For 10 years, my family owned and loved a soft-coated wheaten terrier named Margie. She was an amazing animal, docile yet energetic, fun and full of love. She was as much a part of the family as the rest of us were, and perhaps the best pet I will ever have.
Despite my affection for Margie, I will never forget the time she attacked our neighbor, John. As kids, we played a game we called “Marge Attack.” We would run jocularly around our backyard, and Margie would playfully chase us. The game was full of recon missions and annexations – with a juggernaut of schoolboys storming a tree house or a swing set. But once, as John hotfooted across the yard, Margie knocked him down, seized his left ankle with her teeth and dragged him toward the house.
It was the only time I ever saw her become violent. But in my teary, 10-year-old eyes, it was enough – enough to make me realize that while Margie was our pet, she was still an animal.
I tell the story not to rehash old memories, but to broach the subject of animal behavior in light of the recent, tragic event at SeaWorld Orlando. Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer with 16 years of experience, was rubbing Tilikum, a 12,000-pound male killer whale, after a show last Wednesday. Suddenly, he grabbed her by the ponytail with his jaw and pulled her underwater, thrashed her about and drowned her.
The drowning was Tilikum’s third involvement with a human death. In 1991, he and two female whales pulled a trainer underwater at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. In 1999, the bruised, naked body of 27-year-old Daniel Dukes was found draped over Tilikum’s back after Dukes snuck into the tank overnight and died of hypothermia.
In exploring this animal’s history and studying stories of other orca attacks on people, it became evident to me that these are intelligent, powerful predators capable of violence and force.
In doing my research, I was disturbed to find how often these animals are anthropomorphized. In an Associated Press article, Tilikum was described as “behaving like an ornery child.” Later, the article reads, “She loved the animals like children. The trainer was married and didn’t have children.” The juxtaposition of the two sentences is foreboding; it reads as if these 18- to 26-foot long whales actually were Brancheau’s to nurture as her own.
The reality, however, is that they are wild creatures of the ocean, ones who naturally migrate hundreds of miles each year and consume a diverse diet of fish, marine mammals and even sharks and other whales. Keeping this understanding of their natural behavior and environment in mind, we must ask ourselves why we continue to imprison these magnificent animals in captivity.
According to some, zoos, aquariums and theme parks like SeaWorld have done wonders for the orca. Since the 1960s and 1970s, they have bolstered the public’s awareness of the species and fostered support, understanding and adoration for it among scientists and in popular culture.
But, that battle is now won. The orca is an official state symbol for Washington state, a profitable icon for the whale-watching industry and an endangered species under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Endangered Species Program. Its image is widely celebrated and marketed, especially in its native territories, like northwest Washington State and coastal British Columbia.
We must now move on to the second act and employ the orca’s popularity to increase conservation efforts. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the orca population in the Puget Sound will become extinct within 100 years if current trends continue. This alarming statistic is symptomatic of a trend within the greater population, which faces enormous threats from toxic chemicals, deteriorating food sources and ecosystems and anthropogenic pressures like ship collisions, oil spills and entanglement in fishing nets.
Whales in captivity fare no better. Psychological stresses from inaccurate social groupings, small tanks and chemically altered water lead to irregular, aggressive behavior and certain pathologies like dorsal fin collapse. These unnatural pressures can provoke the whales to violence and have been cited as the cause of many attacks; in contrast, no such attack in the wild has ever been recorded.
Much of animal behavior is still not understood, but the abnormal strains we put on impressive animals like Tilikum and Margie are both harmful and avoidable. Just as we kids didn’t need to provoke Margie into chasing us, money-making theme parks like SeaWorld don’t need to confine undomesticable whales, even those that have been born in captivity, in tanks.
Fortunately, we eventually outgrew “Marge Attack” and stopped putting that cruel stress on our poor old puppy. Let’s hope that one day we will realize the detriment these theme parks causes to whales like Tilikum and focus instead on their survival in their natural, wild habitats.
Conor Finnegan is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at finneganthehoya.com. ON THE ROAD appears every other Friday.
*To send a letter to the editor on a recent campus issue or Hoya story or a viewpoint on any topic, contact opinionthehoya.com. Letters should not exceed 300 words, and viewpoints should be between 600 to 800 words.*”