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Marvel at wild animals -- from a distance

By Chris Palmer, Special to CNN
  • Filmmaker Chris Palmer says we need to re-examine why we force wild animals to perform
  • We shouldn't be surprised when their natural attack instincts kick in, Palmer says
  • Palmer: The best way to learn about beauty of wild animals is to watch from a distance

Editor's note: Chris Palmer is the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington. He is a longtime wildlife filmmaker and author of the forthcoming "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom" (Sierra Club Books, spring 2010).

(CNN) -- I've spent more than 25 years making wildlife films, many of them about powerful and dangerous predators such as killer whales. It is easy to see that in their own environments, little prevents such creatures from yielding to their natural impulses, as they should.

Wednesday's tragic accident at SeaWorld Orlando shows that we need to reconsider keeping wild animals in captivity for our entertainment and take a hard look at our own understanding of the natural world.

The stakes have been raised for those who argue that the pros of performing animals in captivity (protection and conservation of wild animals, public education) outweigh the cons (forcing animals into confinement, risking critical or fatal human injuries).

Orcas and other large predators should not be held in captivity unless those doing so can make an overpoweringly persuasive case for it -- mainly that the animal's release into the wild, perhaps after an injury, will mean certain, immediate death.

One reason behind my conviction: The lesson too many take away from marine park shows is wild animals are like pets. Some can be trained to obey a human's command on occasion, but no matter how much they may learn to tolerate human interaction, these animals are far from tame.

Why do people forget this seemingly obvious truth? As a filmmaker, I have watched as the media, particularly the creators and broadcasters of wildlife films, have misled audiences with a distorted picture of the way nature works.

Whether with the 2003 tiger attack on Roy Horn of the illusionist act Siegfried and Roy or with Timothy Treadwell, who in the same year was attacked and eaten by grizzlies he was living among in Alaska, instinct is too powerful to allow us to predict anything about predator animals.

Marine parks with performing orcas may train them to do impressive tricks, prompting them with fish treats to indulge their natural abilities for breaching and twirling.

Video: SeaWorld whale shows resume
Video: Killer whales in captivity
Video: Kill the killer whale?

But as the late Jacques Cousteau once observed: "There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement."

I would suggest that our desire to watch anyway is part of our thwarted desire to interact with our natural world -- an impulse that we have suppressed.

We are more comfortable watching from behind the safety of a clear barricade or on TV from the comfort of our couch. Here, we see animals as people-friendly, cuddly or as menacingly violent. We anthropomorphize them as having feelings and reactions similar our own. This makes the death of 40-year-old whale trainer Dawn Brancheau surprising to us. That it doesn't happen more often is the surprise.

There is one other aspect of our modern distance from nature that I believe we should acknowledge -- it is of a piece with this discussion.

I would suggest the dark flip side of audiences flocking to benign animal shows at theme parks is the impulse to watch increasingly violent wildlife films and TV shows.

Viewers thrill to films that show wild animals mating or hunting prey, complete with gnashing fangs, ripping flesh and spilling blood. It is, after all, an adrenaline rush. And what audiences want, entertainment organizations aim to provide by going to increasingly dangerous extremes.

The aggressive tactics used to draw animals to film sites and capture unnatural scenes, such as man-made feeding frenzies, produce what some call "wildlife pornography" -- films in which animals are exploited for viewers' pleasure and funders' return on investment.

This is no more the way to appreciate and learn about wild animals' true behavior in nature than is watching orcas elegantly breach within the walls of a tank.

The best, most compassionate way for us protect, learn about and appreciate the beauty of wild animals is to watch them from a distance, but never, ever touch.

We need to leave them alone -- in the wild -- and stop interfering in their lives.