At first it was a classic PETA/Celeb/SeaWorld dust-up that allowed a rock star to get some (non-tattoo) ink, PETA to stir the pot, and writers at TMZ to have a laugh by writing headlines like: Tommy Lee Explodes Over Whale Sperm (get it?) and SeaWorld–We DON’T Use Cow Vaginas! (I guess it was the marine park equivalent of the old political trap: “When did you stop beating your wife?”).
Now, before I get flip myself I want to emphasize that SeaWorld’s breeding program is a critical issue which does deserve attention, since SeaWorld relies on captive breeding to keep its marine parks stocked with the performing Shamus that are so highly effective at parting tourists from lots of dollars. Breeding, in short, is what keeps the show going year after year, decade after decade.
But it’s not really news, or even surprising, that in addition to breeding orcas by shipping the males around for stud duty, SeaWorld has devoted time and research to developing techniques for artificial insemination (or AI). And when I wrote about SeaWorld’s biggest, and most prolific breeder, Tilikum, in The Killer In The Pool, I touched on AI briefly and in somewhat graphic terms. John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld San Diego recalled the early years of SeaWorld’s AI efforts by telling me:
Early in the morning, the animal-care crew would take hot-water-filled cow vaginas and masturbate the males in the back tanks,” says John Hall, a former scientist at SeaWorld. “It was pretty interesting to walk by.
That’s where Tommy Lee, as he notes in this letter to SeaWorld, started getting cow vagina on the brain, and decided that the man-orca-cow part combo was too much for his refined sensibilities. Now, SeaWorld long ago gave up using cow vaginas to assist their bull orcas to a happy ending, and it could be that they were in fact using artificial vaginas (which really do exist–“Can be held with one hand!”), as if that really makes a difference.
Instead, the methods evolved so that the trainers, using highly unsophisticated equipment (rubber gloves, KY jelly, and a Nalgene bottle) could get the job done. I’m sure SeaWorld doesn’t put that duty in the job description, but you can read more about AI at SeaWorld at The Orca Project.
Now Tommy Lee has smartly upped the ante (and kept the story rolling), by demanding that he be allowed to make a “sex tape” of the whole process. Of course, the last time he had such a good publicity run another sex tape was involved, and he clearly hopes an orca sex tape might be similarly shocking, writing: “[The public] has undoubtedly never seen a sex tape like this.”
Well, actually they have, because you can find pretty much anything on YouTube. And if you really want to know the seamy (semeny?) details involved in extracting sperm from a killer whale, you can see it right here (note: there are no cow vaginas in evidence):
Interestingly, and to the credit of Tommy Lee and PETA, this cow vagina brouhaha has brought to light a crucial piece of information: despite prohibitions on SeaWorld trainers interacting closely with Tilikum for normal care and husbandry–like teeth cleaning and rub downs (which are done with an extension pole and a hose)–trainers are still extracting semen from him, and doing it in the only way that can be done, hands-on and in close proximity.
SeaWorld’s current practice of keeping trainers at a safe remove from Tilikum are an effort to prevent him from killing another trainer–even though it has led to a sad life of isolation for Tilikum. But according to Tommy Lee’s letter to SeaWorld:
Linda Simons, SeaWorld’s former health and safety director, confirmed to PETA that trainers are in fact in the water with Tilikum when masturbating him. When she asked about safety concerns with this, the response was, “This is how we’ve always done it.”
Since no one ever got “in the water” with Tilikum it is likely Simons meant trainers have been working from shallow slide-outs while Tilikum was alongside in the pool. But still. Following Dawn Brancheau’s death, OSHA cited SeaWorld for willfully exposing trainers to injury be putting them in close proximity with SeaWorld’s orcas. SeaWorld is contesting the citation, but even if SeaWorld believes that it is safe for its trainers to work closely with other killer whales, surely it is beyond doubt that putting trainers in close proximity to Tilikum, who has already been involved in the deaths of three humans, is a very risky strategy for supplying SeaWorld’s captive breeding program with sperm.
Like Aaron Sorkin’s scathing takedown of Sarah Palin and her showy slaughter of a caribou, there are serious questions beneath the celebrity rubbernecking. In this case they are:
Is SeaWorld continuing to masturbate Tilikum, despite his history? OSHA should be very interested to know.
And if they are, are they not risking the lives of the trainers they are asking to perform this duty?
What is the price they are willing to ask trainers to pay to keep the orca show going?