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Save the whale guy

Killer whales can be dangerous to humans -- it's not really news, but it may boost Sea World's attendance.

March 04, 2007

DID WE REALLY NEED a government agency to tell us it could be dangerous to work with a several-ton predator that has the word "killer" in its name? After a months-long investigation into a Sea World incident in November, this is the less-than-eye-opening finding by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

A female killer whale named Kasatka dragged Kenneth Peters, one of the San Diego park's most experienced trainers, underwater during a show, breaking his foot and inflicting puncture wounds. Marine parks, including Sea World, have recorded a dozen or so attacks on humans over the last 35 years -- relatively few, considering how much training and how many shows go on.

Yes, as the state agency notes, killer whales are dangerous. That's the whole point. Why else would people pay to see puny humans in a giant pool with a smart carnivore almost 50 times their body mass? Sea World has occasionally tried having the orcas do their splashy leaps alone in the tank, but audiences don't go for it. It's the latter-day equivalent of watching a lion tamer put a ball on a very long stick into the lion's mouth from afar. Audiences might be horrified when the animal lunges or the aerialist falls, but the prospect of vicarious danger is what draws paying guests in the first place. By making the dangers appear that much more real, the state handed Sea World some of the best publicity it could have hoped for.

So wide-eyed were state investigators about the adventurous life of trainers, they predicted that a trainer's death was inevitable (a conclusion so over the top that the state is withdrawing the report for a rewrite). But a more compelling work issue here may be whether it's a fair thing for the whales to be confined to swimming pools. In the wild, pods of orcas can travel more than 100 miles a day. Not so at Sea World. No wonder they sometimes get ornery in captivity.

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