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SeaWorld 'killer whale' incident gives parents pause

The 'killer whale' accident at SeaWorld Orlando has some parents questioning the value of bringing children to zoos and animal parks.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / February 25, 2010

Tilikum, seen here in a file photo, was involved in the death of a handler on Wednesday. The incident has some parents questioning the value of supporting animal parks such as SeaWorld and zoos.

Newscom/File

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Los Angeles

The picture of a giant gorilla punctuates the parking-lot marketing sign here, offering combo prices for visitors to the Los Angeles Zoo and Long Beach Aquarium: Adults $29/Seniors $28/Children $17.

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On the day after a 12,300 lb. male orca “killer whale” grabbed a trainer at the Orlando SeaWorld and killed her, the sign tips conversation toward the role entrance prices play in housing wild animals in captivity.

“Yes, I’m feeling a little guilty about the fact that we’re the ones generating income for the people who do this,” says Monica Coffy, a Bakersfield housewife pushing twin girls in a stroller. “I always felt a bit creepy looking at lions and elephants all cooped up in their stalls when my parents took me to the zoo. Now, I’m a parent following in their footsteps without thinking.”

Maria Yamashita, walking hand-in-hand with her son, goes Ms. Coffy one better.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think people should even keep dogs unless they have a big yard for them to play in. Dogs need a place to run wild.”

SeaWorld closed its Orlando park Wednesday and suspended its orca show there and at its park in San Diego on Thursday.

President Dan Brown has extended deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Dawn Brancheau, who was killed. But animal rights groups have organized in force to use the episode as a spotlight, and part of it is shining on the people who patronize such parks and zoos.

“The only question is how many captive wild animal attacks have to happen before our citizens stop patronizing such events and legislators work to close down these dangerous animal acts,” says Adam Roberts, Executive Vice President of Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy group which tries to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity, and return animals to the wild.

“American lives are put at risk in the name of entertainment," Mr. Roberts says. "There is zero conservation or education value to killer whales performing stunts in captivity.”

The orca is the largest of the dolphin family and has become known as a favorite at SeaWorld. Killer whales are a highly social species, say marine biologists.

SeaWorld executives describe their "Believe" show as “revolutionary,” because it features the park's entire family of majestic killer whales performing what they market as "awe-inspiring choreography" with an original musical score performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. The 3-story set features an 80-foot whale tail as well as four rotating panoramic LED screens and nearly 100 speakers.

But such extravaganzas are anathema to to Garth Chouteau, a Richmond, California-based father. He says such shows not only exploit wildlife in the name of helping them, they actually misinform the public.

“I stopped taking my daughter to zoos and animal-oriented theme parks when she was about 8,” says Mr. Chouteau, a self-described animal lover who once pursued a career as a marine biologist. He says the average visitor to a park or zoo gets miseducated when they see wild animals in captivity.

“When the average visitor to a park or zoo sees these animals, they see them outside of their natural environment and doing things they wouldn't do in their natural habitat,” says Chouteau.

“I'm convinced that we as a global society derive a false sense of security from seeing animals in these contexts: 'Well, they're not extinct yet, they have several at every zoo I've been to,'" seems to be the justification, he says.

"Combine that with the danger many such animals pose to park and zoo visitors, and the mistreatment of many such animals in such captive environs, and there's no doubt that zoos and animal-oriented theme parks have outlasted their relevance," he adds, "if indeed they really ever had any.”

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