Disturbingly recent exceptions aside, civilized nations now agree that burning fellow human beings at the stake, torturing them or enslaving them is inhuman. The day will come when civilized nations will agree that imprisoning wild animals in zoos, whipping them about in circus acts from city to city or forcing them to do tricks for our amusement in such places as SeaWorld, Marineland and Epcot is as cruel to the animals as it is lewd of the people watching them.
That day is far off, no doubt. Pulling profits and emoting power over weaker creatures, vicariously enjoyed by those audiences that delight in the safe splashing of a killer whale or the harmlessness of a caged animal, are strong impulses. Too strong to be outdone by notions of rights for beasts that don't speak English or pay taxes.
Until then, handlers of animals forced into unnatural situations will continue to die, as SeaWorld's Dawn Brancheau did in February when a killer whale dragged her underwater after turning the tables and making her its plaything. I keep reading references to Brancheau's death as "tragic." What lazy news writers mean is that her death was sad, unfortunate, avoidable and, from the spectators' (but not the whale's) perspective, lurid, as it was for SeaWorld's PR.
Brancheau's death was foretold. Besides practicing drills by coaching their prisoners to follow a script, trainers like her practice not getting killed for a reason. They presume at every moment to outwit a predator's instincts. They can't outwit the law of averages. For a brief moment, the whale that killed Brancheau went off script. It acted in character. Mauling her might have been the most natural thing the whale had done in years. If it's an education spectators wanted, they finally got an authentic one.
I don't mind the work with animals of people like the late Steve Irwin, the Australian of "Crocodile Hunter" fame killed by a stingray in 2006. Irwin had his moments of cruelty when he wanted to prove that he could best a beast bigger, bitier or faster than him. But mostly he worked on the animals' turf, on their terms. He did not rearrange their nature for our amusement. He risked his life to show us how wild these animals are, and how freely noble and untamable they should remain.
This isn't to argue against domestication or even the slaughtering of animals. We are animals and predators. But domesticating an animal for help or companionship and certainly killing an animal for sustenance will always be more morally defensible than taming one for entertainment or "education." (The less defensible gobs of cruelty in the chicken farms and the feedlots of the West, where cattle are turned into walking mummies of drugs and fat, have more to do with a nation's gluttony than sustenance. But that's another story.)
Places like SeaWorld love to claim that their shows give people a close-up of something unique that fosters an appreciation for nature and conservation. Florida residents give the lie to that invention. They've been converging on SeaWorld from subdivisions that have plowed under entire ecosystems and obliterated the habitats of 111 plants and animals (at last count). That's not about to change.
"The sensational Shamu show" itself plows under the killer whales' natural instincts to make them fit human conceits. It doesn't honor the killer whales or their place in nature, since that place is nowhere at SeaWorld, so much as it pumps up man's capacity to synchronize dives, sentimental music and greeting-card philosophy with 5-ton creatures.
The show, called "Believe," is motivational splashing. And in an age when entire cable channels and other media by the ant pile are devoted to natural science, there's no justification anymore for amusement-park animal exploitation. A minute's worth of a nature show like "Planet Earth," even on a television screen -- which takes the viewer to untold places with an intimacy and humility that really does put humans' insignificance in perspective -- does more to inspire reverence for nature as it really is than any Shamu schmoozing that mostly warms up your gift shop's cockles.
As for zoos, I've visited some of the great ones in the country. I've also walked the wards of several jails and prisons, including death row in Nashville, Tenn. In both places I saw the identical shuffling lethargy and vapid look of captivity. Criminals are presumably imprisoned as a result of their own misdeeds. Animals aren't. The crime of their captivity, reflected in their eyes, is ours every time we visit a zoo or clap like dopes at a mud-wrestling show whenever Shamu flips. Forget Willie. Free them all.