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Stupid Dolphin Tricks

If you are responsible for an animal, your responsibilities include keeping the animal safe. If you are responsible for an employee, your responsibilities also include keeping that employee safe, or at least as safe as you can.

Say I run a zoo. I need to care for the welfare of the lions who live there. I also need to make sure the guy who cleans the lion enclosure gets home to his family in some condition other than “hamburger.” Simple enough: When the enclosure is cleaned, make sure the lion is elsewhere, with a physical barrier between lion and employee.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, on visiting the Miami Seaquarium, looked at the orcas and their trainers and saw lions and guys who clean the lion enclosure, respectively. Keep them apart, OSHA said.

Since 2013, the agency has required barriers between trainers and orcas, following the death of a trainer at SeaWorld several years prior. Last summer, Seaquarium received a fine for letting trainers work with the park’s orca, Lolita, without what OSHA said was sufficient protection. Though the park initially planned to appeal, it announced earlier this month that it would settle.

The problem with OSHA’s stance is that Seaquarium isn’t a zoo in the traditional sense. Arguably the orcas, and certainly the trainers, are instead working in the entertainment business. The ethical argument for banning the capture and trade of wild whales and dolphins is compelling, and I support it. But the fact remains that for animals currently in captivity, the reality of their lives often involves performing shows for crowds, participating in a much more active and direct way than zoo animals who are left largely to their own devices within their habitats.

There are some forms of entertainment work that can maybe be made safer than they otherwise would be, but can never be perfectly safe. Think of race car drivers, or professional football players, or circus performers, or Hollywood actors who specialize in stunt work. These jobs are inherently dangerous. Removing all risk from the job would erase the job itself.

We don’t tell race car drivers that there must be a physical barrier between them on the track as they race one another, or that they should race one at a time against a clock to avoid the possibility of collisions. That change would make the sport so much less entertaining that soon there would be no more professional race car drivers at all.

Or imagine the NFL said, “Enough concussions. No more tackling. From now on, we’re going to play flag football instead.” You can guess how well that would go over.

OSHA may have simply taken the wrong view of the trainer’s job, which is not merely to be the whale’s custodian, but rather to be the whale’s partner in a trapeze act of sorts. Or perhaps OSHA decided on what amounts to an animal rights agenda and, in an act it believed to be a kindness to the whales, essentially deliberately outlawed a large part of their aquatic vaudeville routine.

Some onlookers will doubtless applaud this change because they believe whales are exploited and should either be released into the wild or, at a minimum, retired to an aquatic pen. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has demanded Lolita be freed outright, and has urged people to boycott Seaquarium until she is sent to a sanctuary.

While I am strongly in favor of ending the trade in wild orcas, the idea of simply retiring those already in captivity neglects the reality that these unemployed whales will be very expensive to maintain, and that some of they probably won’t be maintained well as a result. Sadly, some might not be maintained at all, subject to neglect once they no longer attract paying visitors.

It is also entirely possible that some orcas whose only social contact comes from humans will miss that contact if deprived of it. Keiko, the animal star of the film “Free Willy,” sought out a Norwegian fjord after he was released in waters near Iceland. There, he gave rides to the local children, none of whom benefited from OSHA’s precautions. Keiko seemed to see human interaction as his gig, even when given his freedom. Lacking the company of his fellow orcas after nearly 20 years in captivity, he took what comfort he could from humans until his death.

OSHA’s decision may very well come from true concern for the well-being of both the orcas and the humans who work with them. But that doesn’t change the fact that this decision has consigned both whales and at least some of their human trainers to unemployment. For the whales that remain, they can look forward to a life in which they will be viewed swimming idly in their tanks or reduced to balancing balls and performing other stupid dolphin tricks.

Everyone may be safe, but it’s hardly a happy ending.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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