A Killer in Captivity

Bioethics, Creation Care, Media — By on March 2, 2010 at 3:00 am

The killer whale killing of this last Wednesday has received a lot press. Video footage of the trainer’s shocking death has gone viral, which hackers have used as a vehicle to spread actual viruses. This has aroused as much righteous indignation as the prurience which motivates millions of hits on videos of a violent end. The killer whale show is slated to resume, Seaworld CEO Jim Atchinson announced on Friday, but without any “in-water interaction” until 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau’s death has been thoroughly investigated.

Reminiscent of Roy’s (of Sigfried and Roy) debacle in 2003, it bears remembering that this whale does have the word “killer” in its name.  Even with creatures less overtly predatory, keeping huge animals confined for an audience’s thrills is an obvious problem. Though Sea World does not plan to kill Tilikum (the whale responsible for Brancheau’s death, as well as two others), neither do they have any plans to “Free Tili.”

The only surprise here is that we are still shocked each time wild animals, expected to perform like clockwork, don’t. In both the case of Roy’s slow recovery and Dawn’s legacy, the possibility that “the show will go on” is touted as a triumph of the human spirit, though it could equally be seen as a continued colonization of the animal spirit, and a lesson consistently disregarded.

Why these shows attract audiences is the first place is a good question. It is undeniable that they are astonishingly popular. Siegfried and Roy were Las Vegas superstars, and Shamu has merited a theme park. The majesty of wild animals is something we feel viscerally. Their elusiveness and their strength mesmerize. It is unsurprising that we like it when animals do tricks. Astonishing feats and entertaining shows will always attract an audience, and this is especially true when they are performed by animals without apparent higher cognitive abilities. But these are no dog and pony shows. The unique cocktail of awe at the majesty and power of large, undomesticated animals and the razzle-dazzle of watching them jump through hoops has made a great deal of money for those with the wherewithal to combine them. It is as if we are trying to reenact the spectacle of King Kong with live animals, from the comfort and safety of bleacher seats.

There will never cease to be a demand for entertainment. Particularly the entertainment of watching human beings make animals above them on the food chain do tricks for fish, or a pat on the head. It is a high wire act: breathtaking in the feat it accomplishes, always in the face of real and imminent danger. But when the danger is real because the wildness of an animal is real (and something enforced generationaly, cannot be trained out in a single animal’s lifespan), then it seems that the endangerment of life and of quality of life is not just a risk for the trainer. In the wake of Dawn’s death, her family and coworkers can take comfort in the fact that “she loved her job and was well aware of its dangers.” The same cannot be confidently ventured for the whale. ‘



  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin Steeve

    Amy,

    I have to say I have a bit of a hard time taking your essay seriously. The “continued colonization of the animal spirit” rings too dramatically of some sort of militaristic conquest of the animal kingdom. It’s really hard to tell whom you judge more severely, the trainers whom you treat with contempt for making “large, undomesticated animals” do tricks for “fish, or a pat on the head” or the unwashed masses who enjoy the “razzle-dazzle” “King Kong” like spectacles. I’m frankly surprised that you didn’t just go all the way and equate guests of Sea World to barbarous Romans at gladiator death-matches.

    To the first point, Sea World is hardly on some sort of militaristic conquest against the animal kingdom. In addition to the millions donated to helping animal rights groups protect killer whales like Till, Sea World (like the Wild Animal park and other similar organizations) uses the “razzle-dazzle” to create opportunity to educate people about the beauty and wonder of life under the sea, beyond the shores of our day to day lives. Far from desiring to conquer the animal kingdom, these organizations go out of their way to help people understand and co-exist with it.

    To the second point, park attendees are just not as dumb as you seem to assume and neither is the general public. Are we shocked and do we spread news of a killer whale’s killing? Yeah, because it’s remarkable. Why? Not because it’s a killer whale who killed, but because it rarely happens in this way. Despite what you may think about the domestication of otherwise dangerous animals, animal rebellion of this magnitude in places like Sea World is rare; that rarity ought to bring pause to anyone who shares in your indignation against Sea World and its visitors.

