Losing my faith on Shamu’s first weekend back on the job

For the same reason people go to a car race (to see a fiery crash) or a hockey game (bare-knuckled fight) Shamu Stadium was packed to the gills for the 12:30 p.m. show Sunday, on Shamu’s second day on the job after the unfortunate incident in which he killed his trainer. Everyone wanted to see if something would happen.

Nothing happened.

But then, if it did, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. The news would be splattered across the front page of CNN.com.

Still, for someone who’s been to numerous “Believe” shows at SeaWorld Orlando and has seen the late Dawn Brancheau perform with these magnificent creatures many times, it was interesting enough.

The show began with a brief tribute to Brancheau — a photo montage of her with her beloved whales. The audience applauded politely.

Since her death, none of the trainers have been allowed in the water with the orcas, so the show felt different. The trainers kept a safe distance from the animals. Also noticeably absent was Tilikum, the 12,000-pound whale who killed Brancheau last week. Several smaller animals took his place.

Apart from the gap between the trainers and whales, and the sidelining of Tily, the biggest difference was the audience. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief whenever a trainer came close to a whale and everything went as planned. There was a nervousness that felt a lot like watching the opening night of a Broadway show in which the leading man keeps forgetting his lines.

I’m a huge fan of SeaWorld, and particularly of the “Believe” show. My family and I have annual passes to the park, and we come back to Shamu stadium again and again.

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When this production is firing on all pistons, it’s truly amazing. Whales fly through the air, perform stunts and interact with their trainers and guests. No wonder it’s this theme park’s signature attraction.

But as I sat there watching the toned-down version of “Believe” I felt my faith slipping away. I wondered: Did Brancheau have to die?

I mean, there must be a reason they’re called killer whales. (Indeed, orcas are known to be fearsome predators and have attacked humans — and not just in the movies.)

Would we feel any differently about this incident if it happened during a shark show? Or God forbid, a piraña show?

I’m no animal rights activist, but enough is enough. I think the park’s owners need to ask themselves a few difficult questions before getting on with the show. Does it make sense to train killer whales? Is the cost worth the benefit? Should orcas be kept in captivity? Should they be performing?

Is a show like this morally defensible?

I hope SeaWorld’s new owners, private equity firm Blackstone Group, will mull those questions in the days to come. I’m not too hopeful, though. There are those who believe the very idea of a leveraged buyout like the one that handed them SeaWorld last year is itself immoral.

And what are a few whales in the grand scheme of things?

(Photo: Peter Nijenhuis/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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