Let Wild Animals Be Wild

Free Tilly – and all Circus Animals

Last month, at the Sea World amusement park in Florida, a
whale grabbed a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, pulled her underwater, and
thrashed about with her. By the time rescuers arrived, Brancheau was
dead.

The death of the trainer is a tragedy, and one
can only have sympathy for her family. But the incident raises broader
questions: was the attack deliberate? Did the whale, an orca named
Tilikum and nicknamed Tilly, act out of stress at being held captive in
a sterile concrete tank? Was he tired of being forced to perform to
amuse the crowds? Is it right to keep such large animals in close
confinement?

Tilly had been involved in two previous
human deaths. In one episode, a trainer fell into the pool and Tilly
and two other whales drowned him. In another, a man who appears to have
gotten into the enclosure at night, when Sea World was closed, was
found dead in the pool with Tilly. An autopsy showed that he had a bite
mark. One of Tilly's offspring, sold to an amusement park in Spain, has
also killed a trainer, as have orcas in other parks.

Richard
Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural
History, believes that orcas are smart and would not do such a thing
purely on impulse. "This was premeditated," he told The Associated
Press.

We will never know exactly what was going on
in Tilly's mind, but we do know that he has been in captivity since he
was about two years old - he was captured off the coast of Iceland in
1983. Orcas are social mammals, and he would have been living with his
mother and other relatives in a pod. It is reasonable to suppose that
the sudden separation was traumatic for Tilly.

Moreover,
the degree of confinement in an aquarium is extreme, for no tank, no
matter how large, can come close to meeting the needs of animals who
spend their lives in social groups swimming long distances in the
ocean. Joyce Tischler, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, described
keeping a six-ton orca in Sea World's tanks as akin to keeping a human
in a bathtub for his entire life. David Phillips, director of the
International Marine Mammal Project for the Earth Island Institute,
which led the efforts to rehabilitate the orca Keiko - made famous by
the movie Free Willy - said "Orcas deserve a better fate than living in cramped pools."

But
if we are pointing the finger at Sea World for what it does to its
captive animals, we should also look more broadly at the way we confine
performing animals. In most countries, it is possible to visit zoos and
see bored animals pacing back and forth in cages, with nothing to do
but wait for the next meal.

Circuses are even worse
places for animals. Their living conditions are deplorable, especially
in traveling circuses where cages have to be small so that they can go
on the road. Training animals to perform tricks often involves
starvation and cruelty. Undercover investigations have repeatedly shown
animals being beaten and given electric shocks.

Several
countries - among them Austria, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, India,
Israel, and Sweden - ban or severely restrict the use of wild animals
in circuses. In Brazil, a movement to ban wild animals from circuses
started after hungry lions managed to grab and devour a small boy.

Several
major cities and many local governments around the world do not permit
circuses with wild animals. Last year, Bolivia became the first country
to ban all animals, wild or domestic, from circuses. That decision
followed an undercover investigation by Animal Defenders International,
which exposed shocking abuse of circus animals. Now the British
government is holding a public online consultation on the use of
animals in circuses. Many hope it will be a first step towards a ban.

Attempts
to defend amusement parks and circuses on the grounds that they
"educate" people about animals should not be taken seriously. Such
enterprises are part of the commercial entertainment industry. The most
important lesson they teach impressionable young minds is that it is
acceptable to keep animals in captivity for human amusement. That is
the opposite of the ethical attitude to animals that we should be
seeking to impart to children.

Nor should we be
swayed by the argument that circuses provide employment. The human
slave trade also provided employment, but that was no argument for
perpetuating it. In any case, in many countries that have restrictions
or bans on circuses with animals, human-only circuses have flourished.

There
is no excuse for keeping wild animals in amusement parks or circuses.
Until our governments take action, we should avoid supporting places
where captive wild animals perform for our amusement. If the public
will not pay to see them, the businesses that profit from keeping
animals captive will not be able to continue. When our children ask us
to take them to the circus, we should find out if the circus uses wild
animals. If it does, we should explain to our children why we will not
take them there, and offer to take them to a circus that does not.

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