Killers in Captivity: It’s Wrong

shamuI am not surprised that so many people are killed by captive animals, but that so few are. As someone who used to work in an interactive dolphin show, I saw more close calls than I care to remember. With the explosion in popularity of interactive dolphin programs, there are thousands of people interacting daily with 500-600 pound animals, animals that can be quite aggressive and are extremely sexual. It is a recipe for disaster, and it is nothing short of a miracle in my eyes that no tourists have been killed in these interactions. It is not that most bottlenose dolphins used in these interactions are attackers, but it’s just like if you had a 600 pound dog: It could be extremely sweet, but if some moron starts petting its face, things are going to end poorly. Thus it is in these interactions where people who are drunk, don’t know better, or can’t follow directions repeatedly. They will make sudden moves or touch the animals around the face, and it is a testament to the sweetness of the animals that most of the time, when someone gets in the water and acts like an idiot, the dolphins just swim away and snort for a few minutes.

I have mixed feelings about dolphins in captivity, but I have no such internal debates about killer whales in captivity. It is wrong. As is evidenced by the recent death at Sea World, these animals are extremely dangerous, not because of their aggressiveness (killer whales almost never attack people in the wild) but because of their size and power. These are not predators of humans, and deaths associated with them are almost always by drowning. (In fact, I had a boss who was once dragged to the bottom of the tank by a killer whale, and was only saved when another trainer jumped in the water and began punching the whale in the eye.) The point is that while trainers can survive an attack by a 500 pound dolphin, when an 11,000 pound animal gets the idea in its head to drag a person to the bottom of the tank, disaster is all but inevitable.

The real problem I have with keeping these animals in captivity is not the danger, however. I have friends who train killer whales, and they know that they are doing something dangerous. And like a NASCAR driver, that thrill of doing something dangerous is part of why they do it. The real problem is that these animals do not belong in captivity. They are migratory animals by nature (though little is known about their migratory patterns) and to have them live in a tank in which they can barely turn around is nothing short of cruel. They are social animals, and often in captivity they spend long periods of time alone, and in fact there are some killer whales in captivity that live their entire lives alone. And it is no secret that these highly evolved animals experience depression when isolated. (I have in fact seen dolphins diagnosed as such, and regularly given Prozac.)

But is the answer to release them into the wild? Probably not. As was seen with Keiko, an animal that becomes dependent on humans for food cannot all of a sudden hunt as soon as they are released into the wild. The answer to the problem would be to maintain the ones currently in captivity, and make a law that all remaining killer whales in captivity are to be sterilized. Thus the show could go on, until the final whale passes away, which will be decades from now. By that time, I think that people will already be over these silly killer whale shows, the same way people eventually stopped laughing at the elephants in the circus and instead began to feel sorry for them. 

With millions of dollars flowing in annually on these shows, don’t expect anyone in the industry to take the first step in doing what is right. Expect them to ride this gravy train for all it’s worth. And expect these highly evolved animals to do the same routine so many times in a row that it makes them crazy. And finally, expect there to be more deadly consequences in the future.

17 thoughts on “Killers in Captivity: It’s Wrong

  1. I think it is cruel and unnatural to keep many types of animals in captivity. Dolphins and whales for sure, but the list also includes snakes and other reptiles– and, yes, that includes turtles– amphibians, and parrots and other birds. While we're at it, let's throw in mice, rabbits, rats, gerbils and other rodents. Animals do not belong in cages for the pleasure and amusement of human beings.

      1. Show a little compassion toward living creatures and some sense of stewardship toward the natural world and you rightwing oil derrick hugging libertarian small government drippy teabag sucking dittohead crazies get your knickers all in a twist. Why doncha go fly an airplane into a building or at least crash your gas guzzling SUV into one or smoke some tea or something, ya fascist.

        1. It's not a lefty/righty thing. These “treehugger”/”teabagger” exchanges get old quickly, and keep us from addressing the problem(s).

  2. I assume you mean when you say orcas are not predators that they are not predators of humans. That is very true. I see no reason, however, that life cannot be made more appealing for these animals by providing them with off-shore pens. Probably couldn't do that in Florida, where the water is too warm for these creatures, but maybe a retirement home for them in a fjord up in Bar Harbor. Do something for them that we have done for large land animals such as elephants whose time as entertainers has passed.

  3. Great to hear your thoughts here. I was wondering what your take on this incident would be and I'm in agreement on all counts. For arguements sake, is it possible that the creation of many of these water parks and the captivity of some of these animals is a positive thing for the majority of the species as it raises awareness and interest in marine biology and the particular causes of the respective animal? Just axin.

  4. Dan, I would respectfully argue that any positive messages people might get from a water park would be largely outweighed by the negatives. The chief negative message, to my mind at any rate, is that it's okay to hold animals in captivity for what is essentially a frivolous reason, i.e. entertainment. There are better ways to appreciate the natural world than incarcerating animals.

    1. I don't disagree Bob. The SeaWorld type parks seem to focus on the advernture/carnival atmosphere and, you're right, there are many other ways nowadays to learn about any species if your so inclined. I do think that zoos have evolved past the sideshow appeal to an educational one. they are often at the forefront of breeding, studying and any attempted comebacks of endangered animals. It makes me sad to look at a gorilla in captivity as much as the next person but I will argue that most zoos have had a positive effect overall-especially in the last 20 years-although there's room for improvement to be sure.

  5. Have you seen the movie “The Cove”? It's a documentary done by the guy who starred in the TV Series Flipper in the 1960's and now is trying to end this practice of keeping these guys in captivity. Check it out if you haven't- It's very compelling.

    1. After reading your comment, I picked “The Cove” in my Oscar pool. It won Best Documentary Feature. I still lost the pool, which was for a grand total of $0. I thought it was important for you to know all of this.

  6. Yes, Ric O'Barry. I am well aware of him. He is Public Enemy #1 in Marine Mammal facilities. Everybody in the field would get very fired up when his name came up. He is well meaning, I think, but he has done some very questionable things in advancing his cause.

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