I’m in good company blogging this week about the recent death of veteran orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed when Tilikum, a 12,300 pound “killer whale,” grabbed her in front of an audience at Orlando’s Sea World. In addition to the obvious second-guessing that happens when wild predators kept in unnatural environments exhibit what might reasonably be viewed as natural behaviors, last week’s tragic attack has prompted much important public discussion of the detrimental effects of lifelong captivity in a glorified pool on a massive, highly intelligent animal.
Similar questions were raised two years ago on Christmas Day when Tatiana, a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, escaped over the wall of her enclosure and killed a man who had been drinking and smoking marijuana and who, according to witness accounts and the city’s lead investigator, had been with a group of men who were taunting her and other zoo animals immediately preceding the attack. Tatiana was fatally shot by responding police officers. I’ve always had a special fondness for tigers, and I know I was one of many who cried at the tragedy and the indignity of her death.
Ultimately, even though we like to think of the Sea World orcas and dolphins as playful characters happy to perform, and of zoo animals as regal ambassadors of their swiftly disappearing natural habitats, I don’t think any of us is truly shocked when wild animals do attack. Rather, many supporters of zoos and aquariums, whether they’re corporate suits profiting from the captivity of these animals or conservationists who have dedicated their lives to the survival of their species, argue that it is a risk that is worth our continuing to accept. And as a society, we do continue to accept it. Not because, by and large, we have no regard for the welfare of these animals, but rather, because we do care, and because we want so much to know and love them.
I mean, I get it. I don’t dismiss outright the argument by many conservationists that the best hope of disappearing species is to foster empathy for them by allowing people, especially children, to have an in-person experience that captivity makes possible. I do believe that captivity degrades animals removed from their natural environments and, in a very real way, also degrades us humans in our objectifying them. And yet we love these strange and relatable and fascinating beings so much that we squelch that discomfort for the opportunity to be with them, to look into their eyes and to have them look back at us.
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As a child born with a fascination for animals, I didn’t just want to read about animals or watch Wild Kingdom—I wanted to see them in person, even though viewing them behind bars often left me in tears for reasons I did not fully comprehend. I believe many people become orca trainers or zookeepers not out of a wish to dominate animals or exploit them for profit, but because they sincerely love and care about animals. One of my best friends, a long-time ethical vegetarian, was a zookeeper before we met as colleagues at an animal rights organization. I would never judge or question her genuine commitment to the protection of animals. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice having as my “co-workers” the very beings I have in some ways dedicated my life to, rather than sitting at a desk talking on the phone and staring at my computer all day?
Viewed through a sentimental lens, it’s an understandable conundrum. And it’s a conundrum that highlights why, despite attacks suggesting the contrary, the work of animal rights is a highly unsentimental enterprise. To argue that we must consider the rights of animals like Tilikum and Tatiana is to accept that we must put aside our wish to experience these animals firsthand, and consider rather what is best for them. For many of us who love animals, it is in some ways a sacrifice. It is putting aside the selfish love of childhood, which insists that somehow, we must possess what we love, even if it is just with our eyes, and moving toward a mature love, one that recognizes we can best honor the animals we adore by allowing them to thrive in our absence, far from our view.