Remembering Dawn Brancheau and Forgetting Captivity

Five years ago, on Feb. 24, 2010, a 12,500 lb orca named Tilikum took the life of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer who had worked with him for many years and who was admired by her coworkers. Brancheau’s death marked the third human life that Tilikum took since he was placed in captivity.

Each of the three deaths associated with Tilikum were violent, including aggressive action towards the human in question. Marine biologists and veterinarians claim that this violence was due to Tilikum’s life in captivity, where he is constrained to a pool “containing 0.0001 percent of the quantity of water that he would traverse in a single day in nature,” according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  On Thursday, Feb. 19, a Beluga Whale died at SeaWorld, marking the thirty-eighth unnatural death of an animal owned by SeaWorld since 1970.

The Beluga, named Nanuq, was only 31 years old, and had a jaw infection caused by a broken jaw that SeaWorld insisted was caused by simple “interaction” between “compatible social groups” that were being treated by SeaWorld. While the cause of death is unknown, it is speculated that the jaw infection was at least partially to blame. According to Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal biologist Naomi Rose, if Nanuq’s death was caused by the jaw infection, then the death was caused by captivity.

Perhaps the most shocking fact that can be pulled directly from SeaWorld’s website is that SeaWorld trainers are not required to have a college degree. They are not even required to have experience with animals, though it is “preferred.” This means that I could drop out of college right now and jump on to the back of an orca at a park in SeaWorld, having never touched an animal larger than a nurse shark.

While Wittenberg’s Marine Science Program focuses mostly on research and experience in laboratories, it still boasts internships and career opportunities in zoos and aquariums, including several animal training programs. I would argue that these programs are just as bad as SeaWorld. And, why pay Wittenberg tuition and spend four years of your life in school when you could walk over to SeaWorld and get a job? Okay, maybe it’s not THAT easy, but from what I have found, it’s not nearly as hard as the Wittenberg courses that I know and love.

No institution that attempts to house animals in captivity is large enough to do so. On average, zoo enclosures are 100 times smaller than the minimum home range, meaning that animals in zoos, on average have to pace around their enclosure 100 times to roam as many miles as they would in the wild. If this were you as a human, you would have an enclosure less than 3/4 of a mile by 3/4 of a mile to explore, an area smaller than Wittenberg’s campus, for your entire life. If I was in that situation, I think I might drag some pesky creature who dances around on my nose down, too.

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