Archives for February 2010

Animal Careers & Occupational Hazards

sea world killer whale trainer killed occupational hazard
First, I have to say that I was sad to hear about the death of the killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau.

The killer whale incident is a tragedy but it also got me to thinking about how disconnected people are to what animals really are and the risks that come with that dream career of working with animals.

You might be their buddy, might know the animal really well, but the bottom line is that they are animals.

Sometimes they are wild animals that live in captivity (or were born in captivity) and that are also predators.

Predators such as orcas (aka killer whales).

Any time you work closely with a captive wild animal there is risk.

It might make some difference if they trust you and you are their pal but in other situations–one thing can go wrong and that is the end.

I’ve lost several colleagues that way.

But in case you are not getting this, let me be completely clear:

Death or dismemberment by an animal attack is an occupational hazard for animal trainers or caretakers.

Latest reports (mentioned on my media blog) say that witnesses collaborate on the fact that the killer whale trainer was pulled into the water after Tilikum grabbed her pony tail.

Some people speculated that perhaps Tilly was playing.

Okay, big animals that want to play with you can seriously injure you.

I’ve been close to that before but these guys were dismissing the danger using the example behavior of “playing” with the seals to illustrate the behavior that occurred at Sea World.

Huh? Were they there? Did they see the incident?

You’ve know the footage I am talking about, right?

The one where the orca grabs the seal, pushes it, whomps it with the flukes, bats it into the air, and basically tenderizes it as a way to dispatch the prey.

I’ve got news, that is predatory behavior and I liken it to playing with your food, you intend to eat it (or kill it).

I’ve only witnessed two types of things happen when trainers or caretakers die.

The first is human error and the second is from the actions taken by the animal.

It is the very size and strength of the animal that damages us wee humans but sometimes they just lash out, you know, like an animal.

Now this latest killer whale incident brought back the helplessness I felt as a trainer when in the water with a large animal who decides to toy with you.

I’ve been there and it is the only time I’ve been close to panic when working an animal.

I was the guest of the institution not on the training staff. The main reason for the panic was the failure of the assistant trainer to pull me out of the water when I asked him–and because I knew if the animal pinned me on the bottom of the tank that they had no contingency plans or tools to save my life.

Okay so, animals that are your friends can maim or kill you.

Got that?

I did. I knew that going into this field and some of those people I knew early in my career thought I was silly for being so cautious.

Then there was the other side of the coin when a relative said that she was afraid that one day the phone would ring with the news would that I had been killed by an animal.

Eewwh! But, it is an occupational risk especially if you are working with big animals, predators–or things that have claws, teeth, and beaks.

So, I have ask you–ever think of this type of situation as an occupational hazard?

Would it change your intent to pursue an animal career?

BTW:  Tilikum has been associated with two other incidents and now people are irresponsibly calling him a “serial killer” whale. Seriously folks this is not funny and not a joke to those of us in the profession or to those who were family or who worked with the people who were killed by this orca.

Killer Whale Incident: Tragedy & Occupational Hazard

tillikum tilly sea world killer whale

Tilikum from the Orcas & their Trainers Group

The recent killer whale incident that cost the life of trainer, Dawn Brancheau is a tragedy.

Any time you work closely with a captive wild animal, or have a close encounter of the wild kind in nature, a human is at risk.

Granted, it is a calculated risk–but one that all animal trainers take.

To boil it down for you, death or dismemberment by an animal attack is actually an occupational hazard, something that most people tend to dismiss, push under the carpet, or conveniently forget.

I was traveling all day yesterday and was sad to hear about the incident but there are lots of incidents that happen every year and that we don’t hear about because most don’t result in the death of a trainer.

Now everyone is chiming in on this topic and here are a few of my comments.

First, I am so very sad–as I always am when someone loses their life working with animals. My best wishes and condolences go out to all those who knew or worked with Dawn Brancheau.

I’m also saddened at the people who jump to conclusions without examination of the incident.

Captive wildlife exists and they are exactly why people even care about whales and other wildlife.

I know, I was narrating whale watch trips and going to Marineland of the Pacific when whaling was still a common practice.

People thought they were fish and fishermen shot whales because they were competition for the human fishing industry.

Today the pendulum has swung in the other direction and people think they need to be set free.

Is captivity right or wrong?

I really don’t have an answer for you.

I’ve worked with captive wildlife so long that I do believe those close encounters make a difference but the captive conditions and practices of animal management vary greatly.

To those who say the killer whale was playing–what an irresponsible suggestion. The killer whale trainer was pulled into the tank by her pony tail but the reason for the action has not been identified.

Sometimes things just happen and you don’t know the trigger. Trainers discuss, analyze, and hypothesize but only the animal knows for sure.

Also, in response to the person that likened it to that behavior of playing with the seals?

That is predatory behavior, and make no mistake, it is aggressive.

If you have watched footage of previous attack incidents with other killer whale trainers, the orcas take those same actions and they don’t resemble play.

I’ve only witnessed two types of things happen when trainers or caretakers die.

The first is human error and the second is the intent to harm by the animal.

Maybe “intent” is the wrong word because predators (or any wild animals) just do what they do, unlike human intentions, it is part of their regular behavioral makeup or repertoire.

I’ve seen pissed off whales come onto the stage to threaten trainers before and we don’t know if Tilikum (aka Tilly) was agitated.

There is one thing I know for sure, someone is dead and the wild animal, a killer whale (Orcinus orca), was responsible.

Wild animals that are predators are good at it.

Should Tilly be killed, blamed?

No, definitely not.

The other definite here? He is one big predator. 12,000 pounds of muscle and grace in the water.

Should all the commentators blab this for ages about this? Lets hope not. I liked this commentary by Hal Boedeker.

Best to move on.

In the meantime, some professionals are stepping up and commenting. I think this excerpt from Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training website said it best:

Does this mean that we should not work with these animals in captivity? We believe that the great work from what we learn from these animals far outweighs the small risk. For decades, dolphins and whales in captivity have served as ambassadors for their species. Before oceanariums existed, there was little education or respect about these magnificent animals. Killer whales were used by the military for bombing practice. Dolphins were strictly viewed as competition by fisherman and treated as pests the same way that a farmer views a trespassing coyote. Without oceanariums, there would be no Marine Mammal Commission or worldwide protection regulations. We have made tremendous progress in our respect and understanding of animals, none of which could have happened if it had not been for Flipper and other animals in captivity.

My hope is that the professional animal training and management industry will do something useful with this incident to move the profession forward and to educate the general public.

You can read some of my previous killer whale attack, orca attack, and other killer whale commentaries on the Ark Animals website plus I’ve include a couple of other notable links:

Diana L Guerrero has been working in wild and domestic animal training and management since the 1970s. Known as the Ark Lady, she is graduate of the exotic animal training and management program and holds certifications in captive breeding and conservation and endangered species and other animal specialties. She is contributing editor to Resources for Crisis Management in Zoos & Other Animal Care Facilities and wrote an animal behavior and training column for the zoo industry for ten years.

Last updated on 2-26-2010
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