Is it time to rethink our relationship with the animal world? As the recent incident at The Sea World, Orlando, U.S., showed, attempts to tame and connect with wild nature on human terms don't always work and can have dangerous consequences.

The Sea World USA Marine Park has 12 million visitors every year — people young and old converge here to get a close view of exotic marine animals and watch their shows. A particular favourite is the Shamu Whale Show featuring 6,000-pound Orcas or Killer Whales performing to an enthralled audience.

On February 24, in what should have been a routine run of the famous Shamu Whale Show at the Sea World, Orlando, thousands of families with children were spectators to a shocking tragedy. The experienced trainer had just finished her show and was reaching out to pat the whale, when it grabbed her by her ponytail and pulled her underwater. The audience watched horrified as the killer whale thrashed around and finally drowned its trainer.

It is unclear what motivated the killer whale, Tilikum, to behave in this manner. The predominant view of experts is that Tilikum was being playful and desired more social contact. Tilikum is the largest whale in captivity and weighs in at 12,000 pounds. It has been associated with two other deaths in the past 20 years.

Real dangers

The tragedy was a chilling reminder of the real dangers of working with wild animals. Sea World has stated that it is reviewing its procedures and protocols. What seems to be of dire urgency here is the need to put in place disaster recovery measures and safeguards for precisely these kinds of situations.

The death at Sea World reopened the debate over wild animals in captivity. Many animal rights groups see this attack as a result of keeping exotic animals such as tigers, orcas and elephants in inappropriate domestic venues and are urging that they be put back in the wild where they belong.

The zoos and aquariums, on the other hand, argue that not only do they provide a setting where people encounter nature face to face, but also utilise the money collected for research projects and work on saving endangered species. The entertainment factor that these shows provide is offset by some successful training and enrichment programmes and research.

Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) India recently undertook a study of more than 30 zoos in India. Their findings show neglect and animal suffering in quite a few instances. Peta also reports that many of the cages are extremely small and there is an inadequate supply of food, water and veterinary help. Animals were seen eating debris and the cages lacked good hygiene. Predatory animals were kept within viewing distance of their prey and elephants were chained in both front feet. In addition to this, visitors are seen feeding animals and sometimes teasing them when the rules strictly prohibited them from doing so.

Hundreds of people have been seriously injured killed by captive wild animals in zoos around the world which is another argument against keeping animals in captivity.

Close encounters

In 2002, a 150-pound tiger was taken to a California elementary school assembly as part of the “Zoo to You” programme. The tiger grabbed a six-year-old boy by the head. The boy was rescued by the principal but had to receive 55 stitches to his head and face. In that same year, an elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo pinned a zookeeper to the ground, and crushed him to death with its head. A while ago, a visitor at an Assam zoo was fatally wounded by a tiger. Just last week, two separate zoo accidents were reported. A bear bit off a woman's fingers at a Wisconsin zoo after she ignored barriers and warning signs to try to feed the animal. In a zoo in Shanghai, an animal keeper succumbed to injuries after being bitten by a tiger.

Many people are fascinated by the idea of owning an exotic wild pet, especially since baby wild animals appear to be tameable. However, these animals have social and psychological needs that are very difficult to meet in captivity. These creatures eventually grow up and sometimes turn on their owners. The aggressive instincts of wild animals are never culled even in a lifetime of captivity. Also, they pose health risks, as reptiles often carry salmonella bacteria which can easily be transmitted to humans, putting young children especially at risk.

Wild animals also suffer psychologically when kept in isolation. Many owners who have adopted wild animals sometimes realise that they are unable to meet the demands of the animal. Some abandon them or try to put them back in the wild. These animals are unable to adjust to the wild after living in captivity.

Animal trainers also lead a life of considerable risk as has been borne out by the recent tragedy. Some other killer whale trainers have suffered bites and injuries. Interacting with and training crocodiles is another occupation mired by risks. As part of a show in the crocodile park in Langkawi, the trainer inserts his hand into the aggressive male crocodile's open jaws. How can the trainer or park ensure that this bold (and very risky) endeavour is successful 100 per cent of the time?

Pathetic conditions

Circuses have provided much entertainment to people around the world for hundreds of years. Although these shows are popular, the wild animals that work in the circus are taken away from their natural habitat and are required to travel long distances in confined spaces such as small cages. This can be extremely uncomfortable for the animals and many adopt behaviours such as pacing, self mutilation and aggression.

Public safety is also a matter of concern. In Germany last December, a circus showman was attacked and nearly killed during a Hamburg dinner performance. Just before the show, the trainer stumbled and fell in front of five Bengal Tigers. As 200 spectators watched, the tigers attacked. Other trainers were able to lure the tigers away within seconds by following their emergency plan, but he was left with severe head, chest and hand injuries. A similar accident occurred six years ago in Las Vegas when tiger trainer Roy Horn of the “Siegfried and Roy” duo was severely injured in an attack on-stage.

Training methods used for animals in entertainment have also come under criticism. The best method of training animals to perform is through reward-based training, but this takes time and patience, and some trainers resort to inhumane methods such as beating and using prods to get their animals to perform. Animals are also drugged and their teeth and claws are surgically removed.

Abusive treatment

Peta USA has released photos taken inside Ringling's Florida training centre by a veteran elephant trainer. The photos expose how baby nursing elephants are captured and dragged away from their mothers. They are then gouged with steel tipped bullhooks and shocked with electric prods. These abusive sessions go on for up to a year until the elephant is submissive enough to obey. A former elephant trainer has given congressional testimony that the Clyde Beatty-Cole circus repeatedly violated USDA animal welfare regulation. When an elephant did not perform he was laid down and beaten by five trainers with bullhooks.

Such abusive treatment has caused elephants in circuses to sometimes go on rampages and cause destruction, injuring and killing spectators. One such incident occurred in 1994, in Honolulu, when an elephant named Tyke killed her trainer, then went on a rampage, injuring onlookers and damaging property. Tyke eventually had to be shot by the police in full view of the public. In the wake of similar elephant mishaps, Indian circuses face a crisis with animal right activists asking for a ban on the performances of elephants. The Central Zoo Authority of India is now considering to move all elephants from zoos and circuses to wildlife parks and sanctuaries. It is currently working on a proposal for the ministry to ban elephants from performing at circuses and also against chaining them in the zoo.

Humans have long dominated the animal kingdom and have found ways to manage and control species far larger and more dangerous than ourselves. Yet, we have a responsibility to giving our cohabiters their share of the earth, with a little help sometimes for their survival. We must look for and tread the fine line of learning about the creatures of the wild while leaving them alone to live in their beloved habitat.

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Tragic encounter

Working with wild animals, whether free or captive, carries its risks and has sometimes led to untimely death. A notable example of this is Steve Irwin, the reputed Australian crocodile trainer. Irwin was out filming dangerous wild animals on the Australian barrier reef when a stingray which was swimming directly below him pierced him in his chest with a barb, killing him instantly.

Never totally free

The killer whale Keiko, who was the star of the Hollywood movie Free Willy, was eventually released back into the waters of Iceland where he was originally captured. Despite efforts to integrate him with wild killer whales in Iceland, he had to be cared for by humans even after his release. He missed human interaction and never successfully integrated with his wild kin. Keiko, died in December 2003, at about 26 years old, of acute pneumonia.