Shame of the prison pools
Published 06/03/2010 | 05:00
On reflection, it seems fair to say that the fatal mauling of a trainer by a killer whale in a Florida theme park was a tragedy waiting to happen. The more we learn about the world's largest orca in captivity, a five-tonne giant called Tilikum, it's hard not to conclude that he had simply reached breaking point.
On the day he attacked his veteran handler Dawn Brancheau last week, onlookers at SeaWorld in Orlando could see he was under the weather.
Far from joining in the fun and games expected of him, he appeared agitated, messed up his routine a couple of times throughout the show and refused to obey orders.
But the show had to go on; killer whales who perform for a living, spinning around ad nauseum in tiny pools to satisfy the public and produce fabulous profits, aren't supposed to have off-days.
And so, Tilly did what animals often do when they've had enough. He fought back. Reaching up from the water, he grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail, yanked her below the surface and shook her violently until she drowned.
It's not as if the warning signs weren't there. Since his capture from the wild about 20 years ago when he was still a toddler, the animal has been implicated in the deaths of two other humans at water parks. And who can blame him?
A 22-foot leviathan, Tilly spends much of his life in a tank which is barely large enough for him to turn around in. Although he has fathered at least a dozen calves, he does not spend time with them. In his natural habitat of the vast ocean, this would be unimaginable.
As a member of the most sociable species in the animal world, Tilly would live in a tightly-knit family, swimming thousands of kilometres in his lifetime with them in a pod.
Since the attack, animal rights groups have used the fatality to call for an end to what they call "the cruel, degrading and completely unnatural practice" of keeping killer whales imprisoned in concrete enclosures.
They say these massive creatures are far too big to be confined in cramped blue-tiled pools and too intelligent to perform humiliating tricks for food as humans pirouette on their noses.
Marine parks such as SeaWorld dismiss the criticism, claiming they provide not only entertainment, but also have an educational role in bringing these animals in such close contact with humans.
I've never been to a marine life theme park. The prospect leaves me cold. I've given up on aquariums. When I see deep-water fish caged in shallow tanks, I just feel queasy, and any time I've been to a zoo in recent years I've gone home depressed, like the animals held in them.
Yes, some of these facilities do wonderful conservation work, but surely nowadays that work could be done in surroundings more in keeping with their natural habitat.
Killer whales are back in action again at SeaWorld's parks around America, although visitor numbers are down.
Whatever the future holds for Tilly, it is utterly unjustifiable if not obscene that in the 21st century such large, perceptive predators should have to live in confinement purely for our amusement.
If parents want to show their children the wonders of nature, they can take them to their local IMAX or show them some of the superb websites on the internet.
Only when people vote with their feet will outfits such as SeaWorld realise that imprisoning these formidable creatures as circus animals is simply no longer acceptable.