Commentary: Wild animals don't make good pets or entertainers

The death of a SeaWorld whale trainer was tragic. But, after all, they don't call orcas killer whales for nothing.

The whale that grabbed the 40-year-old trainer by her ponytail Feb. 24, pulled her into the water in front of 20 spectators and thrashed her in the pool until she died, had been involved in the deaths of two other people. Some immediately suggested that the whale, named Tilikum, should be put to death like a dangerous dog.

That comment may go to the heart of the problem of keeping these creatures in captivity. Killer whales never were meant to be domesticated like dogs. They are not designed to play fetch or bring us our slippers.

As this incident demonstrated, there is no such thing as a non-dangerous killer whale. Even the best trained whale is capable of inflicting terrible damage to humans, even if it is simply playing. They're doing what they naturally would do in the wild.

I don't often find myself aligned with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group's approach to protecting animals strikes me as too radical.

I believe in being compassionate toward animals, but I don't have anything against responsible hunting. I regularly eat meat. I wear leather shoes. And I wouldn't dream of throwing a vial of blood at someone wearing a fur coat.

But PETA has a point regarding SeaWorld and other parks that use captive sea mammals to entertain the public. PETA notes that 21 orcas died in U.S. SeaWorld facilities between 1986 and 2008, which averages out to nearly one a year for 22 years. Dozens of bottlenose dolphins also have died at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld no longer captures or buys wild orcas or dolphins. The animals used in its shows are bred from captive animals. Tilikum, though not used in shows, is a prolific sire of baby orcas.

SeaWorld officials insist that seeing these creatures up close helps us better understand and appreciate them, and encourages efforts to protect them in the wild. But are we really paying to see something natural at SeaWorld? You don't often see people in wet suits riding killer whales in the wild. Nor do you see dolphins twirling, flipping and jumping 20 feet into the air to catch fish.

Maybe it's human nature to ascribe our own traits to wild animals. It's easy to fantasize that dolphins, with their upturned mouths, are always happy and playful. Even killer whales, which easily could bite us in half if they chose, look benign, especially when responding to a trainer like a well-heeled puppy.

But we need to remember that the story of Daniel in the lion's den was regarded as miraculous. We're not meant to lie down with the wild beasts.

Thousands of people paid to see Siegfried and Roy treat tigers like housecats in their Las Vegas magic show. But the show ended after Roy was severely injured by one of his cats, which bit him on the neck and left him partially paralyzed.

We think of chimpanzees as being comical and friendly. But we get a different picture when we read of wild chimps invading a car in Africa and killing its inhabitants, or of the pet chimp that went berserk and ripped a woman's face off.

An extreme case of misguided anthropomorphism can be viewed in the movie "Grizzly Man," a 2005 documentary by famed director Werner Herzog. The movie consists largely of footage taken by Timothy Treadwell, a young American man who had convinced himself he could live in harmony with grizzly bears. (Spoiler alert) Treadwell and his girlfriend are killed and eaten by a bear.

The same warped thinking afflicts some of the people who harbor menacing dogs in their homes. Overcoming a vicious dog's natural instincts can be extremely difficult. Anyone who isn't the Dog Whisperer should think twice about the danger posed to themselves or others by a large aggressive dog, no matter what the breed.

And what possesses people to keep boa constrictors or pythons large enough to eat a child as pets?

Maybe we have seen too many Disney movies with talking animals. Or maybe we've been to too many shows at SeaWorld, where smiling people ride around on the backs of smiling killer whales.


James Werrellis the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.