The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Part 1

Last updated on May 9, 2021.

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

As I mentioned in my first article in this series, I grew up loving animals and held a deep respect for zoos and aquariums. My parents took me to our local zoo often as a child. I loved seeing and learning about the vast array of species on our planet. They also took me to Disney World and several other parks in Orlando, but we never made it to SeaWorld. I’ve always wanted to go, and when I became a mother, I mentally added it to the list of places I’d like to take my son. I thought it would be truly awesome to experience.

But marine and ocean-themed amusement parks are often different from zoos and aquariums in that they do not provide anything close to a species’ habitat or natural environment. Established for entertainment purposes first and foremost, they are more amusement parks than aquariums. After learning all that I’ve learned this year, I simply cannot support SeaWorld and similar parks across the world. The lives they live in captivity are analogous to the circus, and I have never supported circuses.

I am choosing to not buy a ticket.

I want to share the resources with you that led me to this decision. But first, let me address SeaWorld and marine parks in general.

“Marine parks differ from zoos in that the animals – whales, dolphins and seals – are performers. This, say critics, puts them squarely in the circus tradition.”-Erich Hoyt1

SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego, photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

SeaWorld as the Representative

Though a very successful business, SeaWorld has always had controversial beliefs and practices. Thad Lacinak, Vice President and Corporate Curator of Animal Training of SeaWorld Orlando from 1973-2008, said in 1989: “You get the so-called environmentalists who say they don’t think the whales like it here, but what proof do they have? Everything we see indicates to me that they don’t sit out in the pool thinking about being out in the ocean– because of the way that they seem to enjoy what we do.”

While the issues of captivity occur in all marine parks holding captive marine mammals, SeaWorld is the epitome. The documentary, A Fall from Freedom, called SeaWorld the “largest, wealthiest, and most politically powerful of all marine parks.”

Blackfish

Film cover

After watching Blackfish, I was intrigued not only by the controversy of captivity but also by the relationships trainers developed with orcas. This film, the most well-known documentary about this subject, told of the dozens of killer whale incidents at SeaWorld, including several deaths. The producers interviewed many former SeaWorld trainers and all shared similar stories. Management routinely omitted information about incidents and provided misinformation about orcas. The work environment elicited a consistent fear of being transferred away from orca work or being let go altogether. The film interviewed marine biologists who have studied wild orcas and found SeaWorld’s “educational” materials offensively inaccurate.

The film highlighted that orcas in captivity behave differently than wild orcas because captivity is traumatizing to them. It brought the issue of keeping them in captivity into the public’s view. This argument had been going on for years between different agencies, scientists, and marine biologists. “Outrage over the film metastasized quickly into calls to prohibit keeping killer whales in captivity,” wrote

The Killer in the Pool

An article entitled “The Killer in the Pool” written by Tim Zimmerman inspired director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite to begin researching Tilikum’s story. The article, written shortly after Dawn Brancheau’s death, detailed the history of orca capture and captivity, as well as marine park practices, trainer injuries, and deaths.“For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees and unhappy animals – a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image. But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.”

“If you pen killer whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them. Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.” -Paul Spong, the founder of OrcaLab

John Hargrove, SeaWorld “Whistleblower”

Book coverBlackfish led me to John Hargrove’s book, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. Hargrove was a senior trainer at SeaWorld and spent 14 years of his life working in the industry. He left the company and became a “whistleblower” and provided even more insight into the practices of SeaWorld. I could hardly put this book down at times, it was so well-written and read almost like a novel.

Hargrove loved orcas from childhood and dreamed of being a trainer someday. While that dream came true and it was thrilling to work with the whales, it was also heartbreaking for him. He left because he was no longer able to go along with SeaWorld’s policies that he considered poor. These surrounded breeding practices, the separations of calves and mothers, and the mistreatment of trainers and animals alike. He loved the whales and had strong bonds with them, especially one named Takara. But he knew that “love alone was not going to save them.” He dedicated his book to all the orcas he swam and built relationships with for many years. “You gave me everything,” he wrote. “But most especially to Takara, who taught me so much and whom I loved the most.”

“It would make my life so much easier if I could say that those animals are thriving in captivity, living happy and enriched lives. Unfortunately, after all the years of experience that I had, I saw the psychological and physical trauma that results from captivity. A massive corporate entity is exploiting the hell out of the whales and the trainers.” -John Hargrove6

David Kirby’s book

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, book coverDeath at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby was published the same month that Blackfish first aired. Though difficult to read at times, the book was very well researched and well cited. Regardless, I learned a lot from his research. Throughout the book, Kirby followed the life and experience of marine biologist and animal advocate, Dr. Naomi Rose. It introduced many people taking part in this debate including former trainers, eyewitnesses of marine park incidents, animal rights activists, and marine mammal biologists. This book went beyond SeaWorld’s problems and examined the problem of cetacean (whales and dolphins) captivity. It covered the multiple accidents and deaths in marine parks, the OSHA cases against SeaWorld, the media backlash against SeaWorld from Blackfish, and other orca studies across the world. I recommend this book to those who really want to delve into the details of these topics.

