Two days ago in Orlando, Florida, a trainer at Sea World was killed by an Orca named Tillikum(“Tilly,” to his friends, who probably number fewer than this time 48 hours ago). It wasn’t an accidental crushing against the wall of the tank or a slip. Rather, the trainer was standing on the platform rubbing the whale’s head after a training session, and this whale came half out of the water, grabbed her by the waist, thrashed her around, then dragged her under for his own version of a crocodile death roll. I’m just want to ask, who’s surprised?
Understandably, the incident has prompted a flurry of recriminations. The trainer’s family and friends remember how much “she loved animals”; the staff is “reviewing their security protocols” (um, what?); PETA and a half dozen other groups are saying this is a reminder how inappropriate it is to cage wild animals.
For once, and I’ll deny this if you read it back to me, I find myself on the same side of an issue as PETA. Not because I think the whales are treated cruelly. This damned behemoth is the biggest killer whale in captivity anywhere — it wasn’t on a hunger strike protesting it’s status as political prisoner. But what struck me about the news coverage was the Sea World administrator who comes on camera with, “We’re shocked, just shocked, that something like this could happen.”
Which adjective in “killer whale” sailed under the radar there, sir? Have you ever seen what they do to seals and penguins? I have to assume that you have because I notice you don’t dress your trainers up in tuxedos.
“There wasn’t anything to indicate that there was a problem,” said the administrator. Well, nothing except the whale’s involvement (along with two other whales) in the killing of a trainer in British Columbia in 1991, and the killing of a homeless man in 1999 who snuck into Sea World. There’s reporting now that they think the trainer’s ponytail annoyed the whale. Orcas might look like big waterborne panda bears, but they’re not. And if you told me that this ornery guy was putting notches in his belt, my first logical reaction would not be to strap on a wetsuit and ride him.
But people do. Undoubtedly, one of the most entertaining ignorers of animal natures in my lifetime was Steve Irwin, who paradoxically was also instrumental in illustrating animal nature for the rest of us. I’ll be honest, I watched The Crocodile Hunter waiting for the episode where he got his ass kicked. He reveled in telling you how poisonous a spider was or how strong the crocodile’s jaws were. It wasn’t shocking, just shocking, when he took a skate tail through the chest. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.
I don’t mean to be unfeeling about a woman’s death and I’ve left her anonymous out of a modicum of respect. My point is just that people don’t have enough respect for wild animals. A woman got mauled by a bear at a zoo a couple weeks ago because she snuck past a barricade and reached through the bars to pet it. People keep big cats for pets because they’re cute when they’re younger. They go swimming with sharks, for God’s sake.
And sometimes, I find myself rooting for the animals, or at least for Darwinism. If you feed a wild animal fish long enough, sooner or later you’re going to start looking like one.