Are Parks Like SeaWorld Harming or Helping Killer Whales?

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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.

The average lifespans of captive orcas have increased over time as care for the animals has gotten better, but whales have still died tragic and at times even gory deaths in captivity. Because captive whales spend much more time at the surface of the water than wild whales, some have died from mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus. In 1989, a SeaWorld whale named Kandu rammed another whale so hard that she fractured her own upper jaw and bled to death as tourists looked on during a show. SeaWorld claimed that Kandu’s action was a “normal, socially induced act of aggression to assert her dominance” over the other whale. Critics of captivity disagreed about the “normal” part.

And news surfaced this week that around September 20 during an after-hours show at SeaWorld in San Diego an 11-year-old orca named Nakai was severely injured. “SeaWorld claims the injury happened when Nakai scraped his chin on the side of the pool,” wrote animal blogger Kecia Stewart. “Nobody is buying that. The injury is round, described as being the size of a dinner plate and it’s deep, down to the bone. The missing part is so big that SeaWorld workers recovered the missing chunk from the bottom of the pool. I don’t think that happens when you scrape against concrete.” Many suspect Nakai’s injury came from a fight with another orca.

Of course, the lifespans of captive whales are meaningless statistics unless one knows the lifespan of wild orcas, something SeaWorld and anti-captivity experts vigorously debate. In the wild, “males typically live for about 30 years, but can live as long as 50-60 years” and “females typically live about 50 years, but can live as long as 80-90 years.” That said, it’s difficult to account for miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality in the wild in order to compare them to the plight of whales born in captivity.

Captivity advocates point out that captive whales never have to worry about the availability of food – a problem that has grown in recent decades for wild whales as salmon stocks have been depleted. In some cases, dams cut off the routes salmon take up rivers to spawn. In British Columbia, Canada, commercial salmon farms breed sea lice, which can infect and even kill wild salmon passing by. Commercial fishing and pollution play a role in the availability of prey for orcas as well.

Aside from simply considering the length of time a whale remains alive and whether it eats regularly, one must consider the whale’s quality of life. It may be difficult for humans to understand or quantify an animal’s happiness. But one can easily observe the small tanks these intelligent animals live in and the lack of stimulation for whales in those tanks -- and compare that to the fact that wild whales can swim over 100 miles in a day.

A larger issue related to captive whales’ emotional wellbeing are the whales’ family groupings. Orca whales are social creatures who live in matriarchal groupings, staying with their mothers throughout their lives. A female whale might eventually leave her mother to establish her own matriarchal group with her own offspring. The whales are even observed babysitting grandchildren or siblings to relieve a mother in the wild while she hunts or tends to a younger calf. But captive whales are rarely afforded the luxury of remaining with their mothers for life, as they travel to meet the needs of the amusement parks that own them.

Other indicators of emotional distress are the physical and behavioral signs observed in captive whales. Dominant whales often “rake” the sides of other whales with their teeth, causing them to bleed so badly that the park occasionally has to cancel its shows. The whales also damage their teeth while chewing on the metal gates that separate their tanks, either due to boredom or in displays of aggression. Whales frequently break off fragments of their teeth by chewing or jaw-popping on the gates, leaving them vulnerable to serious, even deadly, infections and requiring painful dental procedures to prevent those infections.

But, if orca whales in captivity live shorter and less fulfilling lives than orcas in the wild, could that be worth it in the end? Advocates of keeping the whales in captivity in parks like SeaWorld argue that the educational role the whales serve helps the entire species. SeaWorld audiences not only learn about the whales, they also develop love for them that can translate into behavior to conserve whales in the wild.

The anti-captivity camp counters that SeaWorld provides very little education about wild orcas, instead mostly focusing on the whales’ lives in captivity. For example, trainers explain to tourists what they feed the whales and how they train them instead of educating audiences about how whales hunt or live in family groupings in the wild. Perhaps a focus on wild whales would inspire some tourists to question the practice of keeping them captive.