Long Gone Wild

Long Gone Wild film poster This film, released in 2019, focused on the continued plight of captive orcas, picking up where Blackfish left off. The film covered the case against captivity as orcas continue to live in barren concrete tanks. It explained the effects of Blackfish on SeaWorld, as the park took a major hit on attendance and profit. It appealed to its audience to stop supporting SeaWorld – “Don’t buy a ticket.”

The documentary went into depth about the plight of captive marine mammals in Russia and China, triggered by the growth in ocean-themed parks in those regions. It also presented the proposed Whale Sanctuary Project, a seaside sanctuary for retired orcas that would provide a safe, permanent home in their natural habitat. There are sanctuaries for elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, and other land mammals, but none for marine mammals in the entire world. I’ll write a post in the near future about the project.

Many orca experts were in the film as well as renowned authors such as David Kirby (mentioned above) and David Neiwert (Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us). It explained the monetary value of the whales and how it has increased over time. Between 1966-1970, dozens of orcas were captured around Puget Sound, Washington, and sold for $30,000 – $50,000 each, some to SeaWorld. In 1976, people captured nine orcas from the seas around Iceland and sold them for $150,000-$300,000 each. Today, the wildlife trade values each orca between $2 million and $7 million dollars.

By the 1980s, wild orca captures had become controversial, especially in Western cultures. SeaWorld realized it would need to rely on breeding in order to have additional orcas for its parks. In 1985, Katina was born, becoming the first “Baby Shamu” for marketing purposes. It was effective. By 1989, SeaWorld had become a billion-dollar corporation.

SeaWorld did not respond to requests for interviews for this film.

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity cover

I found this publication from the Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection, authored by Dr. Naomi A. Rose and Dr. E.C.M. Parsons. This is by far the best report on this subject that I’ve found and at times difficult to stop reading. It is extremely well researched, organized, and written. It addresses the history of the public display industry and marine parks, the capture of cetaceans, conservation issues, animal environment, veterinary care, mortality and birth rates, ethics, swim with dolphins attractions, and the legacy of the film Blackfish.  I highly recommend this if you are researching this topic, or even if you are just interested.

“The only hope of winning this war is for the public to stop buying tickets.” -Ric O’Barry, Founder and Director of The Dolphin Project

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

My intention for this post is to make you think about the issue of captivity. Reconsider buying tickets to these parks. I’m going to save my money. Someday I’ll take my son whale watching to witness these beautiful creatures free in their own environment. In my next post, I want to explore the issues in detail. I’ll be using research from the sources I’ve listed in this article and many more. Thanks for reading!

 

Additional Resources:

Fall from Freedom film coverA Fall from Freedom from the Discovery Channel was a good film with some dated filmography and interviews. However, I learned more about killer whales, the captive industry, and the people who study them. This film helped me put faces with names that I’d read about in David Kirby’s book.

 

 

The Cove film cover

The Cove, an Academy Award-winning film that heightened public awareness of the global problems surrounding dolphin captivity. From the Oceanic Preservation Society: “A team of activists, filmmakers, and freedivers embark on a covert mission to expose a deadly secret hidden in a remote cove in Taiji, Japan. By utilizing state-of-the-art techniques, they uncover a horrible annual tradition of unparalleled cruelty. A provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure, and arresting imagery make this an unforgettable and courageous story that inspires outrage and action.” I appreciate this film and think it offers valuable insight. But it was difficult to watch at times due to the graphic nature of the content. The team of people was amazing. They risked their lives to capture the footage and expose the mass murders of dolphins.

The Performing Orca coverReport, The Performing Orca – Why The Show Must Stop: An in-depth review of the captive orca industry, by Erich Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, January 1, 1992. This is an older publication, but many of the issues are still as relevant today.

 

 

 

Website, SeaWorld Fact Check

Website, Inherently Wild UK

Article, “The harmful effects of captivity and chronic stress on the
well-being of orcas (Orcinus orca),” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 35, pages 69-82, January–February 2020.

Website, Orca Research Trust

Website, The Dolphin Project

Footnotes:

  1. Report, The Performing Orca – Why The Show Must Stop: An in-depth review of the captive orca industry, by Erich Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, January 1, 1992.
  2. Article, “This is one whale of an outdoorsman: Sea World trainer likes working with killer whales and hooking largemouth bass,” The Palm Beach Post, July 13, 1989, p. 6C.
  3. Article, “SeaWorld Stake, Long Held by Blackstone, Is Sold to Chinese Firm,” by Michael J. de la Merced, New York Times, March 24, 2017.
  4. Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside (Magazine) Online, July 30, 2010
  5. Educator’s Guide, “Blackfish: Never Capture What You Can’t Control,” National Film Board of Canada, accessed December 15, 2020.
  6. Article, Former Trainer Slams SeaWorld for Cruel Treatment of Orcas,” by Simon Worrall National Geographic, March 29, 2015.
  7. Website, The Whale Sanctuary Project, accessed December 16, 2020.
  8. Report, Rose, N.A. and Parsons, E.C.M. (2019). The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, 5th edition (Washington, DC: Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection), 160 pp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.