As Published in the Geelong Advertiser
March 3rd, 2010
The recent tragic death of veteran animal trainer Dawn Brancheau at Florida's Sea World should give us cause to think about both the wisdom and ethics of imprisoning wild creatures.
This is the third death in which killer whale Tilikum has been involved and there have been numerous other fatal "accidents'' involving captive orcas.
It will never be known known if Tilikum's actions resulted from rage of playfulness but it is highly likely that a whale snatched from his family and his life of freedom, then imprisoned in a small steel and concrete tank for almost 3 decades might harbour feelings of anger and resentment.
In the wild, orcas travel huge distances each day, sometimes swimming in a straight line for 160 km. They can dive several hundred metres and stay underwater for half an hour. They spend only 10 to 20 per cent of their time on the surface.
In marine parks, however, they spend up to 80 per cent of their time on the surface of the water which is thought to be the cause of dorsal fin collapse. Without the support of water, gravity pulls these tall appendages over as the whale matures.
Captive orcas can do nothing all day but swim in circles or float listlessly on the surface of the water. Since wild orcas seldom lie still or swim in circles, this sort of lifestyle would clearly result in stress. Tilikum is one of the oldest living captive orca, which means he has suffered more stress than most of the others.
During the time that he he's been in captivity, he has sired 13 babies, the last two by artificial insemination. Although not `"wild born'' these orcas will still have the innate needs, feelings and desires of their wild-bred brothers and sisters.
What will their future hold?
Will there be more fatal "accidents''?
According to Dr Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with The Humane Society of the United States, whales are intelligent, long-lived, socially complex animals. "They are not giant wind-up toys meant to do tricks on command,'' she said. "Whales deserve respect and freedom and, as long as we keep trying to dominate them we should expect them to rebel.''
Ex dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry is likewise opposed to keeping cetaceans in captivity. In the early 1960s he captured 100 dolphins, five of whom played the part of Flipper in the television series that ran from 1964 to 1967.
He was the highest-paid animal trainer in the world and could have made up to $4 million a year but something changed all that.
One day Flipper committed suicide in his arms. Unlike humans, every breath that dolphins takes is a conscious effort. Flipper looked O'Barry in the eye then simply stopped breathing.
Thinking back O'Barry says: "I was as ignorant as I could be. Now I am against captivity. It is not educational. It has no redeeming feature.''
Reporters called Dawn Brancheau's death "a sad day at Sea World,'' but for the whales, dolphins, penguins, polar bears _ all the other animals imprisoned there _ surely every day is a "sad day at Sea World''.
_ Jenny Moxham is an animal activist.