity to escape. A fateful decision was made to extend their stay in bear country for one extra week.

On September 29th, pilot Willy Fulton landed his float plane on Kaflia Lake to drop the couple off at what would prove to be their final campsite. Tim sent a message back with Fulton, noting that the bears at the previous campsite had been unusually aggressive.

For the first few days everything seemed fine, even though most of the bears Tim had come to know had already gone into hibernation. Normally Treadwell wouldn’t have been here this late in the season. The bears that showed up now came from the wild, rugged interior of the country, seeking to fatten up for hibernation. Tim had never interacted with these bears before, and in a tape made a few days before his death, even the “Grizzly Man” betrayed a bit of apprehension beneath his bravado.

“Come here, camp here,” Tim says to the camera, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. “Come here and try to do what I do, and you will die. You will die here–they will get you! But I’ve found a way. I’ve found a way to survive with them.”

On Sunday, October 5th, Tim phoned Willy Fulton and confirmed that Fulton would fly his float plane in to pick them up on the beach the following afternoon. Tim and Aime also made a satellite call to their friend Jewel Palovak, and they both seemed in good spirits. By the time Fulton arrived the next day, they were dead.

Amazingly, a six minute audio recording of Tim’s death was discovered. Someone had turned on the camera but hadn’t removed the lens cap, thus capturing only the sounds of the attack. Although the tape has never been made public, those who have listened to it have written about it. The following reconstruction of the attack is based on those reports.

It happened the night before Willy Fulton arrived to pick them up. They had just settled into their tent for the evening and had opened some snack food — which was found uneaten. The night was cold and rainy; the sound of rain falling on the roof of the tent can be heard throughout much of the tape. Tim hears the unmistakable sound of a bear outside. Setting his food aside, he goes out to shoo it away, as he has done many times with many bears. This time it doesn’t work.

The bear comes charging out of the rainy darkness and attacks him. It happens very quickly. Amy doesn’t immediately realize how much trouble Tim is in, and she asks: “Is it still out there?”

That’s when Tim begins screaming. “Get out here!” he yells. “I’m getting killed out here!”

We hear the zipper of the tent open as Amie steps out. Tim is on the ground and the bear is on top of him, most likely biting into his head and face. People who survive serious bear attacks tend to have scalp and facial wounds. “Play dead!” Amy screams.

Startled, the bear initially withdraws into the darkness. Aime kneels beside Tim to determine how badly he’s wounded. Then the bear returns, driving Amie back toward the tent, away from Tim, who pleads with her to “hit the bear!”

As the bear starts to drag Tim away from the camp, in a remarkable act of heroism, Aime returns and begins hitting the bear with a frying pan — the sound of the pan hitting the bear’s head is clearly heard. “Stop! Go away!” Aime yells.

The bear lets go of Tim’s face, grabs one of his legs, and continues dragging him off. We hear Tim’s last words at this point: “Amie, get away, get away, go away….”

And then there’s nothing except Aime’s screams and the sound of rain hitting the top of the tent. The tapes ends.

What happened next isn’t certain. It’s presumed that after she failed to get the bear to release Tim, she retreated back to their tent, certainly overwhelmed by the horror of what she’d witnessed. And here is where she possibly missed one final opportunity to escape, to make her way through the darkness to the beach, where she could have hidden until Fulton’s plane arrived the following day. All we know for sure is that at some point after the tape ended, the bear came back to the camp and got her.

Willy Fulton arrived on schedule the following afternoon. After landing his float plane, he got out and started calling to Tim. There was no answer. He started up the hill toward the campsite, where he could see a tarp flapping in the breeze. Just before reaching the camp, Fulton stopped dead in his tracks. Something didn’t feel right. Something felt very wrong. He turned around and began walking quickly back to the beach.

Just as he reached his plane, Fulton turned around and saw a large brown bear emerge from the bushes onto the path where Fulton had been standing only seconds before. The bear stared at him.

Fulton flew his plane over the campsite several time in an attempt to scare the bear away, but it didn’t work. He noticed the bear feeding on what appeared to be a human ribcage.

Later forest rangers and state troopers met up with Fulton at the lake, and they hiked up to the campsite together — armed with handguns and 12 gauge shotguns. One of the troopers yelled: “Bear!” and they all turned to see a large brown bear coming toward them. They opened fire, shooting it a total of sixteen times. The bear dropped about twelve feet from the group. Fulton identified it as being the same bear that stalked him earlier.

I’m not going to describe what they found when they got to the camp — suffice to say, Tim and Aime’s remains were discovered and identified. As well as the tape. If there’s a hero in this story, it’s Aime Huguenard. Whatever good Tim Treadwell may have accomplished over the years, ultimately he only proved one thing: if you play Russian Roulette with mother nature long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll die.

