People behaving badly, animals playing nice

Sharks and killer whales and manatees behave kindly to the clueless creatures seeking close encounters of the wild kind. Yes, swimming with sharks for tourists, when even knuckleheads somehow survive. But how close is too close? The people shown here all got too close, one tried to get his dog too close to wildlife. They were lucky no one got hurt. We are glad that the old myths of predatory animals as monsters is fading away; but animals aren’t plush toys.  Whether it’s wildlife, or the cutest pony ever who can rip a finger off thinking it’s a carrot, respect their personal space — and  your own.

Riding the mola in Mexico

Mola gets his back scratched, rider gets barnacle burn

The friendly mola live in Southern California/Baja California waters, feeding on jellyfish. They get lots of parasites on top and look for opportunities to scratch them off.  This rider might make a good scrubber, which is not meant to encourage such stunts, but in this particular case, this mola came back to the boat for more scratching. The mola are harmed by plastic bags, so pack your trash, writes Matt G on youtube.

Watch the mola rider video on youtube.

Dog and killer whales

Thumbs up to: Scott de Jongh, the crayfish diver who climbs on the rocks when spotting orcas and the dog who gets out of the water, then turns around to watch from safety of the beach.

Scott DeJongh in New Zealand gets out. Orca checks out dog.

Diver seeks the safety of the rocks when curious orcas approach

Behaving badly: The dog owner who throws a stick to see how dog deals with killer whales. Orca expert Dr Ingrid Visser said it was common for New Zealand orca to approach the shore to hunt for sting-ray.

Dog swims to the shore before turning to see what's in the water

Dog swims to the shore before turning to see what’s in the water

Watch the video here,  filmed by Deonette De Jongh, Matheson Bay, Leigh, New Zealand

Source: New Zealand Herald

Woman rides manatee in Florida

Woman catches a ride on a manatee. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Photo: Steve Leach

Woman catches a ride on a manatee. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Photo: Steve Leach

Photographer Steve Leach was getting a lemonade at Gulf Pier, near Ford DeSoto Park near Tampa Bay, FL when he noticed three manatees in the water. Then:

To my total shock this lady decided to go over and set on their back, followed quickly by flopping down on its back to ride it!
With people screaming at her to stop, I was taking photos and screaming at her to stop.
These photos were provided to the sheriffs office upon request to help catch her.

Manatees are endangered and get stressed easily. Whit his photos going viral, Steve Leach hopes they’ll help educate people to admire animals from a respectful distance.

Sources: Steve Leach photos, SFGate, Oct.3,2012

Too much love?

Florida: too much love, too little space

Florida: too much love, too little space

Manatees come to Crystal River Springs, FL, to find refuge in winter.  Manatees are endangered by too many boats, climate change, loss of habitat and all the other usual suspects. But what about too much love?  When over-ethusiastic tourists get too close, stressed manatees stampede.  But there’s nowhere else to go. They come back seeking rest, only to be exposed to more harassment. “Conservation photographer Cristina Mittermeier points out that the “love” we have for manatees is also a source of trouble for the species,” writes TreeHugger.  Mittermeier and fellow photographer Neil Ever Osborne made a time-lapse video showing how too many people get too close during a day.

Sources: Manatees Timelapse from Sea Legacy, TreeHugger

Man taunts bison, lucky to walk away

Man taunts bison, Antelope Island. UT Photo: Wayne Ebenroth, Final Kick Events

Man taunts bison, gets pinned against fence, Antelope Island. UT Photo: Wayne Ebenroth, Final Kick Events

“That’s 1,500 pounds of meat on the hoof,” said Antelope Island Buffalo Run organizer Jim Skaggs.

Yet the animal’s power was not enough to demand respect from one visitor who got too close, then threw rocks to get the bison’s attention.  He did get his attention.

Photographer Wayne Ebenroth happened to be there, “to cheer on and take pictures of his wife in the Antelope Island Buffalo Run. He started taking photos when he saw a few people in close proximity to the bison. He kept photographing the interaction until the man was pinned against the fence.”

Runners held races on the island for eight years, and usually the buffalo just get out of the way. cites advice on what to do if you encounter bison:

While bison are not usually aggressive, they are unpredictable and can become dangerous. Please use caution and observe the following safety tips should you encounter a bison in the wild:

  • If you encounter bison along the roadway, drive slowly and they will eventually move. Do not honk, become impatient or proceed too quickly.
  • Bison may spook if you get out of your vehicle. Therefore, remain inside or stay very close.
  • Never try to chase or scare bison away. It is best to just cautiously walk away.
  • Always try to stay a minimum of 100 meters (approximately the size of a football field) from the bison.

Sources:, Mar 27, 2013, via gawker

Please do no hug the sharks

Just as I am finishing this post, I notice today’s headline in Slate’s new Wild Things blog, Dawn Williams’ story about “The latest terrible trend: People riding sharks.” Grant Murdock, who is from California, filmed his friend catching a ride in Bora-Bora. The video is no longer on youtube, but you can see it here.

In Bora-Bora, hugging sharks.  Would you hug human strangers just like that out of the blue?

In Bora-Bora, hugging sharks. Would you hug human strangers as a tourist, just like that out of the blue?

Lemon sharks can be a threat to humans, but humans are a bigger threat to lemon sharks, killed for shark fin soup, or for their leather, or as bycatch. They are listed as Near-Threatened on IUCN.

The International Shark Attack File has only reported 10 unprovoked bites by lemon sharks, all of which occurred in Florida and the Caribbean. None of the bites were fatal. Lemon sharks do well in captivity and experiments on lemon sharks have shown they learn as quickly as some mammals and remember things for at least 6 months without reinforcement.

