Whale trainer's death doesn't stop the show in Miami

As any big star knows — and Lolita the killer whale certainly qualifies at 7,000 pounds — the show must go on.

So a day after the disturbing death of a marine mammal trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, the Miami Seaquarium put on its venerable killer whale and dolphin show to an almost packed house.

Lolita performed like the old pro she is after 40 years in a tank. She rocketed Robert Rose, the Seaquarium's curator, high into the air. She sang and — much to the delight of everyone in the audience under 11 — made fart sounds with her blow hole. She waved her flukes, soaked the front rows and attacked no one.

The orca and four trainers finished unscathed.

Afterward, Rose called the deadly killer whale attack on Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer at SeaWorld he knew personally, a tragic aberration in what he insisted was a safe and humane business. Lolita, in captivity longer than any other killer whale, has no history of violence, he said.

"This is something we do every day. This is something I've done for over 20 years," he said Thursday. "We care very deeply about these animals and do everything we can to interact with them in as safe a manner as possible."

Marine mammal activists believe otherwise, pointing to Brancheau's death as only the latest in a string of attacks by massive marine mammals they argue do not belong in captivity.

Tilikum, the killer whale that attacked Brancheau, had been involved in two previous deaths — of a part-time trainer in Canada in 1991 and a man who sneaked overnight into its tank in 1999 — and Orlando trainers were under orders not to swim with it because of its aggressive nature.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office released a statement Thursday clarifying what happened at Shamu Stadium in Orlando. Brancheau was standing in knee-deep water on a poolside platform rubbing the six-ton orca when it grabbed her by her long ponytail and dragged her under water. The Orange County Medical Examiner's office said she likely died from multiple traumatic injuries and drowning.

In response to media inquiries, Miami Seaquarium management invited reporters to watch Lolita delight crowds of oohing, ahhing tourists, and to defend the treatment of its performers and safety of marine mammal shows.

Rose said the killer-whale show, which hasn't changed much over the decades, provides more than entertainment. They are also educational, he said, putting people into close contact with magnificent creatures they may well be inspired to protect.

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