In some cases, when tricky questions come up – like why some captive whales have collapsed dorsal fins – SeaWorld provides trainers with answers that put any questions about whale captivity to rest. The dorsal fin is the top fin on an orca that prominently sticks out of the water, and in captive whales it is often flopped over like an upside-down U. At a recent “Dine with Shamu” meal at SeaWorld San Diego, a trainer told the audience that all whales are different just like all humans are different; some have collapsed dorsal fins and some have straight ones, both in captivity and in the wild. The park’s Web site says “Neither the shape nor the droop of a whale's dorsal fin are indicators of a killer whale's health or well-being.” 

Those who oppose captivity give a different answer to this question. Former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre, now a medical doctor and a critic of SeaWorld, told Wired, “In captivity, 100 percent of all male dorsal fins are collapsed, and most of the females, too. In the wild, it has a prevalence of less than 1 percent and it’s associated with pathology.” While the exact cause of collapsed dorsal fins is unknown, it’s a very obvious physical effect of captivity on the whales, making one question what other less obvious marks captivity has on the whales and casting doubt on the message that captivity is not harmful to the whales’ health.

Another point in the debate is whether parks like SeaWorld make seeing whales more accessible to average people, compared to other options like going on a whale watch. Depending on where one lives, going to SeaWorld and going on a whale watch both require traveling a long distance, either to a coast where whales are sighted or to a city where SeaWorld has a park (Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio). Once there, the cost of a trip to SeaWorld is different at each park, but a family of four would spend between $220 and $324 for admission.

By contrast, a whale watch to see orcas leaving from Seattle costs $184 for the same family, and the ship has a naturalist on board. Of course, going on a whale watch might not even be necessary if one wishes to see whales in the wild. From the San Juan islands, reachable by boat from Seattle, one can see them from the shore for free. “The whales were out there, breaching and spy hopping, and the kids were screaming and squealing in delight, and it was the real deal,” Kirby recalls from his own trip there.

Unfortunately, Kirby’s book lacks depth in describing SeaWorld’s point of view, although he says he did his best to "put SeaWorld's voice back in the book" using public statements and other available information. “Every good story has two sides,” said Kirby. “I didn't know how much [SeaWorld] would cooperate, but I certainly tried to get as much access, as much of their side of the story as I could. For a while they were sort of giving me statements,” until he wrote a formal letter asking to meet their staff, learn their side of the debate, and check their facts. At that point, SeaWorld declined, citing the title of the book as well as Kirby's previous writing and media appearances as reasons why they felt he had no intention of writing a balanced book.

Kirby adds that SeaWorld has “a lot to brag about in terms of education and conservation and animal rescue -- although not in terms of killer whales,” adding, “I'm not out to get SeaWorld, I'm out to question this practice.”

SeaWorld responded to questions and interview requests about Kirby’s book and the larger question of whether orcas should be held in captivity with the following statement:

Our initial review of Mr. Kirby’s book has revealed numerous factual errors, as well as rumors, hearsay and speculation masquerading as fact. Anyone concerned about the welfare of SeaWorld’s animals or the manner in which we care for them should visit one of our parks and judge our facilities and standards for themselves. SeaWorld is among the world’s most respected zoological institutions, and no facility in the world sets higher standards for the care and interpretation of marine mammals than we do.  Our animals are cared for by skilled and committed curators, veterinarians, trainers and animal care specialists.  The welfare of marine mammals in parks like SeaWorld also is enshrined in multiple federal and state laws and is assured by the rigorous inspection process of two federal agencies and the accreditation provisions of two professional zoological organizations.

However, SeaWorld declined to make any other statements, saying, “there is still active litigation surrounding our killer whale program.” As its statement mentions factual errors without identifying which parts of Kirby’s book SeaWorld finds incorrect, it is impossible to thoroughly examine the issue from both sides. That said, a trip to SeaWorld actually confirms several points in Kirby’s book, such as the whales’ willful disobedience of trainers’ commands (interpreted in the book as an expression of “f--- you”) and the lack of education provided about the lives of wild orcas. But one thing is certain: in the case of these magnificent and intelligent animals, we should have a thorough public debate about captivity, ultimately reaching a conclusion that is best for the whales – not for human entertainment or investors’ quarterly profits.

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