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In 2010, there was a tragic accident at the SeaWorld in Orlando. For many years, aquariums have kept killer whales, or orcas, captive for entertainment, and bred them for many generations. They took them from the water, separated them from their pod and family, and kept them in captivity until they died. This is a poor choice for aquariums looking for entertainment, since orcas are at the top of the ocean food chain. 

A 40-year-old trainer, Dawn, was the star at SeaWorld. She took care of a 5-ton orca, Tilikum. Big animals never do well in captivity, and they tend to strike back. Tilikum killed two other people before Dawn, a trainer and a homeless man. Dawn knew that what she did was dangerous, but she never thought that something bad would happen to her. At a show in SeaWorld, Dawn laid down next to Tilikum on a shallow part of the tank. According to further evidence, Dawn’s ponytail got wedged into Tilikum’s mouth. Acting on pure instinct, Tilikum pulled Dawn into the water. Orcas are known to play with their food before they kill and eat them, which is exactly what happened. Dawn was not only drowned, but her left arm was torn from its socket. Dawn was also scalped, with her hair and skin found at the bottom of the pool. Horrifically, her spinal cord was severed, and she also suffered from broken ribs and a broken jaw; a post-mortem revealed she died from both drowning and blunt force injury

Dawn’s death sparked some changes. There was a documentary made about the orca entertainment program at SeaWorld, called Blackfish, that raised attention to Dawn’s death and the mistreatment of orcas in captivity. There was also a lawsuit and government investigation into SeaWorld’s practices. As a result, SeaWorld has now stopped its orca breeding program. However, SeaWorld could not release its remaining four orcas because they lived their whole lives in captivity, and it would be cruel to put them back into the ocean. So, these orcas continue to perform, although they are given more flexibility in current shows. For example, if they don’t want to come out, they are not forced to, and they get fish as treats no matter if they perform tricks or not. When these four orcas die of natural causes, SeaWorld does not plan to obtain any more orcas.

I think that this episode proves a point for marine biology, which is that, if we had not held animals captive to perform tricks, the tragedy could have been avoided. However, we can make change out of tragedy, like stopping animals from being held to perform tricks.

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