Dawn Brancheau Died for Our Sins.

February 27, 2010 at 2:16 pm (By Amba)

If a tiger or a lion in a zoo killed one human, that big cat would be dead before it hit the ground.  (No “dead cat bounce” jokes, please.)  Tillicum, the bull orca that drowned its trainer at SeaWorld on Wednesday, has now killed three. Yet he will live on at SeaWorld and will even continue to perform for the public.  Why the double standard?

One reason is money.  I heard them say on TV that a captive orca is worth 2 million dollars, and Tillicum breeds them, so he’s like a valued stud in horse racing.  He’s reportedly insured for $5 million.

But I wonder if there isn’t another reason:  dolphins, of which the killer whale is the largest, have a special status with us.  With their uncanny, sociable intelligence, so alien and yet so kindred (they’re the only nonprimate that can recognize itself in a mirror), they’re the objects not only of curiosity and wonder, but of . . . there’s no avoiding the word . . . reverence.  (Silly-ass reverence as it may be.)

I would propose that the Delphinidae are the gods, or embodiments of the gods, of the new nature worship.  Gods aren’t gods unless they deal out power and danger along with spiritual benevolence.  How convenient then that the smiling dolphin family also features the orca, a multiton ball of muscle with a fin like a church steeple and the coloring of a yin-yang symbol.  Here’s a god even the less sentimental can relate to:  a predator, like us.  Just as Zeus took the form of a bull, Gaia’s avenging consort might feel comfortable in the skin of a bull killer whale.  And when such a god claims a human sacrifice, do we turn on the god, or do we grovel and figure we’ve got it coming?


  1. Icepick said,

    I’m not entirely convinced that cats don’t recognize themselves in mirrors. But I think that once they realize that it isn’t a real cat (or world) they’re seeing they just don’t care. But that’s just based on observing my own cats.

  2. PatHMV said,

    Amba, I would note that the hard-core Gaians of our society, the members of PETA and Greenpeace and so forth, would likely also oppose the killing of the lion or other animal which killed a human. The difference is that with the dolphin family, probably for the reasons you describe, the rest of us are willing to go along with the animal-huggers.

    I would note a possible alternative explanation, though. Here, the victim was an employee of the park, a professional who worked regularly with the animal, not an entirely innocent, unrelated party such as a park visitor. I rather suspect there might have been a different decision, had the victim been somebody else. There’s a certain understanding, perhaps, that professionals such as this woman accept the risk of working so closely with large wild animals.

  3. amba12 said,

    Yes — although a lion who kills a keeper will be killed.

    I expect that those who do such jobs also sign legal releases.

    (Dawn’s sister said she would never have wanted the whale destroyed.)

  4. PatHMV said,

    I’m searching around and not finding any good statistics. In a lot of the cases where the animal was killed, it was killed by police or other early responder in the immediate aftermath of the attack. For example, the chip which ate the face off the woman a year or two ago was killed when it tried to attack one of the police officers who had responded to the call. One escaped zoo lion which killed somebody was likewise killed by police responding to the incident.

    The lion which attacked Siegfried & Roy (I think it was Roy that was attacked) was not put down. And in most communities in America, a dog often gets one bite free; they’re not put down for attacking people unless they’ve shown a propensity to do so over a period of time.

  5. amba12 said,

    Thanks for the research!

  6. Donna B. said,

    PatHMV, I think you are right about dogs in general, but exceptions if the dog has bitten a child or if the dog looks like a pit bull. Larger dogs in general don’t get the same consideration that smaller ones do regardless the temperament.

    And I don’t necessarily think that’s necessarily wrong. The larger the animal, the more damage it can inflict and the harder it is to control during an attack.

    When we domesticate animals, we take on a huge responsibility. While we may protect them from some of the threats they are exposed to in the wild, we expose them to new threats — one being more opportunities to harm us and that we may kill them when they do.

    I don’t whether the moral of this story is that the orca isn’t as smart as we think it is, or if we’re not as smart as we think we are, though I tend toward the latter.

  7. PatHMV said,

    Amba, your theory is so lovely, though, I don’t want to burden it with too many facts! ;-)

    Another aspect of it may be that there just aren’t that many killer whales in captivity; certainly there are far more zoos in lions than there are whales in sea parks. We migth recognize that all of them are potential killers, really, and so we wouldn’t really be reducing the risk of harm by killing one and replacing him with some other whale.

  8. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Honestly, I can think of a lot of cases where the animal wasn’t killed — besides this one, Siegfried and Roy’s cat, and one here in Colorado at a refuge. And honestly, I guess I’m one of those Gaians, because I don’t think he should be destroyed. They are carnivores, they’re not like gogs and cats with hundreds of generations of integration into human society.

    Which is to say, she knew the job was dangerous when she took it.

    I think the word you’re looking for is “deva” — another order of being, but still part of the Wheel-of-Conditional-Existence.

  9. amba12 said,

    Pat: you can take the lion out of the zoo, but you can’t take the zoo out of the lion.

    Charlie: what breed of gog would you recommend?

    It’s the full moon . . .

  10. amba12 said,

    I’m glad that they didn’t execute Tilly (it’s just that, as I said on Twitter, my felines are hurt). When a wild predator in captivity kills someone, It’s people that are liable, if anyone. And the people who choose to work with these creatures must know and accept the risk.

    That said, it’s possible that this orca has enjoyed killing people. He is a prisoner, after all, and of such puny creatures! Maybe once a decade or so, he needs to show them who’s boss.

  11. Luka said,

    It is interesting that you compared the Orca to a God. Some friends from California were telling me that tribes in the northwest consider the Orca with a higher status than their God or Creator. Interesting…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: