By CURTIS MORGAN
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.
Rose said trainers and veterinarians spend long hours developing trust and relationships with orcas and dolphins, which, like humans, have different personalities. Trainers look for signs that an animal may be ill or off.
Lolita enjoys performing, he said, as the orca lolled behind him in its tank, occasionally spitting water. “I’ve been with her longer than I’ve been with my wife,” he said.
Rose dismissed activists’ allegations that attacks are common, but acknowledged accidents happen.
“These are still wild animals, whether it’s a killer whale, whether it’s a dolphin, these animals have the opportunity to potentially be aggressive, unfortunately,” he said. “It could be like the dog you have in your home.”
Russ Rector, a Fort Lauderdale dolphin trainer turned marine mammal activist, scoffed.
Rector, who has long campaigned to shut down the Seaquarium, spent years trying to force the attraction to expand Lolita’s tank but federal officials rebuffed his effort. He also alerted Miami-Dade County code enforcers to electrical and other code violations at the aging facility. The Seaquarium eventually spent $4 million on renovations.
Over the years, activists also have pushed a number of “Free Lolita” campaigns with the goal of returning the killer whale to its home waters in the Northwestern Pacific.
Raul Julia Levy, a former soap-opera actor in Mexico who became a Hollywood producer and animal-rights activist, said the Orlando tragedy has rekindled interest in Lolita’s fate. He said he hopes to stage a Miami concert to support the cause.
Rector believes Lolita is now too old to survive in the wild — and also to perform. Killer whales, like any other animal, become more unpredictable and cranky with age, he said.
“Lolita is coming to the end of her captive life span,” he said. “She is going to hurt or kill somebody if they’re not careful.”
The Seaquarium has rebuffed campaigns to release Lolita, and Rose said the orca was in good health and would stay put.