None for the Show

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None for the Show

Editorial, Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2010

Killer whale performances are breathtaking, remarkable and sadly out of step with the times.

White tigers in a Las Vegas magic show, Asian elephants in a traveling circus or Shamu bursting from a pool with a wetsuit-clad trainer standing on its nose -- they all had their place when we were ignorant about the fragility of wildlife and the folly of forcing wild animals to do our human bidding on artificial turf (or surf). Now we know that the best way to appreciate the wonders of these animals is by watching an awe-inspiring nature film and then contributing to habitat conservation efforts.

Like just about anyone with the ability to say, "Ooh! Aah!," we've gotten a kick out of watching those strikingly marked, black-and-white cetaceans leaping and waving and splashing in response to human commands at marine amusement parks. We've marveled at their size when we've gotten a close-up look through the clear walls of their tanks.

But it's time for the killer whale show to end, or at least to prepare for its final splash once the orcas in captivity today have died. In an era when society is growing more aware of the need for humane zoo enclosures for elephants if they should be enclosed in zoos at all, a question that hasn't been resolved we're still complicit in turning killer whales into circus animals, confining them to tanks that barely register as swimming space compared with the 100 miles a day they roam in the wild and that don't even pretend to mimic their natural habitat. Many a goldfish gets a better break.

The recent death of a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, though tragic, isn't the reason to call for a halt to the performances by animals that are by nature wild, not domesticated. Dawn Brancheau surely realized that her chosen and beloved career carried inherent dangers. She, like her colleagues, found the rewards worth the risk.

It also would be a mistake to believe unquestioningly the would-be killer whale whisperers on both sides of the debate who claim to understand the thoughts, feelings and actions of Tilikum, the 12,000-pound male that pulled Brancheau into the water by her ponytail. He's a genetically cruel man-killer, some say, because he caused two earlier deaths. Others say he was just playing, not realizing the game was deadly. Or that he was "distracted" or "irritated" by the ponytail. Or his apparent attack was a sign of stress and anger. A conservative Christian blogger argued that all of this would have been avoided had SeaWorld followed the precepts of the Bible and, at least metaphorically, stoned the killer whale to death a long time ago.

These statements are as presumptuous as SeaWorld's assertion that the performances featuring Tilikum and other orcas show that its trainers have a “close relationship” with the animals, which are forced to depend on their keepers for food, space and mental stimulation.

The name of the show is "Believe," and frankly, it's hard to do, despite the heightened conservation theme. The trainers might well love the animals and care for them assiduously; what the orcas make of the whole thing, humans can never fully fathom. We certainly don't believe that intelligent, social animals that ordinarily live in free-swimming, free-hunting pods spanning familial generations are well served by their artificially manipulated lives as performers. The data don't back up the implied SeaWorld message that the killer whales are eager, happy collaborators in the spectacle. According to a marine mammalogist for the Humane Society of the United States, wild killer whales live nearly twice as long on average as those in amusement parks. There has been no confirmed killing of a human by an orca in the wild.

Perhaps the most pertinent information about Tilikum is that he is the father of 11 of the two dozen or so killer whales now in captivity in the United States. In all, more than half the killer whales in our marine parks are closely related. What does this mean for the long-term viability of a tiny population of captive orcas? There are only about 50 of them worldwide; at some point, inbreeding is likely to become a health concern.

One thing it must not mean is allowing the marine parks in the United States to refresh their gene pool with wild killer whales -- not that they're seeking to do so at this point. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, capturing a wild killer whale requires a special permit; no U.S. facility has attempted a capture in more than two decades. Public opinion alone, especially after the 1993 movie "Free Willy," would tend to deter any such move. (Keiko, the film's star, died five years after an expensive attempt to reintroduce him to a wild existence.) In addition, the U.S. parks have improved their captive breeding techniques enormously in recent decades. But Japan and Russia have continued their captures. The most recent one, by Russia in 2005, ended with the orca's death.

The United States should put a clear ban on any attempts by U.S. marine parks to obtain wild killer whales, or their sperm, domestically or internationally.

But it will take a shift in societal attitudes to end the profitable enterprise of using wild animals as entertainment, requiring them to act in ways counter to their nature. Any exhibition of animals should be carried out in ways that give them as natural and comfortable an environment as possible; a primary goal should be educating the public about the importance of preserving these animals in their natural habitats.

SeaWorld spokesmen argue that they accomplish this with their shows. Though we agree that seeing the animals up close leaves audiences impressed by their beauty and smarts, people aren't leaving the stadium with a new commitment to preserving the killer whales in the wild. If the performances did a good job of teaching about the orcas' natural habitat and activities, and how differently they live in the wild, few people would be comfortable seeing them in stark tanks built for maximum viewing by humans, their activities governed by SeaWorld's performance schedule.

We don't expect SeaWorld to call an immediate halt to its ventures and simultaneously set up expensive coastal refuges for the trained orcas, which at this stage probably could not survive in the wild. But the breeding should end and the parks should prepare for the performances' eventual extinction.

White tigers in a Las Vegas magic show, Asian elephants in a traveling circus or Shamu bursting from a pool with a wetsuit-clad trainer standing on its nose -- they all had their place when we were ignorant about the fragility of wildlife and the folly of forcing wild animals to do our human bidding on artificial turf (or surf). Now we know that the best way to appreciate the wonders of these animals is by watching an awe-inspiring nature film and then contributing to habitat conservation efforts.