Home » Clicker Training Community Blog » Science

What Sea World has Taught Us

Filed in - Science

We at KPCT are deeply saddened by the death of Sea World Trainer Dawn Brancheau. It is a very unfortunate accident that has left many wondering how can something like this ever happen. The argument that this should never have happened is misguided.

We do not know what triggered Tillikum to pull the trainer into the water. Was it a misperceived cue? Staff at Sea World have speculated that it may have been the swift movement of her ponytail as it fell in front of her face that triggered Tillikum’s response. No one really knows what really happened on that unfortunate day. What we do know that animals are like people in that they have individual personalities and feelings. Their behavior can be unpredictable, which presents an intrinsic risk when working with dolphins, whales, elephants, horses or any other large, powerful animal.

Does this mean that we should not work with these animals in captivity? We believe that the great work from what we learn from these animals far outweighs the small risk. For decades, dolphins and whales in captivity have served as ambassadors for their species. Before oceanariums existed, there was little education or respect about these magnificent animals. Killer whales were used by the military for bombing practice. Dolphins were strictly viewed as competition by fisherman and treated as pests the same way that a farmer views a trespassing coyote. Without oceanariums, there would be no Marine Mammal Commission or worldwide protection regulations. We have made tremendous progress in our respect and understanding of animals, none of which could have happened if it had not been for Flipper and other animals in captivity.

One of the great pleasures of reading Karen Pryor’s new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, is that she gives us insight into what it’s like to work with these magnificent animals and what we can learn from them. Dolphins and whales are the first to be kept in captivity to be trained by truly modern, force-free methods as opposed to avoidance training or the traditional “do as I say or else” way. Sea World has mastered ways of training without using fear or force, setting what we believe to be the gold standard for humane and intelligent training of these animals. The work that Sea World and other oceanariums have done has opened up people’s eyes and made them see that there is a better way to train -- not only dolphins and whales, but any animal. Over the last 40 years, scientific-based, force-free training methods have spread into other animal populations, such as dogs, horses and even cattle.

We applaud the great work of Dawn Brancheau and Sea World for sharing the wonderful traits of these magnificent animals and for helping to show the world how to relate to them with both compassion, dignity and respect. This is what Dawn would have wanted us to remember.