The Show Must Go On: orcas back on at SeaWorld
Hey, it's prime vacation season, and nothing the kiddies like better than a killer killer whale show.
So, on Saturday, not even a week after Tilikum, the alpha Shamu at SeaWorld's Orlando branch, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, the orcas were back doing what they do best. I mean doing what they do best in captivity. Which is perform.
What they do best in the wild is hang around in social groups, vocalize, and travel up to 100 miles per day. All that socializing, vocalizing, and traveling works up a hearty appetite, so a lot of what orcas to in the wild is kill to eat. But their appetite does not, it seems, run to humans. The only recorded orca on human killings have occurred in aquatic theme parks.
With the death of Brancheau, three of those killings have involved Tilikum, making him, according to my brother-in-law Rick, the Amy Bishop of orcas. Which is probably not a fair characterization of Tilikum, who, unlike the ultra-nutty professor, is not likely suffering from severe personality disorder. Instead, he's just doing what comes naturally in the unnatural setting that he's found himself in.
Brancheau apparently let her guard down for a sec, and the next (and last) thing she knew, Tilikum had her by the ponytail, and had dragged her under. Branchea was no match for 12,000 pounds of wild animal, and it matters not whether he was being aggressive and in a foul mood, or whether he just thought they were playing. On one level, this must have been a terrible way to die - in what had to have been a complete panic. On the other hand, Brancheau was a dedicated pro, and by all accounts doing work that she loved.
As a result of Brancheau's death, some changes will be made at SeaWorld. VIPs will no longer get to go up close and personal with the orcas. (Wonder who those VIPs were? There's certainly a few I can think of who likely deserved death-by-orca more than Brancheau did.) Procedures will be reviewed (likely, there'll be no more long, dangling ponytails allowed). As for the miscreant himself:
[SeaWorld President Jim] Atchison says Tilikum will remain an "active, contributing member of the team" at SeaWorld. (Source: CBS/WBZ-TV News.)
They will continue to use him for breeding purposes, and will not isolate him from his social group - the seven other show orcas who perform tricks and stunts in a confined space. A far cry from the normal life they'd lead, roaming the oceans looking for seals and sharks to feed on.
Predictably, screechers are hollering for Tilikum to be put down, or freed.
Put down seems pretty harsh. While Tilikum is the alpha male at SeaWorld, he's not a stone-cold killer, attacking trainers right and left. And freeing him wouldn't actually be doing him a favor, given he's spent 30+ years away from home.
Orcas, part of the dolphin family, are highly sentient and social creatures, perhaps even a tad wussy by modern human standards: the northern Pacific types spend their entire lives with their mothers. (Awwwww....)
While this would drive most sentient and social humans batty, we're not orcas. And orcas, like other wild creatures, deserve to live their own lives. Which is why sentient humans, for the most part, stopped dragooning them from the deep seas quite a while back. A good proportion of those currently "on display" in SeaWorld type parks around the world were born in captivity. Not that being born in captivity makes for a better life for these poor things:
Killer whales in captivity often develop pathologies, such as the dorsal fin collapse seen in 60–90% of captive males. Captive killer whales have vastly reduced life expectancies, on average only living into their 20s, though there are examples of killer whales living longer, including several over 30 years old...In the wild, female killer whales can live to be 70–80 years old (though this is a rare occurrence, and 50 years is the average lifespan expected for those who survive infancy), while males can live to be 50–60 years old (while 30 years is the average).The captive environment usually bears little resemblance to their wild habitat, and the social groups that the killer whales are put into are foreign to those found in the wild. Critics claim that captive life is stressful due to small tanks, false social groupings and chemically altered water. (Source: Wikipedia.)
I would imagine so.
Which all suggests that it might be more than a little unfair for us to force these and other critters into weird and unnatural living arrangements for our pleasure.
I know that zoos and aquaria have, over the years, made habitats for their captives more "natural-like", healthier, and more stimulating that the prison cells of yore. (No wonder the great apes of my early-childhood zoo visits were always spitting and hurling feces. Who wouldn't?) And I know that they perform a vital function in the preservation of species that the human need for lebensraum, and the attendant environmental depredation, have put in such jeopardy.
But, much as I like to watch the polar bears in the Central Park Zoo, can't we satisfy our desire to learn about those who branched off the evolutionary tree in such myriad different and interesting ways be satisfied by watching films of them in nature.
I'm no PETA-ite.
I eat meat. I've been a zoo patron. I like to watch the cavorting seals in the tiny outdoor tank at the New England Aquarium. I am fascinated by attempts to communicate with apes via sign language. I love dogs, and give thanks to the first human who decided to take a chance on domesticating a wolf.
But this very sad death of a Dawn Brancheau has got me thinking about what our relationship should be the other species with which (or whom) we co-habit the earth - especially with those with the high degree of sentience and community that the orcas exhibit.
Rattling around in the file cabinets of my brain, there's a jingle that ends "and always remember the killer whale Shamu." I have no idea whether this comes from an old TV show, a movie, or ancient ads for SeaWorld.
Some of the other words I remember are:
Live and let live, let nature be your teacher.
Respect the life of each and every creature.
Just how respectful is it to confine creatures used to zipping around the ocean, up to 100 miles a day, in a pool where they can barely, if metaphorically, stretch out their legs?
But there's a lot of money at stake in this enterprise. Tickets to SeaWorld aren't cheap. The ads they run feature killer whales. And, now that we've got those orcas, what else are we going to do with them?
So I suppose it's not surprising that the SeaWorld show must go on.