Thursday, February 25, 2010

Orcas In Capitivity: a tragedy brings up the need for a new rationale

I would have to have blinders on to not notice the news reporting and online commentary surrounding the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau , the Sea World orca trainer, due to the actions of one of the Florida sea park's resident whales. There are 25 articles alone on and the social media sites have been buzzing with opinions, mostly recognizing the double tragedy in both the human loss and the life and future fate of the whale involved.

There will be much to be sorted out: what precisely happened, was there something that triggered the whale's actions, what were the whales recent behavior patterns? And on and on. After all is said and done regarding the details of the incident, the fundamental question of whether such animals should be kept on display, I'm sure, will be debated for months to come.

On the one hand, the marine animal acts are a founding cornerstone of the organization. Regardless of how the Sea World parks have expanded over the decades, the killer whale show is their lasting iconic image - and that represents a considerable financial investment and commitment. I know that can sound a bit crass, but it's a reminder that Sea World will likely defend the practice.

And if we look at it historically, from its earliest beginnings, dolphin and whale shows served a
purpose in enlightening the public to the intelligence ("intelligence" in human terms) of these animals at a time when interest in their survival was growing - right at the outset of the anti-whaling movement. Even today, the basic rationale for zoo/aquarium captivity is still offered with a degree of merit, as long as the animals are provided with a relatively comfortable and natural-like environment.

But on the other hand, as it has been pointed out in the news by several experts including members of the Cousteau family, it has only been in captivity that orcas have harmed humans. We are being reminded that these marine mammals normally roam the wide open seas and exhibit highly social behavior patterns within their pods. What happens to their mental health when they are confined in concrete tanks and separated from normal animal interpersonal relationships has been continually debated from day one.

It is tragically ironic that what we may have ultimately learned in initially keeping these large marine mammals in captivity is that it may be best not to do it at all. We have warmed and enlightened people to the beauty of seals, dolphins, and whales with balancing balls and hoops of fire - now, perhaps it is time to better enlighten people as to how these animals live in the wild and what we should do to insure their survival in the surroundings that nature intended.

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