Monday, March 01, 2010

Should Killer Whales be in captivity?

A killer whale, aka orca, in the wild. Credit NOAA

The recent death of Orlando SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau has stirred up a heated debate over whether killer whales (Orcinus orca) should work so closely with people due to the inherent dangers or whether they should be held in captivity at all. The orca that dragged Brancheau underwater, named Tilikum, has killed two other people in the past. Some people have demanded that Tilikum should go free or get put down, but SeaWorld so far has opted to keep working with Tilikum.

I admit I have taken my kids to SeaWorld, where the Shamu Show (aka 'Believe') wowed us, but I also have become more aware of animal issues related to marine mammal parks by watching The Cove documentary, and also by talking with animal activist Tim Gorski while we trekked through Nepal. Animal activists like Gorski say captive confinement is no place for orcas, dolphins, or other marine mammals, since in the wild they roam over hundreds of square miles. Gorski produced the Telly Award-winning film Lolita: Slave to Entertainment about an orca at Florida’s Seaquarium. Lolita also features Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove.

The Cove Director Louis Psihoyos also made a public statement about the tragic death of Brancheau. "We join people in mourning this tragedy while keeping in mind that these animals don't belong in captivity,” he said. “Our film 'The Cove' reinforces this notion that placing dolphins and whales in captivity is not an acceptable method of educating the public about these magnificent and normally peaceful animals." Jean-Michel Cousteau also released a statement well worth reading. Based on his experience trying to reintroduce Keiko, the whale of Free Willy movie fame, into wild pods of orcas, he believes any such reintroductions will likely fail. However he hopes that we can close the current era of having orcas in captivity with dignity as we let them live out their days. "We are in the presence of alien intelligence and we are asking them to jump. It is a tragedy of a different magnitude," he writes.

CNN reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell got into a heated debate with animal expert Jack Hanna on CNN. Velez-Mitchell calls keeping animals in captivity torture, comparing it to keeping a human in a bathtub for a quarter of its life. She calls SeaWorld merely a money-making machine. Hanna argued that SeaWorld’s shows educate the public which helps people care about marine animals and the ocean, while also raises millions of dollars for science and conservation work. Hanna says captive animals can’t be released to the wild, but Velez-Mitchell argues that captive animals can be released into sanctuaries, which give animals more room to roam.

What do you think?