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SeaWorld death sparks whale captivity debate

Saturday 27 Feb 2010 12:06 p.m.

Dawn Brancheau was killed when the park's largest orca, Tillikum, dragged her underwater on Wednesday (Reuters)

Dawn Brancheau was killed when the park's largest orca, Tillikum, dragged her underwater on Wednesday (Reuters)

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Calls for an end to the captivity of whales have been reignited following the death of an orca trainer at a SeaWorld water park in Florida Wednesday.

A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has labelled the death of a whale-trainer at Shamu Stadium a “tragedy that didn’t have to happen”.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, was playing with the park’s largest male orca Tillikum, in knee-deep water, when he grabbed her by her ponytail and pulled her underwater around 2pm yesterday.

Trainers had to coax the 29-year-old orca, understood to have an “aggressive nature”, into a smaller pool and use a platform to lift him out of the water before they could free Ms Brancheau from his jaws.

An autopsy today determined the probable cause of Ms Brancheau’s death was multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.

The incident has raised questions regarding the confinement of oceangoing mammals, and sparked outrage amongst those who label their captivity “unethical”.

PETA spokesman Jaime Zalac said the tragic accident was one that could have so easily been avoided.

The organisation had called on SeaWorld to stop confining whales to an area that, to them, “is like the size of a bathtub”, she said.

“Plus we have been asking the park to stop forcing the animals to perform silly tricks over and over again."

The organisation has launched a campaign 'Help Animals Imprisoned by SeaWorld', asking supporters to write to the park's owners and urge them to release the mammals to sancturies that can provide them an environment that is more natural to them.

“The only thing people learn from visiting a SeaWorld theme park is how miserable life is for animals held there," reads a statement on PETA's website.

"It’s not surprising when these huge, smart animals lash out," says Ms Zalac.

American whale expert Richard Ellis says killer whales don’t do things accidentally, and has no doubt the whale intended to attack Ms Brancheau. He even goes so far as to label the attack “intentional” and “premeditated”.

In an interview with 3 News, Dr Ingrid Visser - the only New Zealand marine biologist who specialises in orca - says the highly modified, highly structured behaviour of orca in captivity is not normal.

“They have to be kept under control in order to it to be safe for humans,” she says. “But they shouldn’t be kept under control, they’re an apex predator – they’re the top predator out there.”

Dr Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust, likens the captivity of whales to taking a human and “putting them in a telephone box for the rest of their lives”.

“To me it’s just not right to have these whales in captivity full stop. I don’t think it’s right for us to breed more of them [in captivity] for our entertainment,” she says.

SeaWorld Animal Care Curator, Chuck Tompkins told reporters SeaWorld has a tremendous record with orca, and a very small percentage of problems.

“It’s useful to have animals in the park,” he says. “It gives scientists a chance to study them and members of the public an opportunity to see them and learn about them.”

But Dr Visser says accidents and attacks like that which claimed Ms Brancheau’s life show there is an underlying problem with having the animals in captivity.

“I don’t think it’s fair on the animals. We have perfectly good technology to teach people about these animals without having to keep them in this unnatural environment. They say it’s for education – but what are we learning?

“We’re teaching our kids that this is okay. We really have to take a technological leap forward,” she says.

Having spent hundreds of hours swimming with orca in the wild, Dr Visser says she has never seen any sign of aggression.

By New Zealand law, any individual swimming with orca must have a Department of Conservation permit, which Dr Visser says is as much for protection of the animals as it is for people.

“There’s never been any record, anywhere in the world, of a human being taken by an orca in the wild. Surely we’re getting an indication of why this tragic event happened – they’re in captivity,” she says.

“Why have we got these highly intelligent marine mammals living in a blue box? It’s unnatural. They don’t echo-locate anymore or make noises and squeaks. It’s morally wrong, unethical for us to be treating them this way. We profit from the distress of the animal, and are quite comfortable putting them in situations where they’re provoked.”

American marine biologist Nancy Black agrees the whales need more space than that which captivity offers.

“Situations like that do cause a lot of stress for them,” she says.

Ms Black says orca live in the wild in family groups, and males stay with their mothers their entire lives. Family members rely on each other for social structure and play, and they cover hundreds of miles of ocean, she says.

Orca culture is defined by the type of food they eat, the way they hunt, the social dynamics and their structure, Dr Visser says.

“They have their own culture just like humans do, yet we take them from different parts of the world, shove them in a tank together and expect them to get on. Someone who doesn’t speak your language, doesn’t share your culture – you’re just shut up in a tank with whales you’ve never met and probably don’t get along with,” she says.

“It’s no wonder these animals are trying to communicate with us in ways which we don’t like.”

Mr Tompkins said Tillikum wouldn’t be euthanised, nor will he be isolated from other orca at the park. He plays an important role in the social group of Shamu Stadium’s eight whales, has fathered some calves and will continue to mate with the park’s female orca.

Although a review of the park’s orca protocol has been launched, Mr Tompkins says he does not expect changes to the way staff deal with Tillikum to be drastic.

However Dr Visser says no matter what the changes, the situation for Tillikum is unlikely to improve.

“I suspect he will become more aggressive - this is his way of protesting,” she says.

Officials have confirmed trainers will continue to interact with the orca, but procedures for doing so will change following Ms Brancheau’s death – the first death of a SeaWorld trainer in 46 years.

President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Jim Atchison, released a statement Thursday announcing the launch of an investigation into what occurred.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures will come under review as part of the investigation,” he said.

Orca shows at all SeaWorld parks were suspended following Wednesday's incident, however Mr Atchison announced today they will resume with "precautionary measures in place".

He described Tillikum as a "wonderful animal" and said the whale will remain an active member of the team despite what had happened.

Tillikum is the largest orca in captivity. Measuring more than six metres and weighing around five-and-a-half tonne, he is more than twice the size of the typical orca whale.

Tillikum was one of three whales involved in a drowning at a marine park in British Columbia in 1991. It is believed a trainer fell into the whale tank at the Sea Land Marine Park in Victoria, and dragged her underwater as visitors watched.

In 1999, a 27-year-old man was found floating in a tank at SeaWorld. It is believed the man had hid in the park until after it closed, then climbed into the water with the orca. Authorities said it was apparent the man had become a victim of Tillikum’s “horseplay”, and the whale would not have realised he was “dealing with a very fragile human being”.

In the wake of Ms Brancheau’s death, author of award-winning nonfiction book Leviathan, or the Whale, Philip Hoare, wrote about keeping whales in captivity.

He says humans have exploited whales for centuries, “sometimes in the most extraordinary ways”.

“Since killer whales were first held captive for the purposes of entertaining humans in the 1960s, 200 killer whales have died in captivity,” he wrote. “At SeaWorld, each dead whale is replaced with another of the same name.

“Shamu thus becomes the eternal performer, a perpetual brand. This week, he turned.”

He points out that killer whales do not kill humans, but rather were given the nickname when whalers noted they hunted other whale species.

“The terrible incident at SeaWorld only serves to underline the fact that even in the second decade of the 21st century, we have yet to sort out what we really want from whales,” Mr Hoare wrote.

“What they want from us is more clear: they want to be left alone.”

3 News

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