Lessons for HK park in killer whale horror

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2010, 12:00am

So long as wild animals are kept in captivity, humans will debate whether the educational, research and commercial value justifies removing them from their natural environment to confined spaces. Death and disease among captive animals stirs the discussion. When they kill one of their captors, it comes to the boil.

The horrific killing of a trainer by a killer whale at a Florida marine theme park is a case in point. There is much controversy over the park's decision to keep Tilikum, the six-metre killer whale that seized trainer Dawn Brancheau while she was feeding him from a poolside platform and thrashed her to death under water. It has ruled out calls from the Humane Society and animal rights activists that he be released into a controlled area of ocean to exercise properly and relieve the stress of captivity - which has likely deprived him of the ability to survive in the wild - or even that he be destroyed. Instead, SeaWorld will tighten its safety regime so the animal can remain part of its breeding programme and a companion to seven others.

The conflict resonates in Hong Kong, where Ocean Park's HK$5.5 billion redevelopment includes the introduction of many more species. Not long ago there was concern among conservationists after a giant panda attacked and injured a trainer and another trainer was bitten by a sea lion. Experts also said death rates for cetaceans such as killer whales, dolphins and porpoises were high compared with parks in the US and Europe, although Ocean Park said they were no worse than in the wild. The attacks were, thankfully, minor and there was no suggestion of a systemic problem. Wild animals in captivity can behave unpredictably. The park's redevelopment has led to many improvements that should enhance safety and the care of its animals.

That said, the Florida tragedy is a reminder of the dangers to man and animals alike of keeping them in artificial environments. For the sake of public confidence in a successful tourist and educational attraction, Ocean Park and the government should consider calls by critics for independent oversight of its treatment of animals, and to be transparent about animal deaths and the causes.