by Whit Gibbons

March 14, 2010

I have received several questions about dolphins and killer whales (orcas), some concerning the recent unfortunate incident in Orlando; some regarding their behavior in the wild.

Q: In February a killer whale attacked and killed a marine animal trainer. Shouldn't these shows be banned if they put people in danger?

A: The death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau is certainly regrettable, and compassion for her family, her friends, and people in the audience at the time of the tragic event is entirely appropriate. But I do not think we should have laws that prohibit adults from working in a dangerous occupation or participating in a risky profession-as Brancheau chose to do. Even the smallest adult orcas are huge and sometimes resort to behaviors that are dangerous or even deadly to humans.

Q: Dolphins as well as orcas are featured in acts during marine shows. Do dolphins pose a threat to people?

A: The two groups of mammals are in the same family biologically and closely related ancestrally. Both have individual and social behaviors that preadapt them for performing water acrobatics in front of an audience. However, their behaviors differ because of their body sizes and their natural diet. Bottlenose dolphins, a common marine park species, can be more than 10 feet long and eat primarily fish. Orcas commonly reach lengths of more than 20 feet and will eat larger mammalian prey. Seals in northern oceans and penguins in Antarctica are frequently on the orcas' menu. Certain behaviors by humans in a marine park may trigger an innate behavior in some orcas that causes them to assume an attack mode they would use to capture large prey. I am not aware of any intentional attack on a human by a dolphin, although exceptions can no doubt be found.

Q: I read that PETA is protesting the use of orcas at Sea World and insists that the one that has killed at least two trainers be released into the wild. Should entertainment using marine mammals be allowed to continue?

A: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protests almost any interaction between people and animals, often to the point of absurdity, overstatement, and oversimplification. Unfortunately, their take-no-prisoners, no-compromise attitude diminishes their effectiveness when addressing a valid issue. Whether we should keep marine mammals in captivity and teach them to perform acrobatics is certainly worthy of debate. But the answer is not a simple yes or no. Though orcas are black and white, much gray surrounds the issue of whether to keep them or other animals in captivity.

I personally prefer the excitement of seeing what such magnificent creatures can do in the wild rather than in a sea park. But such occasions are rare, and most people have little opportunity to reach their habitats and observe their awesome behaviors in a natural setting. In considering whether we should allow the containment of these wild animals in man-made sea parks, we should remember that most people would never see a live dolphin or orca if these awe-inspiring animals were not in captivity. Public awareness of any species is the first step in getting people to appreciate them. So, maintaining animals in captivity for people to see has educational value.

On the other hand, orcas are intelligent (although some scientists consider that trait to be overrated), cognitive beings that almost certainly would prefer to roam the oceans eating fish, seals, and cormorants rather than being sentenced to life in a swimming pool performing at 10, 2, and 4. Of course, presumably most wild animals would rather have their freedom than be in a cage or outdoor enclosure, so we should not limit the discussion to sea parks. What about animals in zoos and public aquariums?

What will ultimately decide the issue of captive animals, however, is the astronomical amount of money invested in zoos, aquariums, and sea parks. Unless PETA or anyone else can address the financial side of the issue, orcas will continue to be at Sea World and elsewhere for a long time.

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