Captivity concerns

By Bethany Reinhart

Things at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., have returned to normal. Killer whale shows including “Believe” have resumed, money is pouring in and the media blitz surrounding trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death has subsided. Here in Chicago, Brancheau was laid to rest March 1 at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel on the city’s South Side.

Although headlines have faded about Brancheau’s violent death and Tilikum, the killer whale responsible, there are still many unanswered questions. The tragic incident has the scientific and marine activism communities abuzz about Tilikum’s history, whether this fatal incident could have been prevented and how to take proper precautions going forward. Which leaves one major question on the minds of many: Should killer whales or other animals be kept in captivity in the first place?

Animals that would otherwise live in their own natural habitats in the wild are kept in captivity for numerous reasons, making this question difficult, if not impossible, to answer. However, it is important for all of us to take facts and conditions into consideration and become informed about the reality of the captive animals in our own city and around the world.

Despite tragedies such as Brancheau’s death, there are arguably many good reasons why animals are held in captivity. One of the best examples is for rehabilitation efforts. If animals are wounded in their own environments, especially at the hands of humans, our efforts to protect and rehabilitate them are commendable and a justifiable reason to keep them in captivity.

A wonderful local example of such efforts is the Shedd Aquarium’s commitment to protect sea otters that were harmed in the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill that occurred in the Prince William Sound, in Alaska.  The oil, which permeated the otters’ fur, stripped the fur of its insolative properties, leaving the otters unable to survive in the wild. This is when I favor keeping such animals in captivity versus releasing them back into their natural habitats where they would undoubtedly not survive.

Other arguably positive reasons for keeping wild animals in captivity include conservation efforts, education and public awareness.

However, with that said, it is imperative for people to keep in mind that these are wild animals that should not be placed in captivity solely for public entertainment or profit. Dolphin and whale shows, such as those held at SeaWorld, may be exciting and incredibly entertaining for the public, but what are such shows and captivity doing to these animals? Just because a dolphin’s physiological make-up creates the appearance of a smiling, joyous animal does not mean they are actually happy. It is easy to lose sight of such concerns while being entertained and mesmerized by these animals as they perform for the public.

As for the case of Tilikum the killer whale and the regrettable death of his trainer Brancheau, it is important to raise the question of why this whale was in captivity and what its living conditions were like. SeaWorld will undoubtedly defend its facilities and the treatment of its animals, but until SeaWorld can provide an open ocean for these majestic creatures, its facilities will always be sub-par in comparison to their natural habitat.