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What Sea World has Taught Us

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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.

this is just wrong

The claim to have these animals in captivity as a means of enlightenment about the species is a total cop-out and is utterly ridiculous. That is the role of ocean biologists and the like not circus conductors.

If this orca didn't bring in so much money, they would have euthanized it like a dog at the pound: don't doubt that for a second.

This orca was taken from the wild when it was 2 years old, is a breeding aged male, and the largest in captivity: and in case Sea World forgot to mention, orcas are PREDATORS that HUNT (seals, penguins and fish). Just because an animal is kept in a 'shoe box' doesn't mean it's instincts (to travel thousands of miles to breed and hunt) magically disappear.

It disturbs me that someone died, yet they still don't get it.

What Sea World has really taught us is that capitalist gains are the priority and that the quality of human and animal life is a mere afterthought. It's disgusting.



sea_lions's picture

whales dolphins and sea lions

whales dolphins and sea lions are all capable of harming and killing their trainers and keepers. easily. they would not particiapte in training if they did not enjoy it, I train two male californian sea lions and they get very excited when learning something new.

At our collection we raise money for the marine conservation society. we teach the public of problems such as over fishing and pollution. people remember things and take things on board much better during an impressive display with the animals right in front of them. (we provide an educational presentation rather than a show with animal actors)

If these animals were so miserable in their captive environments then these attacks and deaths would be a lot more common.

having said this I could never condone taking these animals from their wild habitats.

two thumbs up

I totally agree with ornate's post. spot on.


     I agree with Michael Ward's comment completely.  Yes, perhaps, dolphin and whale training programs such as Seaworld's have contributed to conservation efforts and awareness, but it is now time to come full circle on this, and realize that these are large, wild animals whose beauty and intelligence merit the respect and dignity of allowing them to remain in the wild--not being stuck in a cage like a canary, performing tricks for money.  Just because you can do something (even in a so-called "humane"  fashion) doesn't mean you should.  I highly recommend the documentary, "The Cove"--in this film you will meet the trainer of "Flipper", who through his experiences training dolphins for the very popular TV show, came to love and respect these animals so much that he realized that their captivity for any reason was wrong and immoral--he is now an activist on their behalf.

This article states, "Without

This article states, "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."

This is a serious flaw in logic. It's a little like saying "we would NEVER have invented flight if it weren't for the Wright brothers". There are countless ways these protective regulations could have come to exist; they just happen to come (sadly) thru the captive presence of the "involuntary" ambassadors of the species in question.

And even if this were true, that captivity was a necessary step in the development of protective regulations, then certainly these marine parks have fulfilled their duties and need to "move on". They need to stop hiding behind the veil of conservation and education and simply acknowledge their most obvious goals, revenue and entertainment.

Additionally, to say that marine parks have taught us how to train without "fear or force" evades the fact that manipulation and control are still at the heart of the training. Now, don't get me wrong, control is at the heart of all necessary animal training but whether training killer whales for shows is "necessary" is the matter in question here. To overemphasize the "positive" aspects of the training seems to me to be another diversionary tactic.

Finally, I think it seriously strains the definitions to say that marine park trainers treat the animals with "compassion, dignity and respect". Where is the respect in the animal's performing tricks, (or "behaviors" if we are to use their pc term) for audience gratification? How is it compassionate to simultaneously convey the illusion of dominance over these animals as they do? (How does it not look like dominance to use a killer whale as a personal plaything?) If we consider the dignity we afford the Panda, then why would we not treat killer whales (with all their intellignece and sensitivity) with at least as much? Or should we ride Pandas in the zoo too?

There is a reason why the report is inconsistent

I don’t mean to come off conspiratorial but muddy waters are benefiting the owners of the Sea World…divide opinions, put out inconsistent information, confuse and thrive…just another day at the office Im afraid.

As far as their “policies”, Im afraid I those policies are irrelevant to the Orcas. As brilliant as Karen Pryor is, and as much as she has to teach us, does anyone think that Sea World used her books to consult and devise the policies? I think not.

The root of the problem is deeper Im afraid. I’ve written about it on my blog if anyone cares to comment …

Thanks for writing this

Thank you for writing this.  I feel that this is a voice of reason among a lot of knee-jerk reactions that have been posted on the web so far.


Crystal Saling, CPDT, KPA-CTP


According to a cetacean trainer (interviewed on Fox and Friends on Thursday) who was familiar with Tillikum prior to his being moved to Seaword, this was an "accident" (or attack) waiting to happen. He had talked to several of the workers at Seaworld, and was very explicit that Tillikum was not "on target" that day. He was consistently showing high signs of stress balking at cues, and was doing a lot of circling behavior (which is a hunting behavior). The trainer pointed out that cetaceans are extremely intelligent and that they do not "like" being in captivity - the larger ones dislike it the most. His point was that Tillikum (who had been involved with 2 deaths in humans in the past) should either have been put down or set free in the open ocean long ago.

Yes, these animals are ambassadors for their species, but when one has now killed 3 people, what should we do? Wait for a 4th or a 5th fatality? We put down dogs who bite people. And certainly, we put them down if they kill someone. In my (not so humble) opinion, Tillikum should be destroyed. He is no longer a positive "ambassador for his specie." If anything, many people will now associate Orcas with sharks and be terrified of them.

I don't pretend to know what Seaworld's policies for training and working with Orca are, but in this case it appears some, if not several, basic guidelines were not followed. If an Orca is demonstrating high levels of stress by balking at cues, and circling the pool, he should be sent back to the holding tank and not worked during performance that day. Am I being judgemental? Perhaps. However, safety, not only for the animals, but for the trainers, should be the top priority. This apparently was not the priority on Wednesday at Seaworld.


Elizabeth Riggs

Lawrenceville GA

NayNay's picture


Yes, Orcas and dolphins are intelligent, playful, social animals, but they are wild and can be dangerous. Orcas are powerful wild animals, and I think that many times people tend to forget this. This comes as a humble reminder to that simple fact. Who knows exactly why Tillikum did this or what set him off. However, I strongly disagree that he should be put down. In my opinion, he should be kept out of programs, of course, so he can do no harm to anyone else, but in doing this, Sea World can still provide adequate mental and physical stimulation to Tillikum. The trainers to not need to be in the water, or even close to it in order to train.

It is against the law to release a dolphin that has been kept in captivity to the wild because they become to dependant upon human care end up starving and do not survive. Therefore, unfortunetly, he cannot be released back into the wild.

Yes, Tillikum did kill two other people prior to this unfortunet event. However, one of the times someone snuck into their 'pool' after hours. That man met the same fate that anyone would meet, if it had been a lion or gorrilla or any other powerful wild animal, the outcome would have been the same.

As far as Sea World not 'listening' to Tillikum's behavior before the show, well hindsight sucks.


trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

warning signs....

I heard an initial report that the whales had been "misbehaving" earlier, but the statement from Sea World's head trainer was that Dawn had reported her session with Tilikum as spot-on just prior to the incident.  I think there is an awful lot of misinformation circulating (I've seen several variations of reports) and we cannot ever be quite certain, in hindsight, exactly what happened.  It's a tragedy which we can try to learn from, if possible, but it's not something for which we can clearly fix blame.