    Personally, I think it’s a tragic event that is casting an interesting divide down the “animal lovers” kingdom. On the one side, people who love animals and desire to save them by breeding some of them in captivity and utilizing the breeding space to train some animals in order to create public sympathy for them and generate public support for saving said animals. On the other hand, people anthropomorphizing Till to make guilty those who’ve enjoyed the work of organizations like Sea World with the charge that we “cannot confidently venture” that the whale “love her job and was aware of its dangers.”

    I guess if you feel that strongly about it, you should do as this brave young boy did – you should free Tilly!

  • Amy K

    Dustin,

    Thanks for your detailed response. I’ll try to answer the points you raise well and in order, but no promises.

    It seems like the reason you have “a hard time taking [my] essay seriously” is because I do. I understand if you don’t agree that the situation which allows for this kind of tragedy is as problematic as I do, but it’s hardly fair to hold me accountable for chastening my language to suit your assessment of the situation! I don’t equated Sea World shows and the like to a desire to reenact King Kong, not gladiator deaths, because animals are not people. It seems to me (as I say in the post) that such shows capitalize on our desire for entertainment (a natural one) by combining awe at the power of such creatures and enjoyment of our exerting power over them. I think this assessment is a fair one. I think it makes sense that people like it, and that places exist to earn money off of this enjoyment.

    This does not take away from its general moral dubiousness. It is analogous to colonization, if roughly, when we derive raw enjoyment from watching the energy of a creature different from us is harnessed or directed for our entertainment. And, often enough, to their detriment.

    I’m not out to shut down Sea World, though I seriously wonder whether it should have been opened at all. I am well aware of the great good they do in preserving and raising awareness of wild life. I disagree that Sea World is on par with a Nature Preserve or a Wild Animal Park, however. It is closer to a zoo, since the scale is at least tipped toward revenue and entertainment rather than the good of the animals it houses.

    It must be noted that, since we will not anthropomorphize these animals, whales cannot have “careers.” They know nothing of their adoring fans. When they are genetically suited to migrate hundreds of miles, however, it is likely that they are aware of their confines. Beyond this, killer whales in captivity have a dramatically shorter lifespan — on average living only 20 years, where wild orcas routinely live into their 60s and 70s. They cannot socially group in their normal patterns. In the wild, there have been very few confirmed attacks of killer whales on humans, and no fatalities. As we know, in captivity this is far from the case.

    Certainly, a killer whale’s killing a trainer is “rare.” Though this particular whale was responsible for two other deaths, which should have raised red flags earlier, this is hardly a frequent occurrence. If it were, there would certainly be no such place as Sea World, unless, in some dystopia, the “unwashed masses” wanted to throw victims to the orcas and tigers, instead of the lions. It is the extremity of this event, not its frequency, which causes me to question the good of the system that caused it. When a problem is serious enough (an untimely death certainly fits the bill), it should not need to happen more than once to demand a solution. Death by large predators kept confined in order to perform for years of their lives has not happened only once, however. Would that it had not happened at all. But it will continue to happen if the conditions which allowed for such horrifying ends are unaltered.

    Sea World raises awareness of marine life and its wonders. So do Nature Preserves – but those do so without uprooting it from its natural habitat, increasing the possibility of misconception, abuse, and tragedy. Tilikum was captured from the wild; he was not born and bred in captivity for the preservation of his species. The whale who played Free Willy was set free – and lived for five years in the wild, before dying of pneumonia. Critics argue that this would not have happened if Keiko (better known as “Willy”) had remained in captivity. But death by pneumonia is a risk of life in the wild, even of an untamed creature. If a slave owner were to point out that a freed slave died of a heart attack five years after being given his freedom, from eating fatty foods he would never have been given in slavery, we would repudiate him and his arguments. I do not liken the captivity of wild animals to slavery in its moral import – animals are not people. But they are similar in that they keep a creature in conditions it is not suited for, primarily for the benefit of others.