Humans are actually puny little creatures, physically speaking. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime wouldn’t have stood a chance against an average sized adult chimpanzee. There are a number of large dogs that many humans wouldn’t stand a chance against without the benefit of a weapon. Our mastery of technology has enabled us to rule the world; not our muscle. And while there’s no question we often misuse that technology, without it we’d be in deep shit.

Speaking of chimps, everyone recalls the horrible incident just over one year ago, in which a pet chimpanzee went on a rampage and ripped a woman’s face off (she survived). Fewer people recall a similar event some four years prior.

On March 3rd, 2005, St. James Davis and his wife LaDonna went to a wildlife sanctuary to celebrate the 39th birthday of their former pet chimp, Moe. The couple had raised Moe for most of the animal’s life, and loved the chimp dearly. A few years before this Moe had been forcibly removed from their home after biting a woman’s finger (the Davises claimed Moe mistook her bright red fingernail polish to be candy). A number of court battles with the county ensued to no avail — the county absolutely would not allow Moe to return to his former home.

The best they could do was get Moe transferred to the Animal Haven Ranch, a private sanctuary that was home to a number of exotic animals — mostly rejects from zoos and circuses. It was a beautiful location surrounded by the rolling hills near Bakersfield, California.

The Davises arrived at the ranch with cake and chocolate milk for Moe, who was excited to see them. As they began feeding Moe his cake, LaDonna noticed a large teenage chimp step out from behind a bush about forty feet away. It wasn’t supposed to be out of its cage. The moment LaDonna made eye contact with it, the chimp charged.

The chimp slammed into LaDonna’s backside, knocking her into her husband’s arms. It grabbed her left hand and bit off her thumb before St. James managed to throw his wife under a picnic table. The chimp then turned its full fury on St. James, while Moe watched in a state of shock from his cage.

St. James, 64, was a very big man. How he would have fared one on one against the teenage chimp will never be known, because as soon as he confronted the first chimp, a *second* one appeared. This one was a fully grown adult male. That St. James even managed to survive the attack that followed is a minor miracle.

One of his eyes was gouged out immediately, then his nose was bitten off by one chimp while the other one started chewing his fingers away. The savage attack seemed to go on forever. The adult chimp closed its jaws around St. James’s mouth, ripping his lips away and destroying several of his teeth. The big man collapsed in a heap and the attack went on.

They mauled his buttocks and his left foot and his genitals. LaDonna’s screams were finally heard by ranch employee Mark Carruthers, who arrived with a .45 caliber revolver. He fired at the nearest chimp, the teenager — but the bullets wouldn’t put the chimp down. Meanwhile the bigger chimp ripped St. James’s testicles from his body.

Carruthers ran inside the house, reloaded the gun with more powerful ammunition, and returned. He shot the adult chimp in the head at close range. The teenage chimp continued attacking St. James, who was by now horribly mutilated. Carruthers kneeled down, aimed, and shot the second chimp in the chest. The animal screamed, stumbled away, and collapsed. Both chimps were dead. A pool of blood expanded around St. James as Curruthers quickly called 911.

St. James was immediately placed in a medically induced coma upon his arrival at the hospital. He survived, underwent several reconstructive surgeries, and goes on with life as best he can. Shortly after St. James returned home from the hospital, his beloved Moe escaped from the sanctuary — and the chimp was never seen again. He claims this loss devastated him far more than the mental and physical damage he suffered as a result of the attack.

Real life horrors such as these eclipse anything we’ve seen in the movies. The recent incident at Sea World reminds us that no matter how many years any given animal spends in captivity, it’s still an animal. And this brings us to the film that inspired this article in the first place — Orca, The Killer Whale.

Producer Dino De Laureatiis has always been kind of a larger than life character. He likes to do things bigger and better than anybody else. After seeing “JAWS” Dino was determined to make a movie about a killer fish that was “tougher and more terrible than the great white”. Ultimately a killer whale was decided upon.

“Orca” began filming in early 1977, one year after the release of Dino’s previous big budget extravaganza, the underrated remake of “King Kong”. If you compare the artwork on the posters for those two films, you’ll see they appear to be the work of the same artist. Dino definitely had an eye for talent.

In many ways “Orca” is your typical cheesy `70s killer animal movie. Unlike films such as “Grizzly” and “Tentacles” (about a giant octopus), however, it doesn’t blatantly rip off “JAWS”. The filmmakers were clearly striving for something a little bit deeper.

