SEA WORLD RELEASE THE ORCA?
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.
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.
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
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?
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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