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Killer Whales and Trainers and Wild Animals in Captivity

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Tilikum, a killer whale, drowned his handler after pulling her off the platform following a performance. Are Sea World's training methods sufficient as mental stimulation for these whales? Is it time to "Free Willy"?

I read with horror the article about Tilikum, the killer whale who drowned his trainer by pulling her into the tank by her pony tail and then swimming around with her.

Whales are trained using Operant Conditioning, the same method that I use on my dogs and horses.  It is a humane, scientific method involving the use of a "bridge" between a cue and the reward.  The bridge that whale trainers use is a whistle.  The whistle says "yes" to the animal and indicates that whatever the animal has just earned a fish.  The best trainers offer variable rewards, such as praise or petting, or in Tilikum's case, a rub down.  As his trainer was rubbing him down after the performance, he seized the moment to grab her.

One of the benefits (and sometimes the drawbacks) of using operant conditioning is that it can lead to experimental behaviors on the part of the subject.  A more educated animal will begin to offer things up in hopes of eliciting a bridge.  Wonderful new tricks and games can be invented this way; things the handler never thought of.  This gives the animal a certain amount of creative freedom.

While Tilikum's action was probably not motivated by a search for reward, it does lead to the ethical question about killer whales in captivity.  Sea World has provided a great service to whales over the years with research and funding and many other benefits.  They strive to keep the theme park animals mentally sound by providing stimulation on a daily basis.  However, the youtube video is a reminder of how cramped and unnatural the space is for a whale.  The tanks look pretty big, until you see a whale swimming through one.  Killer whales are migratory animals meant to roam thousands of miles of ocean, hunting and traveling as a family.  The latest incident begs the question: Is the research and public awareness that Sea World provides worth the stress it causes to the animals, or the lives of its trainers?

Is freeing Tilikum an option?  Would he be able to survive in the wild?  Obviously, it would be an expensive endeavor.  Is Tilikum more valuable in terms of entertainment dollars than he is costly as a liability or an experimental ocean venture?

Operant conditioning training methods are effective in terms of stimulation, but they are not a cure for what must be a terribly monotonous life for an animal with wild instincts.  Incidents like this can be a good opportunity to reexamine the practice.  Hopefully, one day, seeing killer whales perform in seaquariums will be a thing of the past.


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Nancy Bailey

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