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One whale of a disconnect

Written By : Ron Coleman
February 28, 2010

I’m not someone who wants to see a killer whale killed just because it killed someone.  It’s what killer whales do, and of course Dawn Brancheau, the Seaworld trainer who was killed by an off-kilter orca yesterday, knew that well.  Still and all, there’s something not only circular but disturbing about the reasoning displayed in this AP article about the Seaworld tragedy:

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Brancheau’s older sister, Diane Gross, said the trainer would not have wanted anything done to the whale. “She loved the whales like her children. She loved all of them,” said Gross, of Schererville, Ind. “They all had personalities, good days and bad days.”

In a profile in the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, Brancheau acknowledged the dangers, saying: “You can’t put yourself in the water unless you trust them and they trust you.” . . .

Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Washington-based nonprofit Orca Network, . . . . said Tilikum was probably agitated before Wednesday’s attack, possibly from some kind of clash with the other whales.

Gary Wilson, a professor at Moorpark College’s exotic animal training program, said it can be difficult to detect when an animal is about to turn on its trainer.

“One of the challenges working with any animal is learning to read its body language and getting a feel for what’s going on in its mind,” he said.

Right.  But here’s the thing:  If Dawn Brancheau wasn’t up to meeting that challenge–she who “loved the whales like her children,” and who knew their personalities, and the fact that they had “good days and bad days”–who is?  She was everything you would expect someone to be who is capable of “learning to read [an orca's] body language and getting a feel for what’s going on in its mind.”

So is the job of killer whale trainer at Sea World one in which you acknowledge the distinct possibility that you could do everything right but still get killed doing it?  That would not make such a job particularly unusual; millions of people do such work, and have a lot less fun at it than Dawn Brancheau did at her job until the sad day when it stopped very hard at being fun.  And not all such jobs are all that more “serious” than the one that took Brancheau’s life, or as economically productive either.

I’m not so much a “there oughtta be a law guy,” as I said in a recent post where I uncharacteristically said just that.  I don’t think there is a need for a law here, either.  It’ s hard to imagine choosing to risk death so you can do a whale show. But if it’s truly a choice, so be it.  That means, however, that if orca trainers and those like them are going to at least be said to have made their potentially deadly career choices voluntarily, they’ll have to think more clearly than at least the Associated Press wrote in lining up those quotations and leaving the obvious contradiction they raise hanging.

UPDATE:  A tad more rigor at Overlawyered.

Originally posted on Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog, Likelihood of Success. See his LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION, included in the same price!  A free gift.  For no reason.

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