Using killer whales as slaves 

One of the big stories in the news last week was about the death of a SeaWorld trainer during a performance by killer whales.

The trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, was pulled underwater and killed by a killer whale named Kilikum, an animal linked in the deaths of two other human trainers in the past.

The reaction in the press was immediate. Some responded by demanding Kilikum be put to death. Others responded that keeping killer whales confined in tiny tanks is a form of torture and that Kilikum responded exactly as any animal would under the circumstances.

In an attempt to perform damage control, the CEO of SeaWorld appeared at a press conference in which he extended condolences to Ms. Brancheau's family, announced a review of corporate policy and said that killer whale shows would resume at SeaWorld on Saturday.

While any loss of human life is regrettable, and there probably are ways to ensure an accident like this doesn't happen again, to blame Kilikum for this is ridiculous at best and short-sighted at worst.

Orcas are amazing creatures, capable of social interaction, sophisticated communication and possess unique beauty and grace. To force them to perform tricks for the entertainment of humans seems, in the 21st century, to be antiquated and possibly barbaric.

Times have changed. This isn't the 1880s, when rail passengers would shoot bison from the windows of their trains simply for the sport of it. We now know that, in many ways, animals are not so different than humans after all -- both genetically and in many other ways.

Humans have been on the earth for roughly 200,000 years, if scientific estimates are accurate. Yet it's only been in the last 100 years or so that we've begun to develop a more enlightened attitude towards the conservation of nature and the preservation of endangered animal species.

It's to the point that, for the first time in history, individuals have chosen not to eat animal products on moral and ethical grounds, believing that the slaughter of animals for food is wrong. Massive efforts are underway to keep certain animals from disappearing from the earth.

I still eat meat; I haven't been able or willing to make that leap in thought to veganism quite yet. But I think that there needs to be some sort of balance restored between humans and other animals.

I've long been an advocate for instructing animals in the use of firearms, military vehicles and weapons of mass destruction. If someone chooses to go into the woods and try and shoot a deer, the deer should have the ability to fire back at its would-be assassin.

How much more interesting life would be if we had to fight our way to the neighborhood store against an onslaught of rabbits with grenades, tigers with knives for paws and bears with submachine guns! At least then it would be a fair fight.

Meanwhile, extensive scientific research is proving the once-ridiculed notion that animals are far more intelligent than we've ever given them credit for being. Dr. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University is a pioneer in showing that animals may well be capable of abstract thought and communication.

Her work over decades with Alex, an African Grey parrot plucked at random from a Chicago pet store, showed that the parrot was capable of understanding complex thought processes and communicating them to his human trainers. He could not only identify shapes and colors, he understood the concept of object permanence, the idea that objects continue to exist even when they can't be seen, heard or felt.

Before we condemn Kilikum the whale to death, we should re-examine the idea that beautiful, massive creatures can or should be coerced into performing stunts for humans. There are few things sadder than the resigned expression of a circus elephant, or the dejected demeanor of a zoo animal snatched from its natural environment and forced to gaze through steel bars at human children day after day.

I yearn to see a panda bear in person but simply looking at one in a zoo would be a disappointment. I love pandas but am forced to the realization that HDTV documentaries from Chinese nature preserves are the best and only way to see them the way they really are.

I also hope for a day when animals are no longer enslaved for food purposes. Already scientists have succeeded in cloning small pieces of meat from animal cells. It's possible that, within 50 years, all meat consumed for food would be produced in a laboratory without the need of murdering a single cow, chicken, sheep or pig.

And the death of the SeaWorld trainer hopefully will serve as one more reminder that it is both unethical and dangerous to treat gigantic animals as toys or robots for our amusement.

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