I 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.