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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is it Tilikum’s fault?

I am shocked, sad and not overly surprised by the incident at Sea World, the death of animal trainer Dawn Brancheau.  I don’t think the situation is unique for anyone working with animals professionally or even for recreation.   I have been in and around the world of animals for over 20 years.  My experiences have ranged from personal pets, professional pet sitting, fostering animals in need, riding – caring and training horses.  In my experience, the relationship with the animal is what determines their behavior - good or bad. 

When we decided to take animals into our lives as companions, we imposed our personalities on them.  In some cases we even anthropomorphize our pets.  The key word being COMPANION, many of us have replaced human relationships with animals.  Is this good or bad?  I am not the one to answer this question. CBS news stated the following in an interview with Brancheau’s sister – “Dawn Brancheau loved whales like they were her own children, her sister told The Associated Press. But the 40-year-old trainer was killed by one of the animals she loved most - Tilikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale.”   I am just as guilty in my relationships with the animals in my life.  Where do we draw the line in trust?

When does it go too far?  My frame of reference in viewing what happened at Sea World, is my experiences with horses.  I see myself as having strength in reading the body language of horses.  Using this strength has helped me to stay safe.  Horses are wonderful animals, but they are still dangerous.  Anyone who has spent time with them, understands that there is an inherent danger.  These animals are trainable, but they are still driven by their natural instincts.  They are a flight animal and when threatened will flee.  You will never take this out of them.  They can learn to respect their owners, but don’t test it.  The head trainer at Sea World says it best in the LA times -  He said Tilikum was probably agitated before Wednesday's attack, possibly from some kind of clash with the other killer whales.  Gary Wilson, a professor at Moorpark College's exotic animal training program, said it can be difficult to detect when an animal is about to turn on its trainer.  "One of the challenges working with any animal is learning to read its body language and getting a feel for what's going on in its mind," he said.

How many of you have been to a horse show or watched the Olympics?  Inevitably there is one or even more of the horses who will “act up”.  Is the horse bad for reacting to their instincts and causing their riders to fall off?  Does a horse intentionally dump or even kill their riders? I don’t believe that any horse or animal understands the concept of killing by our definition.  We view killing as an evil act with the intention of causing harm to another thing.  Animal view of killing, in my opinion, is for the purposes of survival.  Killing means the following in the animal world - to eat, protect, and incidental in establishing dominance.

Dreamer is one of my more reactive horses.  When I tried to take her to new places, I would be able to tell immediately if she was going to be able to overcome her fears.  In some instances, I have been able to see that she will not be safe.  I have been called a coward many times for not forcing the issue.  Am I a coward, because I choose to keep myself and my horse safe?  On those days when I can see that she is confident, we have a wonderful ride.

The first thought I had when I heard about the Sea World incident is that I would bet that the trainer knew the killer whale was off that day.  Sea World is in the business of making money, so they can’t cancel the show.  It is a tough decision to make whether to forge ahead or cancel the event for anyone in the world of training and showing animals.  You put a lot of time and money into getting the animal ready for that one day or show.  Many times you get to the event and your animal is not ready.  Are they feeding off of our nervousness, or are they sensing a danger we can’t detect?  What do you do?  I don’t fault anyone for trying to push through the fear and doing it anyway.  I think in doing so you have to weigh the pros and cons.  Death is always out there as a risk!!!!!!!

In some of the articles I read, the trainer knew and understood the risks of working with Tilikum.  The whale had a very troubled past and a history of instinct driven behavior.  I found some interesting information from the LA times interview with Chuck Tompkins, the chief animal trainer at Sea World.  “We didn't ignore those incidents," Tompkins said. "We work with him very, very carefully. We did not get in the water with this animal like we do with other killer whales because we recognized his potential."

I don’t believe the whale should be destroyed.  As for his release, that is a difficult situation.  He might not survive, because he has not had to find his own food.  I don’t know if it is fair to have him sequestered either.  I deal with this same decision with one of my horses.  She has been deemed dangerous by many people.  She can’t survive in the wild, but it isn’t fair to destroy her.  Her behaviors are instinctual and based on her previous experiences with abusive humans.  The decisions left up to Sea World at this time are very controversial and carry a heavy burden.  I am very sorry for the family of the trainer, Dawn Brancheau.  They all knew the inherent risks of death or even incapacitating injuries in her job.  I don’t believe anyone ever expected her to die, it is very unfortunate.  I can just imagine that she would not want anything to happen to Tilikum in response to her death though.  

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