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Doris Lin

Sea World Tragedy Was Avoidable

By February 27, 2010

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In a terrible tragedy, a killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, on Wednesday. Tilikum, who is 30 years old and weighs over 12,000 pounds, grabbed Brancheau by the ponytail, pulled her into the tank and drowned her. All three SeaWorld parks (the others are in San Diego and San Antonio) suspended their killer whale shows, but the shows are expected to resume today.

Brancheau's death was the result of another tragedy - Tilikum's imprisonment. Tilikum was captured and separated from his family at the age of 2, and is now the largest orca in captivity. He had been linked with two other human deaths before this week.

Not that it's OK to breed killer whales (or any animal) in captivity for Sea World. Like capturing killer whales in the wild, breeding them in captivity means they are doomed to a lifetime of confinement and dependence on humans.

Why did Tilikum attack Brancheau? Toni Frohoff, research director at TerraMar Research, believes the attack may have been a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome from memories of his own capture and from a lifetime spent in captivity.

Of course, Brancheau's death has re-ignited the debate over whether killer whales, other marine mammals, and/or other large animals should be kept in captivity. Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, predictably defends the practice:

The only thing I can compare it to is when the astronauts went to the space station, that tragic thing happened coming back. Why did we do that? We did that to learn more about space that will help us. Why did we have Tilly and why do we have whales as well as elephants, other animals in our zoological parks and things like this? We have it to educate folks. It's the last chance we have to save these animals.

No, animal trainers are not like astronauts. Astronauts do not imprison animals for their entire lives and force them to do tricks.

Furthermore, zoos are not the last chance to save animals. Zoos are where the last known individuals die in captivity, instead of enjoying their freedom in the wild: the passenger pigeon, the thylacine (Tasmanian tigers), and the Alabama sturgeon. Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise in the world, is spending the rest of his life in captivity. Saving endangered species should focus on habitat protection so that they can flourish in the wild.

Even if zoos and aquariums were capable of saving marine mammals from extinction, saving a species is not an excuse to keep individuals in captivity. A species - a collection of individuals - does not suffer or have rights. The individual animals are suffering in captivity for the good of an entity which does not suffer or have rights.

Although Hanna admits that no one knows what killer whales in captivity are thinking, he thinks they're "very, very happy." If being taken away from their families and swimming in tight circles all day every day makes killer whales very, very happy, why do they swim a hundred miles a day with their family-based pods in the wild?

Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist with the University of Chicago, compared the happiness of non-human animals in captivity to that of human prisoners, in a blog post about Tilikum:

In my lifetime of visiting zoos and aquariums, I've seen tons of repetitive, to-and-fro movement in cages and tanks, movement that is usually seen by biologists as pathological . . . And if Martian zoologists were to observe the behavior of inmates of a Federal prison, they might well conclude that those inmates were happy, well taken care of, and, indeed, might really prefer to be in the prison rather than outside.

While we don't know what Tilikum is thinking, we know that he's suffering physically. In many photos, it's clear that Tilikum suffers from dorsal fin collapse, a common problem for orcas in captivity because, with no access to deeper water, the animals spend most of their time at the surface. Without water pressure holding the fin up, gravity pulls the fin down on one side. All adult male orcas and many female orcas in captivity suffer from dorsal fin collapse, while the condition is observed in only 1% of orcas in the wild.

Regarding education, Jacques Consteau stated, "There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins ... in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement." The main thing these institutions teach is that it's OK to keep animals in captivity for our amusement, no matter how much they suffer.

Coyne also summed up the issue of animals in captivity nicely:

Humans were once displayed in zoos, but thankfully that practice has stopped. Humans from other nations and cultures are not entertainment. Neither are lions, elephants, orcas, and dolphins. Those who keep and display such animals for profit are contemptible.

So if Tilikum should not be in captivity, what should happen to him? Jennifer Kennedy, the Guide to Marine Life, points out that he cannot be released back into the wild. Since he is now dependent on humans, SeaWorld owes him a duty to sponsor his care at a sanctuary, where he is no longer forced to perform tricks or interact with people. If no sanctuary is available, SeaWorld should retire him from performing, remove him from any exhibitions or public interactions and care for him for the rest of his life.

In fact, they should stop all performances, and stop breeding, buying and capturing animals. Those who can be released into the wild should be released, and SeaWorld should be turned into a non-profit sanctuary for the remaining animals, with no more performances. The practice of keeping animals in zoos, aquariums, amusement parks and circuses for our amusement is cruel and anachronistic, and must end.

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February 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm
(1) Linda says:

Thank you for this in-depth examination of why theme parks and other for-profit companies that use animals for entertainment are harming and hurting these sentient creatures. Animal-loving audiences who visit these places think that the animals are ‘cared’ for, but any wild creature in captivity is imprisoned. I especially appreciated the link to the story of Ned, which provides troubling proof of why breeding animals in captivity is a terrible practice.

The depth and breadth of your knowledge and the passion behind your animal advocacy always impresses me. Thank you for fighting the good fight on their behalf.

February 27, 2010 at 5:11 pm
(2) Jennifer Kennedy says:

Thanks for your great overview of this issue. We had a storm this week, so I got Friday’s and Saturday’s newspaper in the same day. I was glad to see in Friday’s paper that orca shows were being canceled until SeaWorld could review its policies. Well, overnight the dollar signs must have flashed in front of someone, because according to Saturday’s paper, they’re back on. I had heard that online anyway, but it was kind of funny to see it written in plain English and then taken away in just one day!

February 27, 2010 at 11:39 pm
(3) Dino Dogan says:

SeaWorld had issued contradictory reports on the Whale murder… muddy waters are benefiting the owners of the Sea World…divide opinions, put out inconsistent information, confuse and thrive…just another day at the office Im afraid.

I am sure that SeaWorld has put bottom line before the well being of the whale, humans, trainers and anyone else who stood in the way of making profits.

The root of the problem is deeper Im afraid. I’ve written about it on my blog.

March 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm
(4) Ginger Burr says:

Thank you, Doris. Your article should be on the front page of every newspaper in the country. If people would just stop and think for a minute (with the help of your insightful information and research) they would realize how wrong and unbearably sad it is to hold animals captive in zoos, aquariums, etc. Sadly, I bet there will be a renewed (and morbid) interest in seeing Tilikum perform now and business will boom. I pray that SeaWorld will see past the dollar signs and do the humane and compassionate thing by sending Tilikum to the sanctuary. Thank you again!

April 24, 2010 at 8:28 pm
(5) Dan LaMont says:

Great article. Recently I found a song on the ‘net about the captive killer whale industry–it’s quite powerful & moving. The singer/songwriter is apparently letting people download it for free off her website to help raise awareness.


October 22, 2010 at 11:29 pm
(6) badmash says:

I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?

September 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm
(7) Stwvw Bruce says:

Thanks for your good report on this incident, It’s not necessarily “tragic”, though of course her family would be devastated.
But I’m sure the trainer understood the risks of working with such powerful beings still loved her work.I would estimate that her spirit would never wish for any consequences for the killer whale. It almost sounds as thought the killer whale – perhaps playfully – decided to treat her to a fun ride “forgetting” that humans can’t hold their breath like orcas.
“She” would be kicking herself for forgetting to tie down or net her hair properly. However unusual, this was an occupational accident. She died loving what she was doing and that’s not tragic. Sure orcas may suffer from PTSD but why did Tilikum not exhibit this longer before this incident. “Vicious” animals tend to be much less constrained and any trainer recognizes this right away.

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