Want more captive killer whales? Here’s how. . .
In an earlier post about a dust-up over image control between Outside magazine and Lance Armstrong, in the July issue of the magazine, I noted that the best story of the issue is Tim Zimmerman’s “The Killer in the Pool,” an accounting of the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, in Orlando, FL. Back in February, a male orca named Tilikum grabbed Brancheau and pulled her into the pool at the end of a lunchtime show. The whale killed her.
If you start reading the article with the notion that the breeding of orcas in captivity for a life as prisoner-performer is unnecessary, as I did, the story will just rile you more. Still, read it, because you’ll come across intriguing items of American history like this:
One of the keys to SeaWorld’s success was its ability to move away from controversial wild orca captures to captive births in its marine parks. The first captive birth that produced a surviving calf took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 1985. Since then, SeaWorld has relied mostly on captive breeding to stock its parks with killer whales, even mastering the art of artificial insemination. “Early in the morning, the animal-care crew would take hot-water-filled cow vaginas and masturbate the males in the back tanks,” says John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld. “It was pretty interesting to walk by.”
If you know anything about domestic animal husbandry, specifically what people do to breed horses and cattle, this won’t strike you as freaky, just a tad demanding. Of course, when you’ve got such magnificent sea creatures in tiny, tiny tanks and allowing them to reproduce naturally either wouldn’t happen or might be too chaotic, but millions of dollars are riding on the program, you find yourself a crew of folks who are willing to do what they gotta do to earn a paycheck (and who also sincerely love orcas, probably, and want to work with them in any way).
I don’t buy the argument that places like SeaWorld teach people about orcas and porpoises, and thus bolster the conservation of the wild populations. At this point in scientific and outdoors-culture history, we have sufficient means to get people to see and study orcas, either through quality media and/or on the water. Those orcas that are born in captivity are animals that have the instincts to be free-roaming, yet imprisonment, as Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, says in Zimmerman’s article, can make them “pathological.”
As for the “animal-care crews,” they’re probably perfectly sane people who know how to handle both a hot-water-filled cow vagina and orca phallus simultaneously (the cast of Cirque du Soleil gasps in awe). But a whole industry founded on the idea of creating large swimming mammals and then sticking them in what amounts to a test tube for the rest of their lives might be an example of human pathology.