Question is, what would cause a normally-peaceful lemon shark to attack? I don’t need an expert to tell me that the best way to swim with the sharks safely is to be an expert. I first man to swim with sharks I remember seeing on TV was a British diver named Nigel, who could control his own body language underwater so as not to appear as prey to the sharks. In recent years, striving to save the endangered and much-maligned sharks, experts have shown us that the predators are not the indiscriminate attackers portrayed in horror movies. From Slate:

Ocean RamseyKimi Werner, and Lesley Rochat are three of the better-known conservationists who have been depicted riding large tiger and great white sharks. Whether you agree with their tactics or not, the sight of these petite women holding onto the dorsal fins of large apex predators, often two to three times their own size, are absolutely extraordinary and thought-provoking.

These interactions are calculated. These conservationists have many years of experience dealing with sharks, and they have a level of comfort around sharks that most people do not. They did not engage in this activity without preparation, and they acknowledge that there are risks involved.”

We’ve also seen wolf experts in proximity of wolves and lion experts approach wild lions. On the other hand, people who are unfamiliar with animals can get hurt by walking among domestic horses or cows. Inexperienced people need to learn a few basics before wandering among domestic herds, same as approaching any unfamiliar species. For instance, a basic rule is do not hand-feed treats. I’ve seen too many close calls with people unable to predict the dangers of being among boisterous horses.  I’ve also observed dangerous situations happen when horses learn to be pushy (not mindful of a human’s personal space.)  Teaching animals that it’s ok to get very close to humans makes us too vulnerable — even if an animal means no harm and wants to play.  If animals hurt us, usually it ends badly for them.

And now we have inexperienced knuckleheads swimming with sharks?!  I mean, great … but when an accident will happen (and it will) it will be sad for all … but the consequences for the animals, already endangered, are dire. And what happens to people who harass wildlife?  Hopefully, they remain unharmed.  Many places have laws regulating interactions. Two guys who jumped on a manatee from a bridge in May 2013 are facing fines up to $50,000. The woman who rode the manatee argued she did not know it was causing any harm and may just get a warning.


SeaWorld vs. Occupational Safety

When animal trainers die on the job, sadness means taking steps to prevent future wrecks. But who is responsible for safety rules? Should the government decide?

Dawn Brancheau, Orlando Sentinel file photo

Dawn Brancheau, a killer whale trainer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park, died during a live performance on Feb. 24, 2010, when a 29-year-old killer whale grabbed her ponytail and pulled her underwater. This tragic accident happened even though SeaWorld was already restricting trainers from swimming with Tilikum, a male who had hurt two trainers and a trespasser.

Now OSHA ruled that trainers at SeaWorld must not touch or swim with any whales, except for medical management. Judge Ken Welsch, an administrative law judge for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, upheld the safety citations issued against SeaWorld. Are images like this relegated to history?

SeaWorld, Dawn Brancheau and Shamu in 1998

Will the future look like this?

Kelly Flaherty Clark, left, the director of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando, and Joe Sanchez, a trainer, worked with killer whales Tilikum, right, and Trua at the theme park in Orlando, Fla. last year.

I’m not disputing the necessity of government oversight for for employment and improvements, for instance SeaWorld will install pool floors which can lift the whales out of the water in an emergency. But is OSHA’s decision too strict? What else will it stifle – not only entertainment, but our learning about the captive animals in our care? Scientists and photographers observing wild animals in the wild? People swimming with wild dolphins? (Not that I think mingling inexperienced people with wild animals is always a good idea.)

Does this OSHA rule mean the next time a horse trainer gets hurt, we won’t be allowed in the same pen with our horses anymore, even with horses who do not have a dangerous history?!

I’m amazed at how few fatalities were caused by animals, whether it’s trespassing on grizzlies, observing gorillas in the mists, or swimming with the killer whales. We would have never known how gentle animals can be, had we never taken the chance to find out — and this is not meant to imply it’s ok to foolishly sneak up on a moose for a snapshot nor is it an endorsement of willy-nilly feeding wildlife. It is just a sense of wonder that some of us can have a special relation with wild or captive wild animals, but it’s not mystical, getting close to animals is something we can learn. It’s about how we do what we do, and how can we do it safer, without legally restricting freedoms.

I bristle at the implication of a rule that, if extended beyond SeaWorld, could restrict close contact with animals. On the other hand, us pet and horse lovers could benefit from reminders that establishing a good relationship with our animals and teaching them to respond to our wishes can happen from behind a barrier. I find myself having to teach horse lovers when not to touch horses, how to maintain a personal safety bubble and when to avoid hand-feeding. Those of us working with animals know that letting one’s focus stray could cause an accident. This holds for our domestic animals, let alone for wild ones. Knowing when to keep a certain physical distance and how to communicate meaningfully with animals from behind a barrier is a skill horse trainers and pet owners might find useful. Many old-fashioned traditions use pain, or the threat of pain, like a sharp bit acting on horse’s sensitive lips and tongue, to accomplish a relatively unsophisticated training step like “stop.” Perhaps if we practiced a “move/stop” command with our horses from a distance without even as much as a threat of pain for non-compliance, we would be better at reliably influencing our horses basic move/stop behaviors when adding the communication by touch that riding allows.

Sadly, one can only speculate what the victim in this accident might have wanted. Ms. Brancheau might have been pleased that Tilikum still performs, with added precautions, to crowds intrigued by the wild power he represents. You can watch a tribute here and The Dawn Brancheau Foundation continues her work on behalf of animals.

Orlando Sentinel series of articles:

For Safety, Ballet Between Human and Killer Whale Loses Some Intimacy
By Lizette Alvarez, June 7, 2012

A trainer narrowly escaped death in a 2006 incident with a whale who had a two-day old calf, from “Death at SeaWorld,” a book by David Kirby