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OPINION: Killer whales aren't 'happy' to entertain us

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, and writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.


We kill animals casually, by the billions, but when an animal kills one of us, we take notice.

Last week, Tilikum, a 22-foot, 12,000-pound killer whale, pulled marine mammal trainer Dawn Brancheau into his tank at SeaWorld Orlando; she died from extensive trauma and drowning.

Trainers have been killed or injured by killer whales in the past, and not much is likely to change as a result of this episode. By the weekend, SeaWorld had reopened and the whale shows were under way, although trainers are staying out of the water at present.

It's probably fruitless to spend too much time thinking about why Tilikum killed Brancheau. The last five minutes of her life were recorded on video. Both she and the whale appear to be relaxed and comfortable. Brancheau gestures to Tilikum and he responds. She splashes him playfully with water. He opens an impressive tooth-lined maw to receive half a dozen fish.

It's easy to understand Brancheau. News reports indicate that she saw a killer whale show when she was 9 years old and decided immediately that she wanted to be a marine mammal trainer. And that's what she became. At 40, she was one of the senior trainers, working at what many would consider a dream job.

Tilikum, on the other hand, will always be a mystery; we're unlikely to ever understand in any useful way what goes on behind his massive rostrum - even though marine mammal shows have always depended on the illusion that smart animals like killer whales and dolphins can be understood in the same terms that we understand each other.

Ordinarily, killer whale and dolphin shows consist of the animals' more or less natural behaviors trivialized in ways that amuse us. Fortunately, we've gotten past the days when dolphins were dressed up in grass skirts and sunglasses. But not very far past. My own local dolphinarium persists in referring to its three hapless captives - creatures that might ordinarily swim 100 miles per day, but now are confined to a 400,000-gallon tank - as "ambassadors" for their wild brethren.

And that fatuous illusion is consistent with the biggest illusion of all: that dolphins and killer whales are happy collaborators in the all-important effort to amuse us.

Therein lies the essential contradiction of marine mammal shows. Our amusement depends on our ability to humanize the behaviors of dolphins and killer whales. But the shows themselves depend on our treating these animals in ways in which we rarely treat other human beings.

Tilikum was captured in the North Atlantic in 1983, when he was about 2 years old. Since killer whales live in intergenerational matriarchal pods, his capture removed him from "family" and confined him with "strangers." Since he's an instinctual swimmer, hunter and breeder, designed for traveling great distances at sea, even his 3.2-million gallon tank must take on the approximate proportions of a solitary confinement cell.

Apologists argue that marine mammals never had it so good as they do in captivity, but that dubious assertion is based on a set of values that is entirely human. But, of course, to assert that dolphins and killer whales are unhappy in captivity is to be guilty of the same sort of projection of human emotions onto animals that is essential to the existence of marine mammal parks.

The point is, these splendid, intelligent beasts' existence makes sense only in the natural habitat in which they evolved. We're unlikely to understand much about them at all in the sterile environment in which we confine them. And that includes knowing why they sometimes turn on us.


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