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A Question of Captivity

March 3, 2010

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds Blog Brit Trogen

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. But the arguably more important purpose is to engage in conservation, breeding and rescue efforts, without which many endangered species would almost certainly have never survived (click here to read about some of the programs being carried about by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoos here in New York.)

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?

Tilly can't be released into the wild; having been in captivity for 28 years, he simply wouldn't know how to survive. Destroying him for what was probably just natural behaviour seems cruel; he likely grabbed onto his trainer's ponytail either believing it to be a toy, or as an innate hunting impulse.  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.

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