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Commentary: Should People Play With Wild Animals?

Al Neuharth is founder of USA TODAY.

SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau's funeral in Chicago this week and her killing by a whale last week at SeaWorld in Orlando keep getting strong reactions about animal-people relationships.

Some critics think the killer whale, Tilikum, should be put back to sea. That's probably unrealistic, although the movie Free Willy (1993) makes a pretty good case for releasing orcas back into the wild.

Some even suggest the killer whale should be put to death. That would be cruel and inhumane.

Most animal advocates think wild creatures should remain in their natural habitat, with human contact only if that will help in emergencies. That's good.

Most animal lovers enjoy having a variety of domestic (tame) animals as members of their family in their homes. That's good.

Most also enjoy observing animals, in zoos, including those who are dangerous and properly caged. That's good.

But too many people are willing to spend money to watch wild animals play games with people in environments that aren't as safe as they are advertised to be, a la SeaWorld. That's bad.

In our home, with six pre-teen and teenage children, we have these animals:

- Three dogs.

- Two cats.

- Two birds (a parrot and a parakeet).

- More than two dozen fish, ranging from goldfish to several foot-long Japanese koi.

Our kids enjoy playing with them all, feeding and taking care of them, showing them off to their friends.

They also love the local zoo. Two of them have done volunteer work there. That's helped them know and understand the difference between tamed and wild animals.

They've been to SeaWorld and enjoyed it. But I wouldn't want any of them to make a career of swimming with whales or cavorting with caged animals.


"SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and releases more marine animals than anyone in the world, donates millions to conservation and educates 12 million guests each year."

- Jim Atchison, chief executive officer, SeaWorld Parks&Entertainment

"Captivity is life imprisonment for highly intelligent animals like orcas. The best way to honor wild animals is to allow them to remain in their natural habitats."

- Stephen Wells, executive director, Animal Legal Defense Fund

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