As you probably know by now an orca whale at Sea World in Orlando, Florida killed its trainer, Dawn Brancheau yesterday in front of horrified spectators.
Kate Santich of The Orlando Sentinel writes the tragedy "is a sobering reminder of why creatures as large and majestic as killer whales simply should not live in captivity."
But is it really that simple?
On February 24, 2007 (exactly three years to the date before Brancheau's death), a female zookeeper at the Denver Zoo named Ashlee Pfaff was killed by a jaguar.
One could make the same argument that jaguars should be exhibited in zoos.
Now I don't doubt there are drawbacks in keeping animals in captivity. But this assumes there aren't risk to animals being kept in the wild namely from poachers.
One significant difference between the two incidents is that the jaguar (who was named after former President George W. Bush) had no history of violence. Brancheau's death marks the third time that the orca whale named Tilikum had caused the death of a person. One could make the case that the continued presence of Tilikum constituted an unreasonable safety risk to the public and to staff at Sea World and thus should have been either released back into the wild or placed in safer captivity.
Obviously I cannot speak for Dawn Brancheau. But given that working with orcas was her "dream job" I think it is reasonable to believe she knew the dangers involved. It is also reasonable to believe that the possibility of being on the wrong end of those dangers crossed her mind. If that was case it is further reasonable to believe that she would not have wanted her death to be the reason killer whales and other animals are no longer kept in captivity.