Death of Sea World trainer: Do 'killer whales' belong in theme parks?

A Sea World trainer was killed in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday by a 'killer whale.' Animal rights groups say the tragedy shows why the giant orcas do not belong in theme parks.

Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/AP/File
Dawn Brancheau, a veteran whale trainer at SeaWorld Adventure Park, is shown while performing in this Dec. 30, 2005 file photo.
George Skene/AP
Dan Brown, general manager of SeaWorld Adventure Park, speaks to the press today regarding a trainer who was killed at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010, by a killer whale.

The death of a veteran Sea World trainer in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday has spotlighted the campaign of several major animal rights groups to keep marine mammals out of theme parks altogether.

Dawn Brancheau was killed when a 12,300-lb. male orca “killer whale” grabbed her in front of an audience at the Orlando theme park.

Now, animal rights activists say that many questions should be asked in the wake of Ms. Brancheau's death. Sea World has said that the very same orca is responsible for human deaths in 1991 and again in 1999. The Humane Society of the United States has long campaigned for marine mammals to be removed from theme parks.

“These behemoths are denied all of their natural, instinctual inclinations, and we humans tend to think, ‘Well, this is just a bad animal.’ But it is a wild animal, used to running free in an entire ocean, but now confined to a very small space,” says Joyce Tischler, founder of and general counsel for Animal Legal Defense Fund. She compares an orca’s life in captivity in a tank to keeping a human being in a bathtub for his entire life. She says most Americans have romanticized notions of sea life perpetuated by such TV series as “Flipper.” But even dolphins are known to aggressively run their teeth down the backs of humans in hundreds of incidents that are not reported outside the conservation community press, she says.

SeaWorld closed its Orlando park immediately after the tragedy, and suspended its orca show in San Diego. “We've initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what occurred,” SeaWorld President Dan Brown said in a brief statement to reporters.

Ms. Brancheau had worked at the park since 1994. Mr. Brown said no SeaWorld park had ever before experienced a similar incident and pledged a thorough review of all of the park's standard operating procedures.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld parks and our team members. Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests, and the animals entrusted to our care," Brown said. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.”

The orca is the largest member of the dolphin family and is known as a favorite at Sea World. Killer whales are a highly social species.

But “the vast majority of the orca whales in captivity would be far better off to be returned to the wild. Orcas are unbelievably ill-suited to life in theme parks and can be successfully returned to the wild. We know, because we have done it,” says David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute, who led the effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and release the killer whale Keiko, made famous in the movie “Free Willy.” “Orcas deserve a better fate than living in cramped pools.

Mr. Phillips recalls that Keiko went from languishing in small pool in Mexico City all the way to swimming with wild whales in his native waters in Iceland. He ended up swimming to Norway and living there in a bay with some human care until he died. Phillips says the public would be better served by seeing orcas in the wild and ensuring their protection there.

“This isn’t the first time that stressed-out orca whales have injured or killed people, and unfortunately, it is not likely to be the last,” says Phillips. “It is high time that the marine park industry get out of the captive orca business.”

Tisch takes on the argument most often given by defenders of such captivity: That it is educational and spotlights the need for conservation and protection of such creatures: “The people who run these theme parks are not interested in conservation or protection, they are interested in making money,” Tisch says. “I would be asking, ‘Why was this animal kept after the first death?’ ”

“This is a giant warning sign that society needs to rethink this question of holding large predators in captivity,” says Chris Palmer, author of “Shooting in the Wild,” a book about wild animals in captivity, who also teaches at American University. “Having a trainer killed this way can’t justify whatever benefits we get from conservation or protection.”

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