    If we did not find big animals doing tricks on command, Sea World would not exist. It may do some ancillary good by capitalizing on our desire to be entertained in order to inform us. But so does whale watching in the wild, with much less risk of the tragic events of last week, and without the increased risk of harm to wildlife done when domesticated and made to perform.

  • http://wspapers.wordpress.com/ David Nilsen

    My only problem with Zoos and places like Sea World is their very Modernist attitude toward the world. Nature is not an awesome wonder created by God that ought to be respected (even feared), rather it is something that rational man (at the top of the evolutionary ladder) ought to conquer and subdue. We cut down the trees to build our modern and civilized cities, and then we bring the uncivilized natural world within our city and tame it.

    At least for me, when I see a wild animal do a cool trick, I don’t think about the animal itself (after all, I already knew animals could do amazing physical feats), I think “how cool that the trainers were able to do so much study of these wild creatures and figure out how to train them to do that awesome trick on cue!” Ironically, it is all very man-focused, in a sense.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin R. Steeve

    Amy,

    I don’t have a hard time taking you seriously because you take the situation seriously because your rationale seemed insufficient to support your demeaning tone. Had you included in your first essay your specific critiques against Sea World, such as their use of small enclosures for large animals that studies suggest might cause said animals to have a shorter lifespan, then I’d have taken the article more seriously. But that was not the essay you wrote.

    That you find it a morally dubious proposition for humans to exercise control over animals for money or that humans would watch animals over whom control had been exercised is, to me, absurd. I would imagine that the only animal you’d ever be comfortable with humans owning is a cat since, as any cat owner would tell you, it is impossible for humans to exercise any control over cats. I certainly hope you do not resent dog trainers or people who ride horses in shows (for example); I suspect not and am curious to know the difference.

    Concerning your point about colonization, I simply do not understand how your use of the word relates in any way to its definition. I’m sorry, but your clarification in the comments does not clarify its use for me. Moving on, since we both agree that we ought not be anthropomorphizing the whale, I suppose we can do away with your comments about whales doing tricks for “pats on the head” and “fish” since whales know nothing about the supposed demeaning nature of doing great feats for small treats.

    You said, “It is the extremity of this event, not its frequency, which causes me to question the good of the system that caused it. When a problem is serious enough (an untimely death certainly fits the bill), it should not need to happen more than once to demand a solution. Death by large predators kept confined in order to perform for years of their lives has not happened only once, however. Would that it had not happened at all. But it will continue to happen if the conditions which allowed for such horrifying ends are unaltered.” This is a fair criticism, but you assume that people watching animals in the wild is not equally problematic for the same reason: that death might occur. However, animals in the wild are likely more, not less, dangerous than their domesticated counterparts. Animals in the wild kill frequently, sometimes humans. There’s always a risk when people work closely with wild animals, but I find it a dubious proposition that the risk is mitigated by animals being found in the wild versus a domesticated place like Sea World or the Zoo.

    Really what it boils down to is this: you feel that people exercising control over animals, by teaching them to do tricks on command, is problematic. I simply do not, and neither do I see the exercise of control as morally problematic. On this point, reasonable people can disagree. You also think that the means of captivity is dangerous to the animal’s health, at least in the case of Sea World; perhaps this is true and the statistics you reference are interesting. The tone and some of your initial rationale was what I primarily pushed back on.

    David,

    You said, “My only problem with Zoos and places like Sea World is their very Modernist attitude toward the world. Nature is not an awesome wonder created by God that ought to be respected (even feared), rather it is something that rational man (at the top of the evolutionary ladder) ought to conquer and subdue.”

    Yeah, that’s because you’re boring! But seriously, I’m never taking you to Sea World again lest you philosophize at me during the Sea World show. Please, for the love of God, let me get splashed in mindless bliss by Shamu.

    Also, Hannibal, with his army of trained elephants, was no modernist.

  • http://www.currate.com Currate

    Formidable article,thank you for sharing this!