The tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed by an orca at SeaWorld Orlando February 24, has focused attention on the strange amalgam of science and showbiz offered up by the famous aquatic parks.

Brancheau, 40, was dragged underwater to her death by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale. “Killer whale,” a descriptor that has been largely replaced by the less-judgmental and more scientific name “orca,” is especially apt in the case of Tilikum, previously involved in the death of another trainer at a park in Canada and in the death of a man who apparently sneaked into Tilikum’s pool at the Orlando park after hours.

SeaWorld resumed its orca-based entertainment three days after Brancheau’s death, although trainers will not be permitted to enter the water with the animals until SeaWorld and a group of outside experts complete a review of the parks’ orca-handling procedures. Business is business, after all, and a single orca is worth something in the neighborhood of $10 million. Gotta keep those assets working.

Killer whales are difficult to catch in the wild, and so these days, aquatic parks like SeaWorld breed them in captivity. No, they don’t charge admission and let the public watch, but I figure it’s only a matter of time. But here’s the scary part: A goodly number of the killer whales that have been bred by SeaWorld and other parks carry Tilikum’s DNA. From the AP article:

Captured nearly 30 years ago off Iceland, Tilikum has grown into the alpha male of captive killer whales, his value as a stud impossible to pin down…

…And no one is better at breeding killer whales than SeaWorld. The company owns 25 of the 42 orcas in captivity, and other theme parks sometimes come to SeaWorld to get theirs…

…SeaWorld got an emergency permit to buy Tilikum and the other two whales less than a year after [an attack in which he was one of three orcas that battered and submerged a fallen trainer until she died], and he became the company’s go-to sire. Of the 20 calves born at SeaWorld parks, Tilikum has fathered 13, the company said. [Emphasis mine.]

Holy crap. This means SeaWorld has been breeding a race of serial killer whales, folks… and using them to entertain our kiddies!

Does anyone else besides me find this a bit… disturbing?

SeaWorld has created a multibillion-dollar business that is based on the image of orcas as great big, harmless, cuddly animals. Stop in to one of the souvenir shops at any one of their parks and check out the plush, huggable evidence. But every once in a while, we’re reminded that Nature is red in tooth and claw. Just ask Steve Irwin. Oh, wait. You can’t… because he’s dead.

It’s one thing when a pissed-off orca grabs a trainer by the hair and drags her under the water to a horrible death. After all, probably half the people watching thought it was part of the act. “Oh, look, Mommy… they’re playing in the water!” But one of these days, some poor schnook is gonna get bitten right in fricking half when Shmammu the Kuddly Killer Whale has an acid flashback and thinks he’s looking at some weird-looking two-legged walrus. That’ll be a whole lot harder to explain to little Susie. “It’s just ketchup, honey. A whole lotta (gag) ketchup… and sausages…”

In unrelated news, PETA has announced an initiative to ban the use of the term “killer whale” and replace it with “cetacean, justifiably homicidal on account of having spent years in captivity as a slave to humans.” But since that’s too big a mouthful for the Average Joe, they propose to substitute the term “Kumbaya-Singing Whale.”

Steve Krodman

Steve Krodman

Steve Krodman, AKA the Bard of Affliction, lives in the steaming suburbs of Atlanta with his wife and two cats. He is partial to good food, fine wine, tasteful literature, and Ridiculous Poetry. Most significantly, he has translated the Mr. Ed theme song into four languages.