The killer whale killing of this last Wednesday has received a lot press. Video footage of the trainer’s shocking death has gone viral, which hackers have used as a vehicle to spread actual viruses. This has aroused as much righteous indignation as the prurience which motivates millions of hits on videos of a violent end. The killer whale show is slated to resume, Seaworld CEO Jim Atchinson announced on Friday, but without any “in-water interaction” until 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau’s death has been thoroughly investigated.
Reminiscent of Roy’s (of Sigfried and Roy) debacle in 2003, it bears remembering that this whale does have the word “killer” in its name. Even with creatures less overtly predatory, keeping huge animals confined for an audience’s thrills is an obvious problem. Though Sea World does not plan to kill Tilikum (the whale responsible for Brancheau’s death, as well as two others), neither do they have any plans to “Free Tili.”
The only surprise here is that we are still shocked each time wild animals, expected to perform like clockwork, don’t. In both the case of Roy’s slow recovery and Dawn’s legacy, the possibility that “the show will go on” is touted as a triumph of the human spirit, though it could equally be seen as a continued colonization of the animal spirit, and a lesson consistently disregarded.
Why these shows attract audiences is the first place is a good question. It is undeniable that they are astonishingly popular. Siegfried and Roy were Las Vegas superstars, and Shamu has merited a theme park. The majesty of wild animals is something we feel viscerally. Their elusiveness and their strength mesmerize. It is unsurprising that we like it when animals do tricks. Astonishing feats and entertaining shows will always attract an audience, and this is especially true when they are performed by animals without apparent higher cognitive abilities. But these are no dog and pony shows. The unique cocktail of awe at the majesty and power of large, undomesticated animals and the razzle-dazzle of watching them jump through hoops has made a great deal of money for those with the wherewithal to combine them. It is as if we are trying to reenact the spectacle of King Kong with live animals, from the comfort and safety of bleacher seats.
There will never cease to be a demand for entertainment. Particularly the entertainment of watching human beings make animals above them on the food chain do tricks for fish, or a pat on the head. It is a high wire act: breathtaking in the feat it accomplishes, always in the face of real and imminent danger. But when the danger is real because the wildness of an animal is real (and something enforced generationaly, cannot be trained out in a single animal’s lifespan), then it seems that the endangerment of life and of quality of life is not just a risk for the trainer. In the wake of Dawn’s death, her family and coworkers can take comfort in the fact that “she loved her job and was well aware of its dangers.” The same cannot be confidently ventured for the whale. ‘