Monday, March 1, 2010

Death and Life in Orca World: The Show Must Go On

Sea World has resumed their orca shows after the recent death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The trainers aren’t allowed to enter the water with the animals and they work under a new set of rules, but I expect it’s just a matter of time before things return to normal.

After all, orca shows are the foundation on which the Sea World empire is built and it will take a lot more than a trainer’s death to stop them. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Ms. Brancheau’s death by whale is unfortunate, but it wasn’t unexpected. The whale in question, Tilikum, is linked to two previous deaths. Even without that history, the fact remains that orcas are one of the world’s largest predators, so one could logically assume that being around them poses a risk.

If you factor in the reality that captive whales like Tilikum are compressed into spaces millions of times smaller than they would experience in the wild, that their natural movements and behaviours are almost entirely eliminated, that they are forced to live in the most unnatural of social environments and that they are frustrated, bored and out of shape, one could reasonably assume all of that might exacerbate the risk.

No one really knows if Tilikum was angry, demented after living so long in those kinds of conditions or just innocently looking for a diversion from the monotony of his daily life. What we do know however, is that Tilikum is a 12,000 lb predator living a very unnatural life.

I expect Ms. Brancheau got into the whale training business because she loves whales, especially the particular whales she worked with. But I find it hard to believe the relationship was reciprocated in any way. I just can’t get past the feeling that if a relationship does exist, it’s not one between friends, but between keeper and captive.

If you look at the biology, behaviour and lifestyles of orcas, it seems obvious why they are among the worst candidates for captivity. There’s almost nothing about their natural lives and habitats that can be replicated, even in the world’s best captive conditions. Life for a captive whale doesn’t seem like much of a life at all. It seems more like a long, slow prison sentence where the only escape is death.

I’d like to think that Ms. Brancheau’s death will result in a period of reflection and a reassessment of whale keeping by the bigwigs at Sea World and other aquariums. But I know that’s wishful thinking, because marine parks and aquariums are businesses that are there to generate a profit. And when money is involved, the show must go on.

Rob Laidlaw