Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jumping Into The Killer Whale Debate

Orcas. Cetacea Odontoceti Delphinidae: all dolphins, porpoises, whales; all toothed whales; all dolphins. Order, suborder, family.

Killer whales belong to the family of dolphins. The animals are not fish.

Some 13 years ago, a young 5 year old tentatively stepped to a wet staging area wearing bright red rain boots and a big smile. Guided by a youthful blond handler, he was led to the big black and white killer whale, Sally.

Sally weighed in at that time around 8000 pounds. Sleek, gorgeous, small compared to the others she did as she'd been trained to do: opened her mouth, let the 5 year old pet her, waited for her chunked salmon treat, then sunk slowly bank in the aquarium to swim around, flash her tail fluke, splash the crowd, and entertain everyone.

The mother of the 5 year old was hooked; the 5 year old beamed.

The trainer was Dawn Brancheau, the 5 year old (if you hadn't guessed already) my son, Garret. I have the pictures and am trying to get the negatives to upload the pictures to this blog, but that's not the point of this post.

Killer whales are amazing animals. Every show that Sea World put on that I could see while I lived in Florida, and the one time I was able to go to San Diego's Sea World, were awe inspiring. There was never a moment when I did not realize these were still wild animals. There was never a show where the trainers did not likewise state the same. In fact, it was often mentioned that NO ONE could be IN the tank with the extremely large male whale. I believe that must have been Tilly. The trainers said he was too big, too fast, and too powerful. Anyone who has swum with a mere dolphin knows how powerful THOSE animals are; cannot imagine the power of a killer whale.

Anyway, post living in Florida, I was likewise privileged to see them up close and personal while on a trip back in 2001 to Alaska. From the distance of about 1/2 mile, the pod was ... eye watering to watch.

The male's dorsal fin must have been about 6' tall, smoothly traversing the ocean in seemingly quiet observation of all that was around him. The large female followed right behind him, her calf at her side. The three of them sent our salmon fishing to hell but the sight they returned to me, still makes my eyes water at their magnificence and their raw, natural beauty.

Sea World.

At the forefront of a terrible tragedy, is taking a beating from the PETA activists and the tree huggers (apologies to my liberal minded, all-things-should-be-free friends) who do not seem to comprehend what purpose Sea World offers.

Yes, Sea World makes a ton ($h$$ ton) of money from the various animal shows put on by the trainers.

Yes, Sea World knew that this particular male whale had been involved in tragic incidents in the past, only one of which was truly equated to it; the other incident sounds akin to a drunk, idiot thinking he'd be the next star in a "Free Willy" movie only to meet his own demise. I liken this similarly to the bull fighters who get gored by a bull (yeay for the bull!!).

Yes, Sea World breeds the captive killer whales. Killer whales are threatened by whaling countries such as Japan, and also by the decrease in food supply due to human consumption of salmon.

PETA suggests the now-captive killer whales be freed. While I am more strongly associated with animal rights than not, PETA could not be more asinine in their opine. Releasing caught killer whales back to their natural habitat is akin to punishing them to death as their natural instincts to survive and hunt, are diminished. Releasing captive bred killer whales is akin to blithely, if not eagerly, sending them to an abysmal and short life as they are unfamiliar with hunting.

It is not sufficient to “toss” an orca back into the wild ocean and think “go eat”… orcas round up their food in a herding sort of fashion, together, with others in the pod. A solo orca is not agile enough to hunt on its own. So, those captive bred orcas being released would surely die.

One only need recall Keiko of the "Free Willy" movie. He LONGED for his human companions when returned to the wild. Perhaps, it was to be fed but perhaps, he simply enjoyed being around humans. He would not interact with other whales, he would not hunt, he would not join a pod, despite it possibly being the one into which he'd been born.

Keiko finally left his extremely large enclosed OUTDOOR, WILD facility and subsequently, found humans in Norway... and then he died as a relatively young orca. I believe, had he been left in the aquarium in the US or BC, he'd still be alive today. Sadly, he is now just a representative of what is wrong with releasing wild animals from captivity that have been under domesticated structure for too long.

Dawn did the unimaginable with animals. She died an unthinkable horrific death.

Her death showed the enormous capacity for these creatures that we have come to love and cherish, possibly thinking of them as household, if not gigantic, “pets”.

Her death opened an entire chasm of anger by PETA activists, uninformed discourse by those who think the local media are experts in whale, and complete pain for her family.

Her death showed us that no matter how much training an animal receives, it is never completely docile or harmless.

I would suggest the same could be said for humans, dogs, cats, rats, mice, gerbils, wolves, coyotes, bears, seals, dolphins, sea otters (you see where this is going?)… NO animal, including humans, can ever be completely trained to do as expected 100% of the time. Close yes. 100%, no.

To me, the whales at Sea World are well taken care of, or as well as they can be in an enclosed aquarium. Would I love to see them have a 2 mile stretch of container in which to swim instead of going around in circles? Yes. I’d be asinine to not think it’d be better for these captive animals to have a larger enclosure. Is that feasible? No. Far less feasible for these animals and far less amenable to their survival is being released back to the wild.

Ms. Brancheau’s death is horrible; my thoughts to her family and friends including those at Sea World.

However, I’m thankful she did what she did while working with these amazing mammals. I’m only jealous I did not get to pet Sally too!

1 comment:

Slamdunk said...

Great post and you argue your points well. We are even against releasing our sister in law's turtle back into the wild after being a pet for many years--it is just a death sentence.