Sea World Killer Whale Kills Trainer

Feb 26 2010

Unfortunately, the smallest mistake when dealing with wild animals can turn deadly. It appears that this is what happened on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. Dawn Brancheau, a 40 year old veteran marine animal trainer was finishing a training session with Tillikum, a 12,000 lb. Killer Whale, when she was pulled under the water by her ponytail. Accounts are varied, but it appears that she broke protocol by laying on the ramp rather than standing on it. A small detail, but one that likely triggered the tragedy. The prevailing theory by fellow trainers is that she was laying in the water rubbing the whale’s chin as a reward when her ponytail floated near Tillikum’s mouth. It is likely that the Orca instinctively grabbed the ponytail thinking it was food and the ensuing thrashing kicked in his prey drive further.

Creating a bond with an animal is a magical thing. To do so with a wild animal must be even more exciting. When you have created such a strong bond with an animal, it can be alluring to bend the rules ever so slightly. Her desire to show the whale how pleased she was with his performance likely made her let her guard down and made her forget about her loose ponytail. Though I did not know her personally, I know the dedication and level of skill required to obtain a position as a whale trainer at Sea World. I strongly considered taking this path when I was an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. Several hundred people vie for a job as a trainer at Sea World every year. These are one of the most coveted positions by animal trainers, and therefore, only go to the best of the best. I am sure she deserved that title and this was simply an accident. A simple mistake, a devastating tragedy. My heart goes out to Dawn Brancheau’s family as well as her Sea World family.

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To Play or Not to Play…

Feb 23 2010

When is play too rough? How can you tell the difference between bullying and play? Dogs play mildly imitates dogs fighting. Dogs give very clear indicators to each other when their intentions are aggressive, but we misinterpret or completely miss these signals very often. Some of the most common misread signals are piloerection (raising of the hackles along the back), neck biting and growling. People often think these are instant signals of aggression. Unfortunately, they can be both play or aggression. The best way to discern the intent of a dog is to observe the overall tension of the dog. Is the dog stiff, rigid, leaning forward with locked knees standing as tall as possible? If so, walk away! However, if the dog is loose, wiggly, bouncing around erratically, their motivation is to play!

I took a couple videos from daycare to illustrate these points.  This first video shows Miley, the Havanese, and Luke, the Chihuahua Terrier mix, engaging in a fair and balanced play where each dog initiates play after a quick pause. Luke displays a behavior that is very informative about his state of mind. He places his head and chin over Miley’s shoulders. This is a sign of assertiveness. If the display is quick, as in the video, there is no need for concern.  However if the display is more forceful and prolonged, intervention is necessary!

In this second video Mitch, the beagle, has his hackles raised and Ziggy, the miniature schnauzer, tackles Mitch to the ground and chews vigorously on his neck while growling.  This can appear to be aggressive, but look at their body tension. Mitch freezes for a second and then makes a large, exaggerated movement into a play bow. This is a solicitation to play. Mitch’s hackle raising is simply a sign of excitement, the neck biting, a very gentle, benign play style and the growling, a soft communication of play. Because their play is very vigorous, it is important to require that the pups disengage for short breaks often so that levels do not escalate into frustration, similar to children when they get too aroused!

As you can see,  it can be difficult to interpret the dogs signals unless you look at the overall context.  Each element in and of themselves can have multiple meanings.  The combination of signals is what provides the full story of what the dogs are communicating.

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