Working with large animals

I should say “larger animals,” humans being large animals relative to some… just not to these.

Reid forwarded this LAT story on a California state review of SeaWorld’s orca show, recently in the news for the near-drowning of a trainer by a whale during a live performance. From the story:

The report, released Tuesday, follows an investigation into a Nov. 29 incident in which Kasatka, a 7,000-pound, 17-foot-long female, dragged her trainer underwater in front of hundreds of horrified spectators at Shamu Stadium.

SeaWorld officials branded the report’s findings “highly speculative and not supported by scientific fact” and met Thursday with the Cal/OSHA district manager to ask him to withdraw or modify the report.

Working with animals large enough to casually kill you bears some risk. Nonetheless, people have been managing the feat for thousands of years, accepting and mitigating the danger through careful study, mentorship and lifetimes of practice.

Performing animals are not new, but working animals have probably been in use for much longer in hunting, agriculture, construction and warfare. Effective large animal husbandry–the care and training of horses, mules, cattle, other stock–was common knowledge among rural Americans well into the 20th century. Ask your father or your grandfather. The general ignorance of working animal relationships, their benefits and dangers, is a new trend.

We’ve been at this so long as a specie, it shouldn’t surprise us that most children, given the chance, take fearlessly to handling and working with animals. My kids press their faces into my hawk’s feathers (he preens their hair) and wrangle neighborhood dogs that would give me pause. And Reid remembers one assertive young horsewoman, his daughter Lauren:

“I was never really exposed to the barn-side of dealing with horses until we moved to Tehachapi and started having them live in the backyard…I’ll never forget the first time I saw my 12 year old, 85 pound little girl yelling at a horse, yanking on its lead, and slapping it to get it to do what she wanted. And it absolutely obeyed. Lauren never had any ‘self esteem’ or ’empowerment’ issues. I figure if a little girl knows she can make a critter 20 times her weight do what she she wants, she understands she can control most anything else in her life.”

This is the education American kids once took for granted. We learned young to behave responsibly and assertively toward animals large and small, wild and tame. Now, more often, we teach our kids simply to be afraid.

Reid asked our friend Rebecca, a professional animal trainer and consultant, for her take on the SeaWorld incident. Rebecca’s answer suggests that healthy respect–not fear–and honest risk assessment are in order:

“Well, it’s only a matter of time before a large carnivore in a show setting kills someone or at least attempts to. That is why most zoos are no longer ‘free contact’ in dealing with large animals. I am quite certain that some of the birds I’ve worked with would have killed me if they had just only been big enough….This is why I don’t work with animals that I couldn’t take in a fair fight.”

But, she adds, “If animal trainers want to take the risk I say, ‘Viva le Natural Selection!'”

I can’t help but to keep bringing this post around to some larger theme. Maybe it’s a stretch. But there is a clear benefit and present need in this country for honest risk assessment, for knowing when to be humble and when assertive. For knowing who you can take in a fight. Our schools don’t teach these lessons. We learn them at home, first and as a matter of course with our animals.

I consider this as certain pressure groups work to limit everyone’s opportunity to own, train, care for and learn from animals; and as urban policy makers comply out of their own fears and lack of experience; and as fewer kids raise chickens, train horses, breed dogs, feed hogs, hunt or even visit Shamu.

More Zumbo

My first thought: “I can’t afford to comment here lest Steve lose points by association with the likes of me.”

Second thought: “Steve is in no danger of losing credibility in the gun club.”

Third thought: “Maybe this Zumbo guy had the same thought?”

I don’t hunt with a gun. I own two: both .22s (a rifle and a pistol); both hand-me-downs from great-grandfather and grandfather, respectively. I killed a squirrel with the rifle once. That is the extent of my firearms experience.

Yet I hunt about 90 days a season (with hawk and dog), and I have opinions about it.

I have to say, I dislike the idea of a military gun as a hunting weapon. Why is that so out of line? Hunting is not war. War has a very specific purpose and needs its own tools. If you face multiple human attackers, each with his own weapon, you need the right tool for that. Thankfully, these are available. (…And if there is anyone of any political stripe who claims there is no legitimate need for effective personal defense from multiple armed attackers, I refer you to any homeowner in post-Katrina New Orleans. Obviously, other examples are available.)

And yet, again, hunting is not warfare. Hunting is accused of being a lot of different evils, but ‘a metaphor for war’ is one I always hated (notwithstanding Harry McElroy’s “war on quail,” which tickles me). No one who works that particular angle has ever been hunting, or at least, hunting for real. The lampooning of hunters as square-jawed paramilitaries makes a good cartoon, but it bears little similarity to actual people who hunt. I’ll submit my own weak jaw (and cammo-free wardrobe) as evidence.

If Mr. Zumbo, in a moment of probably unwise light speed communication, expressed his opinion that military weapons seem out of place on a hunt, he did nothing more than state what many hunters would find obvious. Why cannot an adult at (…luckily) retirement age not make this perfectly defensible observation?

Well, as I said, I don’t hunt with a gun. So I was surprised by the reaction Zumbo received. But my question stands: Why should one man’s opinion about proper hunting tools be interpreted to say anything about his views on tools of war or self defense? For all we know (and this seems the case), Zumbo supports everyone’s right to own whatever sort of gun they want.

He was stating, essentially, an artistic opinion. Right?

I sent Steve an email with this question. Steve knows I am ignorant of guns and gun issues generally, and he is a natural teacher. He wrote back:

“It’s definitional. There are some guns based on the American military ‘platform’ that are pure, high- tech, rather expensive hunter’s guns (AR varmint-style heavy-barreled .223’s– things poor ignorant Zumbo didn’t know existed). There also are poor people all over the world who use SKS’s (old Soviet rifles from before the AK, less “machine gun” looking) because they are cheap and the widely available old 7.63 X 39 cartridge is a passable deer round (similar ballistics to .30- 30). I own one myself as a backup to my pretty classic rifles– and 1000 rounds of cheap ammo. Several of the Russian nomad photo- anthropology books show tribal folks with them (an added draw for me)


Yukaghir hunter with SKS in the Siberian taiga (from The Peoples of the Great North)
Steve’s Russian SKS– a useful tool, like the axe…
“The main thing that antis hate is that they are ‘semiauto’, a new swear word (heard it recently on Cold Case– Dad’s eevil semiautos made his kid a Columbine- style spree killer)– which means simply that you don’t work a bolt between shots. So?? THEY ARE NOT MACHINE GUNS.

“SOME mil-spec semiautos are not accurate– mil. configuration AK’s for instance. Therefore, nobody hunts with them. Even in that case, Saiga of Russia made a reasonable hunting- style version.

“Antis don’t like these (so- called) ‘assault rifles’ because they look scary. Snob hunters because they are ‘Non-U’ (look it up) and CHEAP. Poor people can afford them, people ‘not like us’. It is a non-issue, with most people (as usual) uninformed and talking past each other.”