My oldest son — an avid, even pain-in-the-neck, animal rights advocate — surprised me last year by saying he wanted to go to SeaWorld for his birthday.
Maybe it was the advertising a Florida child is bombarded with over the course of a lifetime. Maybe it was the draw of the park's new, much-hyped roller coaster, the Manta.
At any rate, somewhere along the line, something had convinced him that an enterprise built around the idea of corralling large, highly intelligent mammals in small pools, forcing them to participate in cheesy stage shows, and rewarding them with treats after performing undignified tricks that include actual begging could be fun.
Not surprisingly, it wasn't.
I don't remember the exact word he used to describe it, though I believe it was either "disgusting" or "demeaning.'' I do remember we left halfway through the dolphin show and didn't even bother with the main attraction, Shamu Stadium, where veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was attacked and killed Wednesday by a 6-ton male killer whale after rubbing its belly as part of a show.
I won't use the whale's cute name or even cuter nickname because it's a wild animal, and shouldn't, of course, have a name. And it especially shouldn't have a name that mocks its captivity by using a word borrowed from an American Indian tribe native to the Pacific Northwest — the waters off which killer whales swim freely in the wild — even if this particular whale was captured at age 2 near Iceland.
I'm obviously not an expert, though a lot of them think these shows are cruel and say that killer whales, which in nature form social orders so complex that they are sometimes called nonhuman "cultures,'' become bored and neurotic in captivity, and that their life spans are far shorter than those of their wild counterparts.
I'm just a Florida person who lives within a reasonable drive of SeaWorld, one of world's most popular theme parks. Most of us, at one time or another, are asked to send kids or grandkids there for field trips, or are bugged by out-of-town visitors who think it might make a nice day trip.
I'd resisted before and will resist even harder from now on. Wednesday's attack wasn't the deciding factor. My trip there was.
I liked the immaculate landscaping. Manta was great, and so were the displays of rays in the aquarium we could see as the line inched toward the boarding area.
But the shows? They seemed exploitative, phony and — keeping in mind I didn't see the big-money attraction — dated. Like the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee, it's unimaginative entertainment dressing up a natural wonder that would be a lot better viewed in the raw or, failing that, not at all. It's not much different from watching dancing bears. We should know better.
Among the indications we do are SeaWorld's attendance, which grew more slowly than most Florida parks in recent good times, and declined faster as the economy sank in 2008.
A sign that we haven't progressed is the way every animal seems to be a potential pet these days, as I well know from having recently paid a $150 vet bill for my son's chicken.
How did we ever get the idea that a creature fierce enough to feed on sharks would want its belly rubbed?