I’m guilty. I’ve pressed my hands flat against the glass walls and laughed at the dozing lions on the other side. I’ve yelled at sleeping baboons, trying to make them just do something already. I’ve cheered when the trainers blew their whistle and the sea lions jumped out of the water, touching the red ball with their nose. I’m guilty of looking at wild animals and viewing them as dumb and harmless creatures. I’m guilty and I know that now.
SeaWorld is guilty, too, but they won’t admit it.
They are guilty of confining animals in small spaces, of tearing families apart, of forcing young female orcas to breed and of lying to the media. On their websites and in open letters to the public, they list facts that can easily be disproven through simple research.
SeaWorld said that their “killer whales’ life spans are equivalent to those in the wild,” when the average orca’s lifespan in captivity is reportedly nine years, while in the wild orcas can live past 50. SeaWorld says that they value “the bond between mother and calf,” yet there have been almost 20 incidents where the mother and calf were separated, causing grief on both ends.
Last year, a documentary called “Blackfish” came out that directly addressed these issues. Before watching the film a few weeks ago, I liked to think that I was aware of the different forms of animal cruelty, but I was so, so wrong.
I had no idea that young orcas were captured from the ocean while other members of their pod drowned in the surrounding nets. I didn’t know that the amusement park in Victoria, BC, kept their two ton orcas in 20 by 30 feet floating steel boxes at night. I didn’t know that female orcas were forced to breed before they matured, or that their calves are taken away from them.
“Blackfish” showed me how psychologically damaged orcas become while in captivity. The film focuses on Tilikum, perhaps the most known orca in captivity who weighs 12,000 pounds. He’s known for killing three people. His most recent murder was in 2010 in Orlando, Fl. Head trainer Dawn Brancheau was doing a show with him when he grabbed her arm with his teeth and pulled her into the water.
SeaWorld did not release the story truthfully, at first. Originally, they said that Brancheau tripped and fell into the pool. When eye witnesses denied that story, SeaWorld said that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail, which she kept too long and it was therefore her fault. Eventually, people found out the truth: that Tilikum had dragged Brancheau into his tank by her arm, bruised her body, cut her skin and tore off two limbs.
There are no records of an orca causing a human being harm in the wild. Leave an orca in a cement pool for 25 years and you get three murders. And it’s not just Tilikum who’s harmed people — there have been over 100 reported incidents in which an orca behaved violently in captivity around the world. A man working in Spain’s amusement park Loro Parque was killed by an orca in 2009. In 2001, an orca broke a trainer’s leg during a performance in France. In England, a trainer was dragged down to the bottom of the pool in 1971.
“Blackfish” reporters interviewed former SeaWorld trainers, ex-whale hunters, neuroscientists, researchers and experts on killer whales, who all said the same thing: orcas are highly intelligent, social creatures. But the animals on display in SeaWorld are enclosed and treated poorly. When children go to SeaWorld, they don’t see intelligent and evolved creatures — they see circus animals.
I don’t want SeaWorld to close — I want SeaWorld and marine life theme parks all around the world to take responsibility for their actions. I want them to accept that they have messed up and figure out how to care for wild animals because what they’ve been doing isn’t effective. I realize that it’s unrealistic to release all of the wild animals in captivity because they were not raised in their natural habitats; they weren’t raised to learn how to hunt, or follow the currents, or live in a pod or swim nearly 100 miles a day. While “Blackfish” supports its argument that orcas in captivity suffer, the film itself did not offer a solution, and did not mention Keiko, an orca who was released into the wild and died of pneumonia.
SeaWorld already spends millions of dollars on their orcas, but instead of paying for cages and pens, they should create an enclosure in the ocean. Make it big enough for orcas to swim more than a few yards, and let them live with orcas who are compatible with them.
SeaWorld, you are guilty. You enforce the glass walls that encompass the orcas. Yes, you rescue and treat injured animals and release them back into their natural habitat. Yes, you conduct research that the whole world appreciates. But those good deeds don’t erase the fact that there are animals in your care who are suffering. It’s time to take action.