Friday, February 26, 2010

"Killer" Whales vs. "Aggressive" Dogs

By now you've heard the news reports or read the stories about the trainer who was dragged to her death by an adult Orca Whale at the Orlando Sea World earlier this week.  I was flipping through my paperwork from last year, and came across a photo of a Shelter dog that was euthanized due to intensifying agression, and I found myself wondering about the differences between Orca whales and dogs.

Tilikum, the 12,000 pound, mature, alpha male Orca whale, has been involved in three human deaths--although one of the incidents is based on circumstantial evidence. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sea World officials "said they intended to continue using Tilikum -- who delights audiences with outsized splashes -- in its performances.

The article quoted SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment President Jim Atchison, who told reporters that Tilikum has been "a part of our team and he will remain a part of our team."  Removing Tilikum from shows "would be a shame," he said.

Atchison also said, "This is really a wonderful animal and his participation in our shows, his engagement in our interactions and so forth is very important to his overall health and husbandry." This particular Orca whale has been a foundation breeder for the Sea World Orca Whale Program.

The dog pictured above, Billie Jean, is one of our "failures."  She spent months in the adoption room, without enough exercise or training.  She was adopted and/or fostered several times (three times that I know of) and was involved in an incident where she bit her handler while lunging at another dog.  The solution to Billie Jean's aggression?  Euthanization.

The solution to Tilikum's "aggression"?  New training protocols, according to news reports.

The contrast between attitudes--the ease by which we euthanize dogs that have bitten, maimed (let alone killed) a human--and attitude of the Sea World officials toward their expensive (and very dangerous) Orca whale are striking.  I realize that Orca whales are endangered, intelligent wild animals.  I realize that dogs live in much closer proximity to humans than do most Orca whales.  Still, I can't shake the feeling that we have different standards in effect.  I guess it's better to be a "killer whale" than an "aggressive dog."


  1. You are right that there's different standards. Unfortunately, captive killer whales are rare and valuable, but shelter dogs are a dime a dozen. Why spend a few weeks retraining an aggressive dog when there are five others waiting to take its place?

    It's been rather disturbing to read the news coverage around Tilikum - it sounds like these animals kill handlers on a semi-regular basis, much more often than I would have expected. I'm sure part of it is that they don't intend to kill, they just have no concept of how fragile human life can be, but it's still more than a bit worrisome. Is it really worth the death of a human every year or two to keep these animals in captivity? But as long as there's money to be made and people who will volunteer to work with them, you know it'll happen...

  2. Raised by wolves had a really interesting post with regards to training.

  3. I understand where you are coming from.

    In my opinion it is the risk taken when keeping a wild animal, training it and using it for entertainment.

    I don't think anyone deserved to die, I think it's terrible. But they take a major risk when they work with these animals. Hopefully this will remind other trainers of how dangerous their jobs are.

    It can only be a whale. Just like a dog can only be a dog. We cannot expect them to reason and think like a human.

    "Why spend a few weeks retraining an aggressive dog when there are five others waiting to take its place?"

    It's not the dog's fault. But even if you do spend time retraining an aggressive dog - the challenge is finding a home that can care for said dog. So many animal owners are clueless when it comes to their own pets - I think just about all bites occur out of ignorance and not paying attention.

    An aggressive dog needs an experienced and attentive home in order to get better and stay that way. Most people are NOT that.

  4. Sad, but I think in this case the decision is almost purely financial. Several stories note that Tilikum is 'valuable' breeding animal - the the PR backlash from euth'ing him would be sperm whale sized.

    Dogs are often too affordable and too replaceable for their own good.


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