Nothing is more awesome for a child than watching a 12,000-pound Killer Whale jump vertically out of the water, extending its body skyward like a marine-based rocket, only to dramatically splash down into a tank of preternaturally blue water leaving a tsunami-sized wake to soak appreciative spectators. This sort of spectacle and showmanship occurs daily in marine parks throughout the world with highly trained whales (and dolphins) taken from captivity and given a new profession as celebrities and entertainers for the masses. I guess something more awesome than this (as in shock and awe) would be witnessing the horrendous tragedy that occurred late last month at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where a killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform and thrashed the woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience. That would be horribly awesome.
I don’t mean to make light of this tragedy, or even pretend that there is anything vindicating about a wild animal perpetrating an act of aggression on its captor. I am sure that the now deceased trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was exceptionally devoted to her animals and compassionate beyond requirement. However, these tragic events are an upsetting reminder that orcas are wild, strong and often unpredictable animals, and holding animals like these captive is not only unnatural, but also shameful.
These killer whales (the name says it all) are enormous creatures that travel in social groups, or pods, throughout the ocean searching for prey. The idea that swapping out the expanse and majesty of the ocean for a few thousand gallons of pool water in the middle of a noisy coliseum of spectators would be appealing is just folly and rationalization (on the human’s behalf). The whale involved in this death (Tillikum) has a well-documented history of violent behavior (The American Family Association, a religious right group is requesting that Tillikum be put down, preferably by stoning and is upset with SeaWorld for not listening to Scripture in how to deal with the animal). According to press reports, SeaWorld knew of Tillikum’s history yet continued to put the animal to work and endanger the lives of its employees, as the show must go on.
This horrible event illustrates how problematic and misguided our human desire is to interact and control wild animals. Of course we want to witness the splendor and wonder of wild animals and share such an experience with our children, but do we really want nature on a leash, especially if that leash may eventually snap and run wild (as it probably should)? Is there a way to keep animals like these in captivity, emphasizing education and research, over exploitation? Should we just consider phasing out marine parks in favor of something more humane?