By Kim Robson
Sea World is a popular marine park chain with ten facilities around the United States. Sea World San Diego and Orlando enjoy international acclaim and annual visitor counts in the millions. Their stated mission is to promote the conservation, education, and research of marine environments. Granted, Sea World does perform a number of wildlife rescues involving rehabilitation and, when possible, release back into the ocean. However, their most visible and profitable activity centers around providing entertainment for paying guests. That entertainment often includes the use of large, intelligent, captive mammals performing ridiculous tricks in a microscopic tank in exchange for dead fish.
Orcas, also called killer whales, are the most famous and iconic symbol of Sea World’s dominance over the seas. These mammals reach weights in excess of 10,000 pounds and have mouths that bristle with rows of sharp teeth. They can be deadly and unpredictable. They range over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, traveling upwards of 100 miles a day in search of food and breeding grounds. Yet Sea World has captured and bred scores of their “Shamus” over the decades, and confined them to tanks hardly larger than they are.
As with elephants, large intelligent animals, no matter how docile, confined and forced to perform for their survival may one day snap. Elephants and orcas are highly social and require the company of each other for their well-being. But trainers’ safety requires that the animals be kept in small pens with no possibility of escape. The mental stresses on these animals, whose brains are larger than ours, must be enormous. And far too often, tragedies occur.
At Sea World Orlando, a 12,000-lb. male orca named Tilikum attacked and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. The 40-year-old, sixteen-year veteran trainer who adored whales, had just finished a show on Feb. 24, 2010, when she began rubbing 22-foot-long Tilikum from a poolside platform. He suddenly grabbed her ponytail in his jaws and pulled her in. Witnesses said the whale played with Brancheau like a toy. An autopsy showed that she died of drowning and blunt force trauma to her head, neck, and torso. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued two citations to Sea World Orlando for the death. Sea World appealed the ruling and the fine was reduced from $75,000 to $12,000.
Tillikum had an aggressive history, too. He’d been involved in the 1991 death of a trainer at SeaLand in Victoria, British Columbia. Then in 1999 in San Diego, a man who’d climbed into the tank at night was found dead of hypothermia and draped over Tillikum’s back in the morning. Sea World said that Tillikum wasn’t usually in the water with trainers “because of its size and strength. It was primarily used to splash people.” (Italics mine) Check out the tiny tank they held him in after the 2010 incident.
Bruce Stephens, former director of animal behavior for Sea World in San Diego and now a consultant to marine parks, says, “Any person who has trained these animals has been thumped, bumped, bruised, bitten and otherwise abused over the course of time.” He told the San Diego Union in December 1987, “It happens to everyone. You have to appreciate the potential for danger, but the record has really been quite good for orcas – especially when you consider that about 40 people a year are killed in accidents with elephants.” Stephens failed to consider that many more elephants than orcas are kept in captivity, and many more people have close access to elephants because they are land animals. An orca simply can’t escape its pool and go on a rampage.
Many other incidents have occurred over the years, and Sea World has done its best to keep negative media attention down. In 2006, trainer Ken Peters, 39, was dragged underwater by Kasatka, a 5,000-lb. orca that he’d trained for years. Kasatka held Peters tightly by the foot and pulled him around like a rag doll for an excruciating ten-minute-long ordeal. Video footage of the near-drowning was just recently released. Late last year, a Sea World San Diego orca named Nakai suffered a horrific injury to her lower jaw. Sea World’s investigation found it was caused by a sharp seam edge inside the far-too-small pool. They’ve since lined the seams with soft material. A dolphin at Sea World San Antonio seems to have sustained the same injury.
Sea World is largely self-regulated and is subject to little government oversight. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for the stewardship, management, conservation, and protection of the nation’s living marine resources and their habitat. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has gone so far as to file suit in federal court against Sea World on behalf of Tillikum. They argued that Tillikum deserved protection under the 13th Amendment (prohibition of slavery). A judge ruled that the amendment doesn’t apply to nonhumans. But the move sent a powerful message: Sea World is a licensed, socially accepted slave-trader — nothing more, nothing less.
If forcing captive wild animals to perform tricks for the entertainment of children makes you as sick and angry as it does me, stay away from marine parks, but also let their executives know why.