Monday, March 1, 2010

A Question of Captivity

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Tragedy struck Seaworld Orlando recently when Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year old trainer with over a decade of experience, was killed by a 5.4 tonne orca named Tillikum. And as with all incidents involving animals kept in zoos and aquaria, this tragedy has become a rallying call for those who believe that animals should not be kept in captivity.

But amidst the calls of "Free Tilly!" and the radical demands that the whale be stoned to death, it's important to remember a few facts before taking rash action.

Zoos and Aquaria (and yes, as an AZA accredited institution, Seaworld can be included in this mix) serve two primary purposes. The first and most obvious is for entertainment and education. The reason people come to zoos is not to see exploitation and cruelty, but to see, interact with, and learn about animals. The second purpose is to engage in conservation and rescue efforts, and in fact these two purposes even complement each other. By getting people actively interested in the well being of animals, you increase the likelihood that they'll want to help them. It's hard to care about the plight of the snow leopard if you've never seen one before in your life.

Which brings us back to Tilly. While zoos in general may have a positive effect, what should be done with an animal who is clearly having difficulty in his current situation?

Most of the recommendations I've heard are both inane and irrational. Tilly can't be released to the wild, since having been in captivity for 28 years means he wouldn't know how to survive. Destroying him for something he didn't know he was doing seems pointless (many believe he grabbed onto his trainer's ponytail believing it to be a toy and simply started "playing.") And taking him out of the shows would be a punishment, plain and simple. The shows are called "enrichment" by the trainers for a reason; they're just as important for the health of the animal as the visitors.

The trainers know how careful they have to be around Tilly. And as hard as it is to believe, this incident doesn't make them care for him any less. Maybe in the future PETA will try to look at things from a few different angles before reverting to their talking points... but I doubt it.

- Brit Trogen

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