SeaWorld dolphin bites girl — no surprise

Dolphin bites girl at SeaWorld Orlando

So a dolphin bit a little girl at SeaWorld.

You know what's surprising about this?

Nothing.

Except that it doesn't happen more often.

When you mix people and animals — especially animals that don't naturally consort with people — things like this will happen.

I'm not saying it's evil. Just predictable. And anyone acting shocked — whether it's the parents, the theme park or the media — needs to give it a rest.

I'm reminded of the scene from "Jurassic Park" where Jeff Goldblum explained the danger of using animals as theme-park attractions. He said the difference between a ride and an animal interaction was that "if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."

In this case, what broke down was 8-year-old Jillian Thomas' ability to follow the rules. She was supposed to keep a tray of fish away from the water. She didn't. The dolphin went for the fish and got Jillian's hand as a side dish.

The whole thing happened in less than 2 seconds — as was completely predictable.

I went to SeaWorld on Tuesday and watched the workers give tourists instructions on how to feed the animals. Most of them listened. But some didn't — including a few fidgety kids.

Now, the parents should always be watching their kids. But adults get distracted. (You show me a father who claims he has never lost sight of his kid, and I'll show you a liar.) And kids don't always follow the rules.

Neither do adults, for that matter. In fact, a lot of us do stupid things, regardless of any instructions we get. (If the whole world were smart, suppositories wouldn't come with labels warning patients not to take them orally.)

And SeaWorld knows this. So, obviously, if SeaWorld continues to encourage oceanographic know-nothings to play with dolphins for $7 a pop, the occasional dolphin bite will continue to happen.

I'm not here to deliver a lecture on the morality of all this. Just on the predictability.

You see, SeaWorld's whole mission is something of an enigma. It's part altruistic conservancy, part profit-making petting zoo.

In theme, the park oozes animal protection and conservation. And it truly does gobs of that, having rescued more than 20,000 animals — everything from injured loggerheads to orphaned manatees.

Stewardship of the environment is preached throughout the park, as guests are encouraged to be "everyday heroes" who clean up trash and protect animals. I know my own kids have taken that message home with them.

Yet I'm not sure how much stewardship is involved in the "Kiss a beluga!" and "Touch a penguin!" offers that greet visitors at SeaWorld's front gates.

Animal experts and champions are divided on such experiences. Some say personal experiences teach appreciation, foster respect and help the greater cause. Others say it's unnatural — and nonsensical to think that charging someone $200 to ride a dolphin is going to turn him or her into some kind of animal-rights crusader.

One thing I do know is that morals and ethics won't dictate the future of animal-interaction programs. Lawsuits will. It's basic math. If SeaWorld can keep selling enough $7 trays of fish to cover the cost of the occasional dolphin-bite lawsuit, the feedings will continue.

Jillian's parents say they have no plans to sue. They claim they just want other parents to know what happened to Jillian, "so others can make an informed decision."

Can't say I blame them for that.

But really, how informed do you have to be to know that, if you put food in front of a hungry animal's mouth, it's going to try to eat it?

I know that. You know that. And believe me: SeaWorld has known that — since the first day it started encouraging guests to touch the animals … for an extra seven bucks.

smaxwell@tribune.com or 407-420-6141

 

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