The consequences of keeping wild animals in captivity... are deadly.

This week, a trainer at Australia Zoo was attacked by a tiger. The animal lunged for his trainer Dave Style’s neck and he is now in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

Coincidentally, a documentary has been released in Australia this week about the dangers of keeping another group of wild animals in captivity, for the purposes of human entertainment.

Those animals are orcas. And this is the trailer that has everyone talking.

Orcas are also known as Killer Whales – but the name doesn’t reflect their history with humans. There are no recorded cases of an orca killing a human being in the wild. What there is however, are many recorded attacks in captivity.

The documentary focuses on the captivity of one particular orca – the massive, male Tilikum. In his years captive in Sea Land and Sea World, Tilikum was involved in the deaths of three individuals. This film, however, does not paint Tilikum as a monster. Instead, it focuses on the consequences of keeping such intelligent, emotionally sentient animals in captivity.

Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland when he was still a ‘baby’, was harassed by fellow female whales during his years in captivity, and throughout his life has spent innumerable hours left in dark tanks, with little to no stimulation.

In captivity, Tilikum became agitated. Frustrated. To the extent that he attacked his trainers on more than occasion – with deadly consequences.

Two female trainers, 20 years apart, were tragically killed by this orca. In 1991, Keltie Byrne, a 20-year old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, was killed at a Sea Land park. In 2010, 40 year old Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer at Sea World in Florida, was also killed.

Both deaths were tragedies. But they may have been preventable.

Tilikum is not the only orca to have attacked a trainer. The documentary charts a number of attacks over the years. Incidents where whales would grab their trainers by the arm, and pull them into the water and thrash them about. Occasions when whales would grab their trainers by the leg, and drag them – repeatedly – to the bottom of their training pool, almost drowning them.


After the death of Dawn Brancheau, American courts ruled that trainers needed to be separated from orcas at all times. This means that performances with trainers in the water with killer whales – riding on their backs, or standing on their noses – are no longer legal.

It’s a decision that Sea World is appealing in the courts.

The controversial animal rights group, PETA, has spoken out concerning the tiger attack in Australia this week.

Tiger trainer Dave Styles is in a serious condition.

Claire Fryer, Campaign Coordinator at PETA, told the media: “The serious injuries sustained by a trainer at Australia Zoo when he was attacked by a tiger were entirely preventable …

“If his employer had followed standard industry practice and required that protective barriers always be kept between potentially dangerous animals and humans, effectively banning performances with animals to avoid abuses with the whip and other implements of torture, the trainer would be unharmed today.”

The tagline for the film Blackfish reads: Never capture what you can’t control.

If that isn’t possible, a better lesson might be: Remember that a wild animal will always be a wild animal.

Or: Don’t put a wild animal in a cage, and then put a human in there with them.

Or even: Don’t presume that you have the right to put a wild animal in a cage, in the first place.

Do you think wild animals should be kept in captivity for human entertainment? Or are there other good reasons they should be kept in captivity, such as for breeding programs? Do regulations concerning how humans interact with wild animals in captivity need to be stricter? 

For further reading, have a look at the WWF tiger conservation efforts, or the work of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, which is dedicated to protecting ocean wildlife and their homes.

You can follow Melissa Wellham on Twitter at @melissawellham

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