Today a killer whale killed a trainer during a live show at the famous U.S. Aquarium known as SeaWorld. It is not clear what will happen as a result of this incident, but at minimum we should reconsider whether or not the educational value of aquariums and zoos outweighs their costs to animals.
According to NBC News several witnesses saw the whale, known as Tillikum, pull experienced whale trainer Dawn Brancheau into the pool. Tillikum then grabbed Brancheau, took her underneath the water and thrashed her around as she presumably drowned. SeaWorld was subsequently closed for the rest of the day and probably will continue to be closed for an unspecified amount of time.
It is worth noting though that "there were conflicting accounts of the attack. The sheriff's office said Brancheau slipped or fell into the whale's tank, but at least one witness said the animal leaped from the water and dragged the woman in." So it appears that there might already be some effort to take some blame away from Tillikum (but for whose benefit? SeaWorld's or Tillikum's?).
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has long urged SeaWorld to change their practices and said it is no surprise incidents like these happen:
"PETA has long been asking SeaWorld to stop taking wild, ocean-going mammals from their families and ocean homes and confining them with no semblance of a life to an area that, to them, is the size of a bathtub. No wonder these huge, intelligent animals, like the beaten elephants in the Ringling Bros. circus, lash out after being forced into subservience and forced to perform stupid circus tricks for their food for so long."
Tillikum has been associated with two previous deaths, and therefore his fate will be highly scrutinized by the media and public. He had already lived his life mostly separated from the other whales. Trainers were also not allowed to swim with him because of his history according to one NBC source. SeaWorld also has a broader history of having its trainers be attacked by whales according to Associated Press reporter Mike Schneider.
What will happen to the whale?
As I see it, there are four possibilities of what could happen: 1) business goes on as usual and Tillikum continues to be in the show 2) Tillikum is put down 3) Tillikum remains at Seaworld, and either lives in his own pool/tank, or is permanently unseen or 4) Tillikum is released into the wild.
Personally, I am rooting for option #4. I am not familiar with the science of re-introductions of killer whales into the wild, but my guess is that it should be attempted. If anything it would provide an opportunity to make some good come out of a bad situation. Tillikum's movements could be monitored and his reintroduction studied, and the public could learn more about the lives of killer whales in their natural habitat.
But what's more important is to assess whether or not imprisoning animals for our education and/or entertainment is worth the cost to these animals. There are a considerable number of perspectives on the issue, and I tend to personally begrudgingly accept zoos and aquariums because I do think they have considerable benefits.
For instance, I think it's worth mentioning the recent news that great white sharks are now more endangered than tigers, with only an estimated 3,500 left in oceans worldwide. Certainly no ocean predator has been as demonized as the great white shark. Sharks have been killed without mercy because of our society's fear of them and our lack of knowledge about them. Great whites are exceedingly challenging to keep in captivity, and for this reason the public has had little ability to see them in a different context outside of movies like Jaws. While whales are certainly more revered by the public than sharks, this example might illustrate why aquariums and zoos might have some value. People should perceive sharks as fascinating animals worth protecting, even if they are dangerous-- and maybe aquariums could help.
So what do you think? Are aquariums and zoos worth the cost to the animals? What do you think should happen to Tillikum?
Photo Courtesy of Jasmic on Flickr