Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The incident at Seaworld

This evening I am heartbroken by the news of the trainer at Seaworld who was killed by a Killer Whale named Tillikum, or Tilly.  The news strikes closer to home than you'd think because I was at Seaworld in Orlando just five days ago, and attended the "Believe Show" that features this and other whales.  I also paid a good deal of money for a special opportunity to "Dine with Shamu," which involves dinner in a small facility where you have the opportunity to see the trainers up close as they interact with one of the whales.  At times you are just a few feet from the whale as it glides through the pool and responds to hand signals.

It is very likely that the whale I saw that night was Tillikum.  I say this because they told us that night that the whale we were visiting was the largest orca in captivity in the world, and that's what the news reports have been saying about the whale involved in today's incident.  When I saw this whale, he appeared to be an incredibly intelligent animal, and very gentle.  He relaxed for a good hour before the trainers began working with him, just bobbing his large black and white head quietly at the surface of the pool and watching one of the trainers who kept watch nearby.  When the "show" began (it really didn't feel like a show) we were told repeatedly about the deep relationships built between the whales and the trainers over many years, and the respect the trainers have for these animals.  The whale seemed completely in synch with the trainers, understanding every hand signal, every cue, and never being asked to do anything harmful.  The announcer made it clear that the whales receive only positive reinforcement, and are never forced to do anything they don't willingly do.

Still, as much as I loved being so close to such a beautiful creature, and as impressed as I was by the educational value of these programs and the wonder on the faces of the people who got to see this animal up close, I couldn't help having conflicting feelings.  I enjoyed the "Believe" show as much as the next person, and allowed myself to get caught up in the sentimentality of the presentation, which is built around the story of a young boy who loves whales and dreams of becoming a trainer.  I wanted to "believe" in the relationship between the whales and the humans, the impossible come true.  But I couldn't help thinking about the size of the tanks, and the size of the animals, and wondering if such intelligent creatures could be truly happy living in captivity.  I know that the Seaworld staff and facility are known to be among the best and most caring in the world, and that they take steps to ensure that the animals have stimulation and companionship and good lives.  JP and I talked about the fact that they have everything they need -- they're well fed, they have companions, they are loved.  But at one point I asked, "would we be happy if we had everything we needed but were forced to live in a few rooms?"

I know many animal activists feel that no wild creatures should be kept in captivity, certainly not such large and intelligent creatures as whales, or even dolphins.  Still, I swam with a dolphin at Discovery Cove and watched children's eyes light up with love for the animals.  I knew that the people who interacted with them were gaining knowledge and respect that they would most likely carry with them for the rest of their lives, hopefully into efforts to help wildlife.  The experience is one I'll never forget.  And so I'm confused and conflicted.

 One thing is certain; I don't believe whales or dolphins should be captured from the wild in order to be used in shows.  Tillikum was taken from his pod in the wild, I believe, when he was just a couple of years old (not by Seaworld).  Nothing about that makes sense to me.

On the other hand, most of the animals I encountered at Seaworld, including Iggy, the dolphin I swam with, were born there.  They have never known any other life, and from everything I've read, it would be difficult or impossible to safely release them to the wild.  Iggy was clearly a happy dolphin.  He was curious and sociable and seemed to enjoy inspecting us and interacting with us.  His trainer clearly adored him.  I could see it on her face whenever she looked at him.

There are no easy answers here.  But one thing is for sure.  A 40-year-old woman lost her life today at Seaworld, and that is a tragedy.  She had been working with the whales for a long time; the news reports say she was one of Seaworld's most experienced trainers.  Maybe I even saw her five days ago; I don't know because her name has not been released and I don't know the names of each trainer I saw.  But I'm sure she was a wonderful person, and I'm sure she loved those whales, and my heart goes out to her family and to everyone at Seaworld.

I'm also sure she believed in what she did for a living, and wouldn't want us to stop loving the whales -- even Tillikum, who likely had no idea that humans can drown or that he killed her.

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