Thursday, February 25, 2010

Whales in Captivity

This is not a gardening post.  It is a post about the recent death of a Killer Whale trainer at the jaws of a whale she probably loved and had worked with for years.  This piece includes opinions that might not agree with yours but they are well thought out, intelligent, informed and therefore completely correct.

I have not worked with Killer Whales.  In fact my experience with live marine mammals has been quite limited.  I picked up a few injured and sick seals and sea lions when I lived in California but I then transported them to another facility for care.  Recently I've worked with deceased cetaceans, doing necropsies (autopsies) on stranded individuals.  [This is the least likely to be offensive image.]

Yes, that is a small whale under the sheet and I'm setting up my "bench" to take tissue samples
I have, however, worked with a wide range of wild and exotic animals in a wide range of situations.  I've worked with injured and orphaned wildlife (including coyotes, bobcats, a wide range of birds)

This bobcat had to be anesthetized for a veterinary examination and for attachment of a radio collar.  She had eaten one or more poisoned rats and gotten secondary poisoning.  She survived with treatment and went on to have at least one litter of cubs in a hollow tree at a golf course.
I've worked with exotic carnivores that were former "pets" or from other captive situations that needed a long term home (this is not a good position to be in with a tiger but I've known this individual since he was two weeks old and he's a nice cat.  He's also still a cub in this photo.  This is the last time I went into a cage with him.).

One of the tigers behind us is the one pictured in the cub shot. further down.  Freya has been frisky since she was born and is now a very, very dangerous cat.   She thinks it's fun to watch people jump.
I don't have pictures of it but I've also worked in a zoo situation.  I wanted to see for myself how the animals are treated before I decided if zoos are a good thing or a bad thing.

Pilling a Pelican is no easy task.

What do I think?  I think on the whole a well run zoo is a good thing for animals.  I believe that people have a hard time loving that which they do not know.  While talking the kids to the zoo doesn't get them to know the  individual animals it does get them interested.  And interested people will try to save the few remaining wild places for those animals.  And that is a good thing for all of us.  Life is so much richer with wilderness out there, even if we don't visit it regularly.

That scruffy little thing is a coyote puppy.  It was later released into the wild, after we taught it to hunt.
I also think that some animals should not be in captivity.  I'm pleased to hear that zoos are changing the way they handle elephants.  Elephants need large enclosures, stable social situations and lots of mental stimulation.  I'd like to see them change the way they handle bears.  Bears need large enclosures and lots of mental stimulation.  I have worked with zoo bears and they were very hard to keep stimulated and sane.

I have no problem with the big cats in captivity.  I've worked with them and they really don't need as much space per body size as you would expect.  Big cats, like house cats, sleep a lot.  If you've every been to Africa you have seen lions in the wild doing the same thing, sleeping.  Under the tour buses if they can sneak under there without the driver starting the engine.

 Freya tiger the first time she met people.  She already knew she didn't like us.

Birds in captivity can be tricky.  Some do well, some do not.  I like the large aviaries with lots of room to fly or the outdoor areas for cranes, ducks and geese.  They need a lot of space because they are so messy.

    That's me sticking a pill down the throat of a barn owl.
Finally on to Killer Whales.  Based on research I've done on the issue I believe they should not be in captivity.  Most of the Killer Whales who have been in captivity have been wild caught and have had a very, very short life span once in the captive situation.  Killer Whales are extremely dangerous to work with and have killed quite a few trainers (and at least one idiot who climbed the fence at night).  The whale in this week's incident has been involved in THREE human deaths.  

But what about Bottle Nosed dolphins?  There I'm less sure of myself.  The ones I have seen in captivity all seemed happy and thriving.  I know there are places in Florida that let their dolphins out when hurricanes are coming so they can get into deep water where it's safer.  The dolphins come back.  That tells me that they appreciate the free meal and can't be too unhappy with the situation.  I suspect with them it's a case of how good is the facility and the staff.

So there's my $0.05 (inflation, thoughts used to cost $0.02 but everything is more expensive now. I wonder if I should charge more because of my vast experience and highly over educated brain?). I'm not surprised by the incident.  I seldom am when a captive wild animal kills a person.  It's so easy to forget that these are wild animals and they will not behave the same way domesticated animals do.  Thousands of years of evolution shape the behavior of your dog and cat so that they are significantly less likely to hurt you than a wolf or a serval.  They'll enjoy your company more, too.

Zaynah Serval getting a whiff of a scent filled pizza box.  One of her favorite forms of enrichment.
Thanks for reading.  It was a great excuse to post some of my favorite pictures of myself.

Necropsy work was done with the New England Aquarium.
Wild animals were handled when I was on staff at the California Wildlife Center
Tigers were born to a mother who had been confiscated by the USDA and arrived at the Conservators' Center already pregnant (believe me they didn't need more tigers).  Zaynah Serval was a former pet who also found a permanent home there.  There are more exotic cats that need placement than sanctuaries or zoos for them to live in.  Please, please don't get an exotic animal as a pet, see your local animal shelter instead!


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. As an amateur (self-trained) naturalist w/no history of working w/any of these animals, I've been wondering what to think (other than to feel sympathy for the trainer and her family). We rescue our pets and are in fact struggling with a rescue who has biting issues as I write this--but that's another whole topic! A schnauzer who bites is entirely different from an Orca who kills. I sincerely hope Seaworld takes great care with this orca in the future!

  2. You go girl. A very well thought out response to an unfortunate event. One former seaworld employee said they could not release this orca because he does not have many teeth left from biting the "gates" used as barriers.