A tragic event happened this week; 40-year-old Sea World whale trainer Dawn Brancheau lost her life when Tilikum, Sea World’s largest killer whale, grabbed her and forcibly drowned her at Sea World Orlando. Her death was a combination of traumatic injury and drowning. This tragic accident has created a flurry of editorials and opinions across the nation as people claim that Killer Whales should not be held in captivity.
I disagree; there is nothing inherently wrong with keeping killer whales in captivity.
I find organizations like PETA distasteful for jumping on the heels of a tragic accident to push their agenda; but we’ve come to expect that from them. Their motto is that there is no such thing as negative publicity and I suppose the are right. It’s when they use factually incorrect arguments meant to entice an emotional response that I get annoyed. One of the claims they are making about why killer whales should not be held in captivity is because 100% of captive killer whales have “fin droop” when less than 1% of killer whales in the wild suffer from that condition.
More than once, I have seen that argument used to imply that the whale is depressed or unhappy, because a droopy fin just looks so unhappy.
Untrue; droopy fins are not an external reflection of a whale’s psychological state. Droopy fins occur because captive whales spend so much more time topside than whales in the wild. The flesh, without the supporting water to prop it up, simply becomes too heavy to stand on its own. In the wild, the whales do have more and deeper roaming area and spend less time topside – so they never experience fin droop.
A droopy fin could be indicative of too small a holding area, but there’s really no real evidence to support that yet. Objectors claim that Sea World’s tanks for the whales are the equivalent of living in a small bathtub for the whales. Wolves and Lions are also used to roaming the forests and plains and yet they live happily, thriving even, in zoos that have a much smaller roaming area for them. As long as the whales are healthy and generally happy (if they can be said to have emotion) I’m not sure the argument on enclosure size has much merit.
Another claim being made is that whales in captivity become “neurotic.” I take issue to that statement. Being “neurotic” is to suffer from an emotional disorder. We can’t even accurately diagnose emotional disorders in humans, much less in other animal species. The very definition of “emotion” defies explanation. Since whales lack the ability to describe their emotion to us in such a way as we can understand and relate to it with our own emotions – all we have to go on are physical behaviors. You can’t label a physical behavior neurotic – only normal or abnormal based on a standard set of conditions and assumptions. Don’t label behaviors as emotional.
Tilikum is not a killer killer whale. Tilikum is just a whale. Larger than most. Dangerous for sure – as they all are. Trainers of whales accept the inherent risk of dealing with these large animals. They understand that no killer whale is “tame” and that there are risks involved in dealing with them and in being near them. Dawn knew this. She accepted the risks, just like lion and elephant handlers do in terrestrial zoos.
The fact that Tilikum has now been involved in three deaths is interesting, but no more than that. Tilikum does not seek out people to drown and gnaw on. He is the largest and most virile killer whale in captivity. People make mistakes, not the whale. The whale behaves as he will behave. When anyone, trainers or otherwise, treat every whale the same, they will be surprised when Tilikum reacts differently. And he IS different from the other whales.
I’m not saying Dawn made a mistake. There is a protocol for dealing with Tilikum that forbade anyone entering the water with him, but it was standard practice to rub him down in knee-deep water. Dawn did nothing wrong. Dealing with killer whales is dangerous. Period. Nothing can remove all the risk. Perhaps the fact that all the whales were not following instructive cues that day could have been a warning sign to tread warily, but again – there is no way to remove all risk when dealing with these enormous animals.
Sea World has an excellent safety record. Compare the number of fatal accidents at terrestrial zoos around the world and you would quickly realize that there is nothing more important to Sea World than the safety of its employees and trainers. You can’t eliminate al the risks when dealing with killer whales, but Sea World does a good job controlling what they can.
The knowledge from and scientific research conducted on these whales is invaluable. It is imperative that we not let knee-jerk reaction to an extremely rare accident force legislation or decisions that would eliminate access to these whales.
My thoughts are with Dawn’s friends and family this week. They have plainly stated that Dawn died doing what she loved and she would not wish any harm or change to the killer whales. Training killer whales is a dangerous job. The only reason why we are shocked is because Dawn made it look so easy. We forgot how dangerous it really is.
Killer whales in captivity should not be set free. A single accident does not merit an inappropriate and extreme response.