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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby

Our relationship to the animals around us is a tenuous one.  As the earth’s top predators what responsibility do we have to other species? I remember going to Seaworld in California many years ago and watching in awe as the orcas performed their tricks. I would be less enthralled today after what we have learned over the years regarding the natural habitat of the orcas compared to the cramped and unnatural living quarters of those in captivity.

Tilikum had been captured as a baby off Iceland (note that the Icelandic orcas have a different culture than those off British Columbia and different diet, the ones in B.C. feeding on fish, the others on mammals. Some have even been known to drown baleen whales in order to eat their fins.)  He was kept in a small tank for several years with two dominant females (orcas are primarily matriarchal) and often tormented by them.  It was just a matter of time before Tilikum became what we might call psychotic and unpredictable.

One of the themes brought out in this book is the natural antipathy between those who believe zoos are the best way to see and learn about animals and those who think that keeping animals of high intelligence, and there is no doubt that whales and apes have very high intelligence, is not only unworthy of humans but detrimental to the animals themselves and that the only way to study and learn about them is in the wild where the animals can behave normally. There was even some speculation that emerged from the hearings after Tilikum killed Dawn Brancheau that institutions like Sea World and zoos have a vested interest in subtly portraying the dangers of nature.  Indeed one of Sea World’s major arguments for not returning their killer whales back to the wild was that they were safer penned up.  This argument morphs over into a more general one that nature is dangerous for humans as well so come see the animals in the zoo, please, where you won’t get hurt (and by the way buy a few t-shirts, mugs and pizza while you are there.)

There had been four deaths in the pools from interplay with orcas. Many others have been injured, several quite severely.  The hearings in Congress that ultimately resulted following Dawn’s death had to answer two vital questions: “ 1. Is captivity in an amusement park good for orcas: Is this the appropriate venue for killer whales to be held, and does it somehow benefit wild orcas and their ocean habitat, as the industry claims? 2. Is orca captivity good for society: Is it safe for trainers and truly educational for a public that pays to watch the whales perform what critics say are animal tricks akin to circus acts? Not surprisingly, people who support SeaWorld and other marine-themed entertainment parks (pro-caps in the lingo of this particular argument) answer affirmatively.”

There is little doubt these large animals are fascinating creatures with a sophisticated culture. Lots of information here on that. While the author’s sympathies clearly lie with those wishing to study animals in the wild, he does a good job of presenting both sides of the issue although he does focus primarily on those people like Naomi Rose, an orca expert and her evolution into anti-Seaworld activist.

One can sympathize with the Zoo proponents but that sympathy tends to waver in the face of their use of euphemisms and obfuscation in an attempt to make animal life at Sea World appear as “happy” as possible. As the great muckraker Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
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