Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Sled Dog, And A Whale...An Animal Journal for Thursday

Animals figured prominently in today's news, bearing witness to the indisputable beauty and tragedy of nature.

My favorite segment on last evening's Olympic Games (and re-broadcast on this morning's Today Show) was a feature about Isobel, a nine-year-old Siberian Husky-malamute mix.  Isobel was a sled dog who lived to run, and who went blind several years ago.  Her retinas detached sometime during a race, the possible result of a virus.  Isobel's veterinarian told her owners, Gerald Azure and Jenafor Ollander, that she may never again be able to work as a sled dog.  They tried to keep her indoors and make her life comfortable away from the sled, but Isobel, deprived of her passion, became derpressed, and stopped eating and drinking. 

Soon, they allowed Isobel to run again with her pack, placing her in the sled team to compete once more.  Isobel came alive once again in the company of the pack members she loved.  Now, years later, Isobel will retire.  Watch her inspiring story in the following video...

My first dog when I was a small child was Bonnie,  a lovely Collie-Shepherd puppy that I will never foget.  She was so easy to train.  When we let her outside she found her spot, and then ran back inside.  At the word "treat",  she would scamper to the kitchen cabinet and sit up for a biscuit. 

Not yet a year old, her eyes quickly glazed over until they were completely blue.  Bonnie had gone blind.  I thought of Bonnie while I watched Isobel's story.  Many people at the time believed that it was cruel to keep a blind dog, and recommended that Bonnie be put down.  Even though, sightless, she could still find her spot, and still beg next to the cabinet for a treat, we eventually took her in to the vet for her final sleep.....

Since then I have known and cared for blind dogs.  Isobel's story produced in me the same guilt and uncertainty I felt for years after Bonnie entered and then quietly left my life.  At the same time, I was warmed by the beauty of Isobel's triumph, which alleviated my characteristic annual Winter Blues considerably. 

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Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer who understood the dangers of her job, was killed by a killer whale at the SeaWorld Shamu Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday. (Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel/Associated Press)

The news about the death of a veteran trainer at Sea World while working with a Tillikum, a Killer Whale, unsettled me.  I could not pin down my thoughts, which spun wildly from one assumption to another. I will try my best to organize my thoughts, and feelings, here....

We call them Killer Whales because they are fearsome, maybe to give ourselves a sense of accomplishment or dominance at having tamed a beast, maybe to exploit our fears of---and our thirst for---danger.  Then, when the ultimate danger occurs, we become indignant, or don't understand...

There were many calls to release the whale, or put it to death.  I cannot be sure but I suspect the whale did not act out of viciousness.   It was a horrible mistake.  The whale was behaving according to its nature.  Sea World officials will not turn Tillikum loose because it can no longer survive on its own in the wild; and it will not euthanize the whale because it is part of the community of whales at Sea World.

I agree with the decision of the Sea World staff.  I think of one of the dogs at the Buddy Foundation, Harley, a solid brown pit bull, who, through the carelessness of one of the volunteers, began to fight with another dog.  Another volunteer, trying to untangle the dogs, was bitten, and required 25 stitches.

Many would advocate euthanizing the dog.  But the dog acted according to blind instinct.  Harley and Tillikum alike are sheltered in their respective homes.  We could not turn Harley loose to fend for himself.  He cannot be adopted either, so the shelter is the only home he will have. 

At Sea World, the orca shows will be suspended in order to re-evaluate their safety and practicality. I support this too.  Killer Whales should be studied in safe and controlled environments, and it serves litttle purpose to exploit them by teaching them unnatural tricks for human entertainment.  I would feel the same about making Harley the main attraction in a show featuring dog tricks.....

I feel so sorry for the trainer who lost her life.... And at the same time I cannot see placing any burden of responsibility on the creature who caused the death.

1 comment:

  1. The story about the blind sled dog was very cool and I think is a testament to the fact that having a disability does not mean you are incapable of having a happy, full life. Thanks for sharing!

    As for the incident with the killer whale, it is a very sad story and I feel for the family of the trainer, but I am not surprised that this type of thing would happen. As more zoos, TV shows, circuses and animal theme parks (and let's not forget Las Vegas magic acts!) use these deadly animals, even if they are using them with kindly motives such as raising awareness or as education of an endangered species, for instance, these types of situations will arise because you can't always tell how an animal will react at any given moment. It's not the animal's fault if he is just doing what his instincts direct him to do. It's the people's fault for putting themselves in that situation in the first place. Really great post, Tom!