By Dan Wilson
Who’s to blame?
Last week’s death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was both tragic and preventable, and should come as no surprise. This isn’t the first time a captive orca has attacked or killed a trainer, nor is it the first time Tilikum has killed a human being.
In 1991, he and two other orcas – Nootka IV and Haida II – participated in the drowning death of Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old University of Victoria marine biology student and part-time trainer at Victoria’s Sealand of the Pacific marine park. Byrne had slipped and fallen into the orca pool. Tilikum grabbed her with his teeth and dragged her around the pool, holding her underwater for some time.
At one point Keltie, a champion swimmer, broke free and tried to climb out of the tank but all three whales took turns pulling her back in. The girl died as Tilikum held her underwater in his mouth. Sealand closed the next year and the whales were sold off to other marine parks.
Over the years, SeaWorld trainers in the United States have sustained numerous injuries while performing with orcas, including bites during feedings, ruptured kidneys, lacerated livers, fractured bones, and near drowning. People have even been injured at our own Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls. In 1986, an orca dragged a trainer around the pool by his leg after he fell into the water during a stunt and an 11-year-old girl required four stitches to close a wound on her thumb after a beluga bit her during a petting session in 2000.
In a 2004 report to the United States Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), the University of California found that captive animals had injured more than half (52%) of marine mammal workers.
So why are people still permitted to interact with large, wild, potentially dangerous animals?
Even the National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that just because orcas and other whales have been born in captivity or have been taught to do a few circus tricks doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. This also goes for zoos and circuses that use large, powerful and equally dangerous animals, such as lions, tigers and elephants. People are injured, attacked and killed every year at these places as well.
We think we’re so smart yet we do such stupid things. According to Sea World officials, they will continue using Tilikum because he delights audiences with his outsized splashes. Well that’s a good reason for putting the training staff at risk! According to Jim Atchison, president of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, “He’s been a part of our team and he will remain a part of our team.”
I find this statement laughable, because Tilikum no more volunteered for the “job” than any other animal forced into captivity. But this means he will continue to be trained “to delight audiences” meaning another trainer could end up like Dawn Brancheau. Now Sea World wants to review Brancheau’s death with other facilities (including Marineland) to figure out what went wrong.
Common sense should tell them that they shouldn’t be caging, and then playing with potentially dangerous animals! Frustrated animals, prevented from exercising basic natural behaviours, segregated from other whales for days at a time, and forced to live in barren concrete tanks thousands, if not millions of times smaller than their natural environments, will become unpredictable and dangerous animals. So who’s to blame for Dawn Brancheau’s and Keltie Byrne’s deaths?
Not Tilikum. Being unable to express his frustration and anger in words we understand, he’s opted to show us. And don’t think that because he’s a predator, he was just looking for something to eat. He didn’t even try eating the bodies. This should tell us something too.
Neither are SeaWorld or Marineland (or any place that keeps wild animals captive) to blame. They’re simply trying to make a buck. If the demand wasn’t there, they’d be out of business. So who’s to blame?
If you visit or support places that keep wild and potentially dangerous animals imprisoned for your amusement, then you are.
(Dan Wilson is a Niagara resident, a vegan educator and activist for animals who, among other things, has fought against keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. You can read more of his work by clicking on http://niagaraanimalrightscenter.blogspot.com)
(Click on http://www.niagaraatlarge.com for more news and commentary on matters of interest and concern to residents across our binational Niagara region.)