Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Killer Whale Who Kills

By TIM DESMOND I.H.T. OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR nytimes.com - The death of an animal trainer in an attack by a killer whale, or orca, named Tillicum (or Shamu) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, has raised inevitable questions. Are these shows necessary? Did animal cruelty trigger the attack? Should trainers work with orcas in this way?

Animal-rights activists followed with pronouncements: “The attack proves that this animal led a tortured life in captivity!” “Free Tillicum!” “Close the zoos! They’re just in it for the money!” Animal exhibitors countered, “It was a freak accident.”

The questions are legitimate and SeaWorld Orlando must answer them. The pronouncements by activists and exhibitors, however, are self-serving and damage the cause of conservation.

Calls to free Tillicum infer that exhibiting killer whales is illegitimate because a trainer died. No. This tragedy had nothing to do with the ethics of putting orcas on public display for conservation education. It is an animal-handling issue.

I agreed to train Keiko, the orca, for the 1993 movie “Free Willy” because the emotional story of a whale’s journey to freedom motivated kids to care about whales, despite the fact that the film oversimplified the issue.

Ethically speaking, the use of Tillicum at SeaWorld is the same as the use of any wild animal, be it a chimp, a bat or a hippo, at any zoo.

In “Ethics on the Ark (Zoo & Aquarium Biology & Conservation),” some of the world’s foremost animal experts, including ethicists, field biologists, zoo professionals and animal rights philosophers, sought to find a consensus on the use of wild animals by man.

They reached consensus on three issues and failed on three others. One question on which they did reach consensus was that taking an animal from the wild for conservation education at zoos and aquariums is ethical.

Yet if you fail to properly care for an animal, you should not keep it.

Was Tillicum well cared for? The activists claim that the attack proved a tortured existence doesn’t hold up. Successful reproduction is a recognized measure of animal wellbeing. Tillicum sired some 13 calves, and has lived with females rearing healthy offspring for decades.

Activists also claim that animals can’t be “normal” unless they live in nature. But natural habitats constantly change. Even bees change their behavior to deal with short-term environmental change — or they die.

The craft of maintaining animals on display is based on creating “adaptive” rather than “natural” environments. Zoo professionals don’t mimic nature per se. Rather, they provide comparable opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation and social interaction.

To provide adequate care for sentient animals, like orcas, caretakers must interact with them. Studies show that training animals is enriching for them. They have to work for their food just as they do in the wild. The problem is keeping humans safe while meeting the animals’ needs.

The working assumption must be that the SeaWorld trainer’s death was no accident. Killer whales know their trainers’ tolerances. While Tillicum may not have intended to kill Dawn Brancheau, he knew he was hurting her. He did it for a reason. Why? I’ll leave that to the investigators.

But I can comment on some underlying factors. Orcas are trained using positive reinforcement (giving the animal something it wants for doing something you want). However, orcas will manipulate training in many ways. They will refuse to cooperate. They will keep other orcas from performing. They will deliberately misbehave, trying literally to train their trainers.

All this is actually healthy because it gives orcas control, something fundamental to animal well-being. It’s fun for skilled trainers, too. But sometimes, in particular with breeding male orcas, it can be dangerous.

I worked with a male orca, Orky, in the 1970s and 80s at Marineland of the Pacific in California. Orky became more dominant and aggressive as he matured sexually. While Orky never killed anyone, he came very close. We handled him safely for years afterwards in much the same way SeaWorld handled Tillicum prior to the tragedy.

The quandary is how do you let a male orca like Tillicum be a dominant, breeding bull and safely provide for his needs?

Activist groups reportedly raised $40 million to “save” Keiko, the star of “Free Willy.” In doing so, they housed him alone for years. Keiko finally died in an environment he could not adapt to. What happened to Keiko stands as a lesson of what not to do about Tillicum.

On the other hand, the continued use by zoos and circuses of elephant training methods involving physical punishment, when options for more humane handling are well established, are difficult to defend.

Zoo organizations still using these archaic techniques need to review their ethical obligations to their animals. Ethical animal display (or activism) hinges on the use of the animal and its care.

My heart goes out to a fallen comrade, Dawn Brancheau, and those who loved her. But nothing in this situation challenges the value of SeaWorld’s public exhibition of wild animals for conservation awareness. Tillicum should stay put, and SeaWorld should be given the time to adjust how they handle him.

Tim Desmond is chief executive of Subic Bay Marine Exploratorium, Inc., which operates the marine park Ocean Adventure in the Philippines, and former president of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association.

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