Disturbingly recent exceptions aside, civilized nations now agree that burning fellow human beings at the stake, torturing them or enslaving them is inhuman. The day will come when civilized nations will agree that imprisoning wild animals in zoos, whipping them about in circus acts from city to city or forcing them to do tricks for our amusement in such places as SeaWorld, Marineland and Epcot is as cruel to the animals as it is lewd of the people watching them.
That day is far off, no doubt. Pulling profits and emoting power over weaker creatures, vicariously enjoyed by those audiences that delight in the safe splashing of a killer whale or the harmlessness of a caged animal, are strong impulses. Too strong to be outdone by notions of rights for beasts that don't speak English or pay taxes.
Until then, handlers of animals forced into unnatural situations will continue to die, as SeaWorld's Dawn Brancheau did in February when a killer whale dragged her underwater after turning the tables and making her its plaything. I keep reading references to Brancheau's death as "tragic." What lazy news writers mean is that her death was sad, unfortunate, avoidable and, from the spectators' (but not the whale's) perspective, lurid, as it was for SeaWorld's PR.
Brancheau's death was foretold. Besides practicing drills by coaching their prisoners to follow a script, trainers like her practice not getting killed for a reason. They presume at every moment to outwit a predator's instincts. They can't outwit the law of averages. For a brief moment, the whale that killed Brancheau went off script. It acted in character. Mauling her might have been the most natural thing the whale had done in years. If it's an education spectators wanted, they finally got an authentic one.
I don't mind the work with animals of people like the late Steve Irwin, the Australian of "Crocodile Hunter" fame killed by a stingray in 2006. Irwin had his moments of cruelty when he wanted to prove that he could best a beast bigger, bitier or faster than him. But mostly he worked on the animals' turf, on their terms. He did not rearrange their nature for our amusement. He risked his life to show us how wild these animals are, and how freely noble and untamable they should remain.
This isn't to argue against domestication or even the slaughtering of animals. We are animals and predators. But domesticating an animal for help or companionship and certainly killing an animal for sustenance will always be more morally defensible than taming one for entertainment...
You can not tame an animal the size of a T. rex and almost as smart as you are. Intimidate them, yes, especially since their requirements incapacitate them in your world. Orcas in their own environment pose no danger to humans- when's the last time you heard of an attack on kayakers in Puget Sound? Never.
But as poodles? Killer whales are big, beautiful, intelligent and harmless predators unless you're salmon or a sea lion. He didn't eat her. The whale was simply showing the trainer who was the boss.