The movie stars the late Richard Harris, who plays an Irishman named Captain Nolan who lives in Canada and catches marine animals as a means of paying off the mortgage on his boat. All he wants to do is go back to Ireland. An aquarium is seeking a killer whale; if Nolan can deliver one to them, he’ll have all the money he needs.

While his “plan” for catching a live Orca makes absolutely no sense at all, that doesn’t stop him from trying. When a school of Orcas is spotted, Nolan accidentally harpoons a female instead of a male, and that’s when the scene described at the beginning of this article occurs. The murder of his mate is witnessed by the big male orca.

Hungry for revenge, the orca tries to sink the ship that night. A crewmember cuts the female whale’s carcass off the boat, but the male whale jumps out of the water and eats him. The following day, the female washes up on shore and news of the crewmember’s death spreads throughout the little fishing community. Nolan is ready to go back to Ireland at this point, money or no money, but the villagers insist that he stay and kill the guilty whale.

Nolan confesses to a female fish expert, Dr. Rachel Bedford (played by the lovely Charlotte Rampling), that he emphasizes with the whale. Nolan’s own wife and unborn child were killed by a drunk driver. Dr. Bedford persuades him to forget about the orca. Nolan initially agrees to do so.

But that night the orca attacks Nolan’s seaside home (which is supported on wooden pillars to keep it out of the water). Inside the home is one of Nolan’s crewmembers — Bo Derek! She doesn’t exactly look like someone who makes her living on a fishing boat, but oh well. The orca smashes the wooden pillars and the house falls sideways into the sea. Bo desperately tries to climb away as furniture tumbles past her and slashes into the water.

In a scene reminiscent of the death of Quint in “JAWS”, the orca lunges out of the water as Bo Derek slides helplessly down to its waiting jaws. It doesn’t kill her; it merely bites her leg off. She lets out a mild scream of anguish.

The Irishman now resolves to kill the whale. He’s only got one crewmember left, Bo Derek’s boyfriend, Paul (played by none other than Dr. Stephen Strange himself, Peter Hooten). They are joined on their voyage by a wise old Indian played by Will Sampson, who played a wise old Indian in “Poltergeist II” and who smothered Jack Nicholson to death at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Additionally, Dr. Rachel Bedford and her assistant (a young Robert Carradine) tag along.

The film becomes downright surreal as the boat drifts past icebergs during the final hunt for the orca. Carradine dies first when he stupidly leans over the side of the boat. Then Dr. Strange, whose magic apparently doesn’t work on whales, gets eaten. Then the orca shoves an iceberg into the boat, and a large block of ice crushes the wise old Indian. Then the boat starts to sink. The whale hunt didn’t go very whale at all.

Nolan and Dr. Bedford have to jump on an iceberg to avoid going down with the ship. Armed with only a shotgun, Nolan jumps to a separate iceberg and tries shooting at the orca. The orca throws its body onto the iceberg, making it tilt and causing Nolan to slide into the frigid water. Then the whale uses its tail to catapult Nolan through the air, fatally slamming the Irishman into a wall of solid ice.

A helicopter rescues Dr. Bedford. The orca’s revenge is complete. It swims deep beneath the icebergs, where it presumably intends to commit suicide by depriving itself of oxygen. I guess it had nothing left to live for at that point.

Unlike most killer animal movies, in this one the animal actually wins! “Orca” was a minor success at the box office, but was then quickly forgotten. “Star Wars” got all the attention that year. “JAWS II” proved to be a big hit in 1978, but that movie effectively signaled the end of the killer animal craze, which would soon be replaced by the slasher craze (slasher movies were far cheaper and easier to produce).

Most of the killer animal movies made in the three decades following the `70s have sucked. “Cujo” was good, but I believe the definitive rapid dog movie has yet to be made. It’s conceivable we could see a resurgence of such films — who could have predicted the overwhelming profusion of zombie movies that started with Zach Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake in 2004? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, life goes on at Sea World. Officials there have vowed never to let another such tragedy happen again; what kind of changes they intend to implement, apart from ponytail regulations, remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, the trainer Dawn Brancheau, died doing what she loved. She loved those whales and dolphins. And I believe they loved her too. Those who object to their captivity may dispute that, but it’s what I believe.

How much like us are they really — the whales and the dolphins? We know their brains are somewhat bigger than ours, and their intelligence is unquestioned. But if they are like us at all, perhaps their minds are subject to the same conditions as ours — including insanity. And like us, maybe sometimes they just snap. What person has never hurt someone they love? There are no easy answers.

Should it ever really surprise us that animals, like humans, sometimes do things that make no sense at all?

-Jonathan Dornellas




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