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Are Parks Like SeaWorld Harming or Helping Killer Whales?

The new book "Death at SeaWorld" and a serious recent injury to an orca at one of the parks is raising concern.

Photo Credit: Bochkarev Photography/ Shutterstock.com


This article was published in collaboration with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

To a child, SeaWorld can be a magical place. To many adults, it’s boring. To a killer whale -- or orca -- it might be hell. Nowadays, the show going on in Shamu Stadium is called Believe. Attractive trainers in blue wetsuits dance on stage, direct the orcas to do various stunts, and toss the whales treats of fish – but the trainers no longer do the “hot dog” stunts of flying out of the water and through the air on the rostrum of the ocean’s top predator. (The rostrum is the part of the whale you might imagine would be its nose.) People who saw these impressive stunts at SeaWorld on previous trips might anticipate them and then remember the reason the trainers are out of the water: a SeaWorld orca killed a trainer in February 2010.

When a male orca named Tilikum dragged Dawn Brancheau, one of SeaWorld’s most senior trainers, into his tank on Feb. 24, 2010, she became his third human victim. The whale first killed a trainer at a park in Canada in 1991 after she fell into his tank. At the time, SeaWorld needed a male orca whale for breeding purposes, and the price tag on Tilikum was suddenly just right. SeaWorld purchased him but did not allow trainers to enter the water with him, even though they did enter the water with the other whales. All went well for years, with Tilikum siring many calves and performing by splashing audiences at the end of each Shamu show.

Prior to Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld’s precautions around Tilikum seemed adequate to keep the trainers safe – but they did not save Tilikum’s second victim. On July 6, 1999, a SeaWorld tourist named Daniel P. Dukes stayed at the park after it closed and dove into Tilikum’s tank. His naked corpse was found draped over Tilikum the next morning.  Perhaps, after spending time at SeaWorld, he thought the whales were as friendly, playful and harmless as they seem in the shows.

David Kirby examined these incidents as well as the wider question of whether humans should keep orcas in captivity in his recently released book Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. Kirby fondly remembers his trips to SeaWorld as a child growing up in Southern California, where he saw the original Shamu perform. Even later as a journalist covering animal confinement and factory farming, he never questioned keeping orcas in captivity and training them to perform in shows.

“Not until I began researching the book,” he said. “Not even the day Tilikum killed Dawn. I may have heard about swim-with-dolphin programs in foreign countries and how the conditions were not that good, but I assumed that at SeaWorld the conditions were squeaky clean and the animals were doing well."

But, as Kirby's book shows, the animals are not all doing well at SeaWorld. The controversy is not over whether the animals are perfectly happy and healthy in captivity, but whether they are so far worse off in captivity than in the wild that the practice does not justify any benefit gained by educating and entertaining the people who come to see them.

The history of captive orcas is a sad one, with many stillbirths and premature deaths. Out of more than 190 whales held in captivity since the 1960s, only a handful ever lived into their 30s. The average amount of time orcas survived in captivity has increased with each decade as the humans in charge grew more skilled at caring for captive whales. A 2010 study found that the 52 whales who died in captivity after 1994 lived an average of 10 years and 10 months in captivity, whereas the average time in captivity for the 42 whales still alive at that time was 15 years and nine months.

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