In our November visit to Sea World, my daughter left with a stuffed Shamu (that’s the collective show name for the giant killer whales that perform each day). She keeps Shamu on her bed and likes to sleep with him/her at night. She no doubt has images of the trainers hugging the killer whales in her mind as she remembers that spectacular show at Sea World. And it truly was spectacular—a visually stunning show that, as the advertising says, “transports your heart to the edge of wonder.” At least it did mine.
The Shamu BELIEVE show exhibits new killer whale behaviors choreographed with music, stunts and multi media. It highlights what Sea World calls “the close relationship” that trainers have with the killer whales.
That phrase puzzled me as I left the show. Those uneasy feelings came flooding back to me upon hearing the sad news of the death of one of the park’s most experienced trainers, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed last week by one of the whales. The whale pulled her under water and dragged her around like a toy, drowning her in front of horrified visitors.
I left Sea World first reminded of the wonder of creation. My family and I were filled with delight as we watched sea lions, sharks, sea turtles and those amazing orca whales. We delighted in God’s creation of the animals of the sea—their intelligence, strength, beauty, fierceness and trainability. Genesis 1.20 reminds us that it was God who said, “let the water team with living creatures.” He is the one who said, “let them,” (i.e. humans) “rule over the fish of the sea.”
Psalm 8.7,8 says that the Lord “made him (i.e. man) ruler over the works of [his] hands, and put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the sea.” Such Scriptures remind us of the order of creation. My family saw that on display in the BELIEVE show. It was, after all, human beings who were commanding the killer whales, and not the other way around! Extreme animal rights activists aside, the God-ordained hierarchy that Psalm 8 speaks of is—God, angels, man and animals. Lots of people get this mixed up these days, so stressing our oneness with nature that we forget humankind’s God-given uniqueness.
Another impression I had at Sea World is that they overplayed the harmony between humans and animals. They not only minimized the God-designed distinction between humans and animals, but they also ignored the fracture and fear that exists between us.
After all, we were encouraged to “take Shamu home with us” as we were leaving the Sea World gates. He is cute. You can take him home as a pet and cuddle up with him at night. All is sweetness and harmony. We live in a peaceable kingdom. What is more, the Shamu theme song tells us that by believing “anything is possible.” “Connection is found when those within the water touch those who walk the ground.”
Something is obviously missing here that the Bible directly addresses. Scripture speaks of sin fracturing everything. One consequence of Adam’s fall was that, “the fear and dread of [man] will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground and upon all the fish of the sea” (Genesis 9.2)
That fear and fracture was on display last week when Tilikum the killer whale tragically ended a third human life. Now we learn that there has been a string of violent incidents involving killer whales in various Sea World-like shows around the world.
The incident eerily reminded me of the death of grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, documented in the film GRIZZLY MAN. Treadwell tried to “make friends with the bears,” camped on established bear trails, talked to grizzlies, gave them cute names, and believed he had established a trusted “personal relationship” with the bears. He said the bears were “mainly harmless party animals.” Despite warnings of park officials that what he was doing was terribly unsafe, Treadwell persisted, until he and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear in 2003.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the study of grizzlies or the training of killer whales or shows at Sea World for that matter. I am, however, suspect of minimizing the dangers of working with these creatures. Killer whales got their name for a reason.
But here is what I do BELIEVE. My trust is not that we, by our own ingenuity, can fully erase the fear and predatory instincts that exist in animals. Rather, I believe in what God has promised in the Bible—a future where creation stops groaning, death is abolished, and violence ceases among humans and animals. Scripture speaks of a coming day in a renewed heaven and earth when the predator and the prey, the wild and domestic animal, the wolf and the lamb, will lie down and feed together (Isaiah 65.24), when bear specialists are no longer eaten alive, and whale trainers are no longer attacked. It is a day of redemption that Jesus himself promised and the end of the Bible declares true. Only in that “single moment” will “connection be found” and peace between man and beast become a reality.
Sea World is on to something. It’s just that they have left out some key parts of the story.