Sea World Tragedy Shows Both The Risk in Understanding Animals and The Nobility in a Life Spent Pursuing a Deeper Relationship
It was with shock and sadness last week that I read the news of the death of Dawn Brancheau, the trainer at Sea World who died during the Shamu show. Suddenly she was gone from all the lives she had left her mark upon, mine being one of them. I had taken my family to Sea World and seen the exact show to which she devoted her life. I found deeper meaning in those moments when the beautiful orcas broke the surface and trainers, adorned in their black and white wet suits, rewarded them with herring or a reassuring pat on the head. The Shamu show at Sea World was the only way for me and my family to have such an intimate encounter with killer whales. It was because of Dawn's life-long devotion to trying to understand the animals with which we share our planet that thousands of families were able to get close to these marvelous creatures. Her vocation in her work as a trainer gave me and my family a special gift - a moment of connectivity with the circle of life that surrounds us.
To honor Dawn's work and her memory, I invited one of her colleagues at Sea World, Julie Scardina, to join our show this Wednesday. Many of the families watching the show either have been to Sea World or may plan to go there in the future, and the events of last week are being discussed at dinner tables all over the country - it certainly was in my home. I wanted families to hear a direct testimonial about the nature of working with whales.
Julie worked alongside Dawn for many years with the playful, yet intimidating giants including Tilikum, the 12,000 pound whale that caused Dawn's death. Like Dawn, Julie spent her life developing a deep relationship with the animals and observing their behavior, moods, habits and communication. Like Dawn, Julie approaches the whales with a unique love and understanding. I venture to say it's a gift. Many of us love animals, only some of us can really connect with them.
As a physician, I have spent my life trying to connect with my patients and my audience so we can find a deeper understanding of our bodies. The trainers at Sea World and anyone else that works with animals has a parallel mission - they spend their lives helping us understand. Doing so involves risk, and last week's tragic events are an example of that risk. As a child I was fascinated by every living thing. I was somewhat of a naturalist and found excitement looking through field guides and wildlife pictures in National Geographic magazine. I spent countless hours in the woods and along streams looking at bugs, frogs, birds and fish. Anyone who has raised children has felt the priceless moments when a small child sees an exotic animal for the first time. The looks of wonder on their faces are the treasures that make it all worth it. Even relationships with domestic animals like dogs and cats help our moods, help our fitness and lengthen our lives. Veterinarian Marty Becker is a regular on our show for this exact reason - because living well includes our relationship with other living creatures. But there are deeper issues being discussed in the wake of Dawn's death, and on Wednesday we want to explore some of them.
One of the biggest discussion points surrounding these events is whether whales like Tilikum should be kept in aquariums at all. Some argue that these are wild animals and we have no business confining them, and that a life in an aquarium is unfair, especially for an animal as magnificent as a killer whale. Others say the whales are treated extremely well and the aquarium shows are a way of educating the public in ways they otherwise would never experience. Aquariums and Sea World in particular are in a unique position to be leaders in conservation efforts around the global to protect our oceans and everything in them. There is merit on all sides of these arguments. I had an experience last week which I think provides an interesting perspective.
The day after Dawn died, I happened to have dinner with Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary Jacques Cousteau. His grandfather invented modern scuba gear and filmed the world's oceans allowing millions to see the wonders beneath. I was one of those millions, and as a young boy I sat riveted on Sundays watching Jacques Cousteau's Undersea World. Philippe shared a story that his father was researching fish along the Nile River, which is murky and has poor visibility. Local natives have harvested these fish for thousands of years but never seen them in their natural environment because the water is too opaque. He caught some fish and put them in a huge glass aquarium for the villagers to see and swim with their prey. Their fascination was profound. Enlightenment occurred. Understanding ensued. For the first time, the natives had the ability to finally see with clarity what had been so close, yet so hidden from them throughout their lives. These epiphanies are the building blocks of our lives. Dawn's life work shared that purpose.
This world is too precious not to take an active role in understanding its other tenants. While killer whales will always remain wild animals and command respect and reverence, gifted animal trainers like Dawn Blancheau and Julie Scardina devote their lives to furthering the boundaries of relationships humans can have with them. Dawn gave her life in the name of science and discovery, and her efforts brought enlightenment to thousands of people. Through this an appreciation for all life is nurtured - most importantly our own. For Dawn Blancheau and people like her who love animals and work to find ways to share them with the world - we thank you and we honor you.