A very bright kid I know likes to share what he calls the “irrelevant statement of the day” every time I see him. I’m stealing the phrase and using it here, because this blog post is a digression. Today I’m not talking about writing or kids — I’m talking about killer whales.
Okay, it’s not TOTALLY irrelevant. There is a book involved — Death at Sea World, by David Kirby. I am obsessed with this book. I have read it twice in the past month. It is a history of killer whales in captivity, specifically at Sea World. It looks at whether keeping giant-sized, intelligent, highly social animals in the equivalent of bathtubs is humane or crazy-making, and it details not just the attack that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, but also a host of other, lesser known incidents, some of which also resulted in death.
Here’s why I’m fascinated. For over half my life I’ve been around big animals. Not orca big, true, but the Slobbering Beast is the first pet I’ve had in 13 years that didn’t top out at over 100 pounds. I’ve trained big dogs, shown them, loved them, and been concussed by them. And that’s just the dogs.
I’ve also had horses. And since I wasn’t gifted with a million dollar trust fund, I learned about horses the way lots of young women do — by saddling up whatever I could afford. That included a mare that fell asleep on me in the cross-ties and nearly broke my back, another that liked to jump paddock fences in the middle of a lesson and gallop the hills, a former stallion who tried to mount any mare that stood still on a trail ride, and a gelding who, when he wasn’t kicking you across stalls, was doing a credible imitation of a bucking bronco. Not only would he throw you, you had to ride with someone else on the ground at all times because once he got you off, he came back around to finish the job.
(True story: I took the bronco to a horse whisperer-type clinic, and after we got him saddled and into the ring, the poor cowboy who had to ride him turned to me with the most mournful gaze ever. “You tiny women,” he said. “You always bring me either the nastiest horse or the biggest one. You tiny women will be the death of me.”)
I rode like this because I was young, foolish, and loved what I was doing. At yet, aside from a few truly bone-headed choices I’d prefer not to share, I have always, always kept in mind that these animals were exactly that — animals. I wore a helmet and sometimes a safety vest. I carried a crop and used a bit. Because much as I loved every horse, my instructor had taught me there would be days when he or she would not want to do what I was asking, that it would go against the animal’s personality , its nature, or simply its mood. And that my safety could depend upon my being prepared for that refusal.
I teach my kids the same thing — to love animals, but to respect their nature. Much as you love the Slobbering Beast, remember he is a beast. Don’t stick your face too close to his, don’t put your hand in his mouth, don’t put yourselves in a position where your safety depends on trusting him to do the right thing. Because the right thing to you and the right thing to him may be completely different.
These trainers — the people who got in the water with the orcas — were also often young and deeply in love with the animals and what they were doing. But they don’t call orcas “fluffy bunny whales” — they call them killer whales. Whether the name is a misnomer or not, the fact remains that — unlike domesticated dogs and horses — these are wild animals. They do not share our history, and they do not share our element.
And that is why although I am awed by the courage of the trainers who entered the water with orcas, I am also flabbergasted by the hubris that made people think we could control the outcome. In Kirby’s book, in case of an attack the orcas are trained to return to the side of the pool when a trainer slaps the water with her hand or sounds a specific underwater tone.
I once held the number nine spot in the entire country for obedience in my breed (my father used to like to point out that probably only nine competed). I’m a decent trainer. And yet I can’t guarantee a reliable recall on the Slobbering Beast a hundred percent of the time. Would I trust my life — or my children’s lives — on my ability to call him to heel when he’s chasing a squirrel or removing the drain pipes from the house? Not bloody likely. And yet that was the extent of the orca trainer’s arsenal in an emergency — the simple hope that this wild, intelligent animal would always do what it was being asked to do.
Apparently OSHA agrees that hope alone doesn’t create a safe working environment. In OSHA versus Sea World, the government agency ruled that a slew of safety measures would be required for future trainer/orca work.
I think orcas are beautiful. By all accounts, they sound intelligent and social. But after seeing videos like this, would I want to get in the water with one?
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