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Captivity March 1, 2010

Posted by A. Robinson in Life.
Tags: , , , ,

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of the Orca attack at Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  Tilikum, a male Orca with a history of attacking humans, killed his trainer last week in what Sea World has called “an unfortunate, tragic accident.”  Of course, this has brought another, older debate to the surface: should animals–especially dangerous ones–be held in captivity?  And, on yet another level, what do you do with an animal like Tilikum?

I, of course, have an opinion on this, but to get there, we first have to talk about ponies.  I. LOVE. HORSES.  This almost goes without saying, I know.  I share the sentiments of most 7 year old girls in that horses are pretty much the best animals ever.  Not only that, but I’m incredibly attached to them.  I can remember the individual foibles of all the horses I’ve ridden, and even though I don’t know where many of them are today, I can look back at many with fondness.  My horse, who died tragically when I was a sophomore in college, was my best friend in high school.  When I heard she’d died, I cried for months.  I’ve still not taken out the pictures of her that I boxed up; even remembering her now is incredibly bittersweet.

Yet, I’ll be the first to tell you that of all the animals that I’d be comfortable letting a 7 year old girl hang out with, horses would be at the bottom of my list.  They are crazy mo’fos.  Totally unpredictable.  You can have a horse for 20 years and never have him freak out at a bird, and then one day…BAM.  You’re on the ground and Trigger is running terrified from a pigeon.  You just can’t predict their behavior.  Some horses, though, are much more dangerous than others.  Those horses you have to kill.  You can’t sell it to someone and have it hurt and/or kill a kid.  Sometimes the only place they can go is the glue factory.

This reminds me of the story of Magic Pony.  I cackled with glee as I loaded him up on the Dog Food Trailer.  That’ll teach you to roll on my brand new saddle, you jerk.

Anyway, this has everything to do with the debate at hand.  What do you do with a killer whale who kills people?  Heck if I know.  My instinct is to terminate it, but the issue is more complex than that.  The whale (or dolphin, really) was just doing what it instinctually does.  It’s not like a horse in that it is WILD, and no matter how many hoops you teach it to jump through, it is not a puppy, pony, or kitty.  It is an apex predator that abides by you when it wants to.  Not to mention, there’s no telling how many instinctual triggers you can trip in a given day that might scream, “I am yummy and delicious FOOD!” and get you eaten.  I don’t really think you can punish it for that.  To wit, you can’t release the thing into the wild either, because it’s just domestic enough that it isn’t equipped to deal with the Darwinian system.

This is the textbook definition of rock and hard place.

What I do know, though, is that you absolutely cannot start hating on Sea World because it has killer whales in captivity for a couple of reasons:

1.  It’s not like Sea World went out and snagged a baby Orca from its momma.  Tilikum, like many of Sea World’s orcas, was actually bred in captivity.  The whales, dolphins, sharks, and other assorted creatures that aren’t from a captive breeding program are almost always rescues.  Animals that otherwise would die in the wild are given a pretty nice life with lots of food.  Sea World, like most zoos, does its very best to not to take animals out of the wild for a life in captivity.

2.  Sea World, like zoos, are incredibly important for educational purposes, and I’m not just talking about understanding how these things live, eat, and breed.  Do you know why little girls love horses?  Because they can go out and pet them, ride them, and otherwise get to know them.  That’s why there are more people fighting for America’s wild mustang than fighting against open ocean pollution.  Ponies are majestic.  They’re wonderful.  Everyone’s met one that they thought was beautiful/awe-inspiring/the poo.  The key to conservation efforts is allowing people to understand why these animals are important.  When you go to a zoo and see the elephants, all of a sudden the shrinking African savannah seems like a much more important problem.  Sea World banks on the fact that at least a few of the people who visit will start driving Priuses and switch to compact flourescencts when they realize that the way they’re living is killing Shamu.

What Sea World–and other zoos–understand more than ANY of that is that children must be educated to actually make a difference.  If a kid falls in love with bottlenose dolphins, maybe he or she will become an eco-conscious adult.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t see people getting pissed off about captivity.  I mean, yes, I understand when animals are kept in inadequate conditions.  I’m not even touching that part of the argument.  What I’m talking about are places that make every conceivable effort to keep their animals healthy and happy.  What it comes down to for me is this: if 20 whales, scattered across America, can help educate the public and encourage environmental awareness about the 100,000 whales in the wild, then that’s fine by me.