After refusing to grant interviews or contribute its side of the story to the making of Blackfish and months of dismissing the film and its continued backlash, SeaWorld has finally responded publicly in defense of keeping orcas captive in an attempt to clear up any “inaccuracies” about the park that are being spread around.
The film Blackfish follows SeaWorld’s decades long involvement in capturing orcas and covers the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, raising larger questions about the issues involved in keeping these marine mammals in captivity. SeaWorld has been a popular tourist destination, but that may become a thing of the past thanks to the widespread attention the film has received and the growing awareness and understanding about just how bad captivity is for these apex predators.
Whale and dolphin advocates have documented a number of issues with captive marine mammals over the years and have highlighted abnormal behavior, captive breeding disasters, depression, poor dental health, aggression, injuries, the effects of stress and death from diseases they would never contract in the wild as a few of the problems that come with confining these animals in tanks, but theme parks continue to defend themselves and exploit the animals in their care.
The public’s reaction to Blackfish has been a strong one. It’s stock is tanking and people are publicly vowing never to return, while kids have protested and gotten fieldtrips to the park canceled. Eight out of ten of the artists SeaWorld Orlando had booked for its Bands, Brews and BBQ concert series have made headlines of their own with announcements that they’re pulling out over Blackfish, including Trisha Yearwood, Cheap Trick, Martina McBride, 38 Special, Barenaked Ladies, REO Speedwagon, Willie Nelson and Heart, leaving only Justin Moore and Scotty McCreery on the roster.
SeaWorld has stayed relatively quiet about the film, but it seems to have finally gone into damage control mode and has published an open letter on its website, in addition to taking out full-page ads in the Orlando Sentinel, USA Today, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among other news outlets, in an attempt to “get the record straight” and clear up what it believes are misconceptions Blackfish has caused.
SeaWorld goes on to list some of the “important facts” that contradict the horrors shown in the film and calls its employees “true animal advocates,” but a slew of animal advocacy organizations including Sea Shepherd, the Orca Network, PETA and the Oceanic Preservation Society, along with some former trainers who were involved in the film have responded in kind with their own open letters calling out SeaWorld for its continued spin on the truth.
Claim #1: SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
SeaWorld claims that due to the “groundbreaking success” of its captive breeding program (if you can call inbreeding a groundbreaking success), it hasn’t taken an orca from the wild in 35 years and only two of the whales currently in its care were captured.
What it fails to mention is that it didn’t exactly have a change of heart on the issue. The violent roundups it took part in decades ago and subsequent outrage are part of the reason we now have the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which banned the capture of marine mammals in U.S. waters.
It also failed to mention the role it’s currently playing in the Georgia Aquarium’s attempt to import wild-caught belugas from Russia to the United States. The permit request was denied by NOAA Fisheries, but the aquarium isn’t giving up and sued over the decision, despite the known threat that live-capture poses to the already small population.
There’s also Morgan, a young orca who was rescued off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010 and was later deemed unfit for release. She was moved to a marine park in Spain where SeaWorld keeps some of its whales and will be bred and trained to perform. Orca advocates argue that she could have been successfully released and are fighting to have her set free, which has been done successfully before. Springer, an orphaned orca, was reintroduced to her pod and was spotted with a calf of her own this summer.
Claim #2: We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
SeaWorld asserts that it doesn’t separate mothers and calves and that whales are only moved to “maintain a healthy social structure” or on the “rare occasion” that mothers reject calves. Experts contend that this may be technically true, if a calf is defined as one who is still nursing. However, orcas stay bonded with their mothers for life and are routinely separated from them by marine parks.
The Orca Network’s Amy Costanza countered to SeaWorld that “You have shipped killer whales all over the world like they were Amazon.com packages, almost never reuniting mother and calf. These ‘rare occurrences’ seem to happen quite often at your facilities judging by the numbers of frequencies at which you have broken up killer whale families.”
Claim #3: SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
SeaWorld argues that the life spans of its captive orcas are “comparable” to those in the wild, stating that five of its orcas are older than 30, with one being close to 50. However, this statement has been called out by the groups mentioned, who argue that the older orcas in SeaWorld’s care are an odd exception, not the rule, and that most die in captivity before even reaching maturity.
According to the Orca Network, and others, “the average life span for males is 30 years and 50 years for females. Males can reach an estimated maximum age of 60-70 years old, and females 80-90 years old.”
SeaWorld’s attempt to use lifespan as a justification for keeping them also ignores their quality of life. Does anyone really want to live to be 150 if they have to spend the whole time alone in a cell?
Claim #4: The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
SeaWorld claims that its work with “universities, governmental agencies and NGOs to increase the body of knowledge about and the understanding of killer whales” and that its research has “significant real-world benefits” for wild orcas, but doesn’t say what they are and continues further down to argue that keeping them captive is the best way to get people interested in conservation.
According to the Oceanic Preservation Society, “SeaWorld has published very few scientific papers on the species and what it has contributed to our understanding of their biology was learned some time ago. SeaWorld contributes almost no information today that addresses the protection of wild orcas.”
Even if research and education were SeaWorld’s core goals, which as a for-profit business they aren’t, orcas, in theory, would not be kept as performers. Even then, sacrificing a complex being just so the public can gawk at it would still be a questionable practice at best.
Claim #5: SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
SeaWorld stated it spends $70 million on its orca facilities every year, but a tank is still a tank and no amount of money can turn a tank into an ocean.
Claim #6: SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.
While SeaWorld does rescue, rehabilitate and release wildlife, no one seems sure how successful its programs actually are and its certainly not throwing down money for conservation efforts. Claiming to be a leader in animal rescue also has nothing to do with exploiting marine mammals for a profit and certainly doesn’t justify continuing to do so.
Sea Shepherd notes that according to its 2011-12 Annual Report, SeaWorld has given only $9 million dollars over the last decade toward conservation efforts. To put that in perspective, the park brings in $1.5 billion every year and raked in $538.4 million this past July through September alone. Sea Shepherd continues, “That means for every 100 dollars in revenue they bring in, they donate approximately 1 cent toward saving the animals in the wild whose captive counterparts they are exploiting. That’s .0001 percent of their income going to help animals in the wild. I think that might be the most telling point of all ― that, in fact, SeaWorld is really nothing more than a money-making enterprise.”
As it turns out, Blackfish is having the exact effect SeaWorld was pretending it wouldn’t. It convincingly tapped into people’s emotions and led many to draw their own instinctual conclusion that something is terribly and inherently wrong with severing strong family bonds and confining these incredibly complex animals in tanks, regardless of how many facts and figures either side can come up with.
Even after sharing this letter far and wide, protesters still rallied in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio on December 22, thanks in part to a birthday wish from an adorable 5-year-old boy who asked the public to help him help the orcas by staying away from SeaWorld.
Make a New Year’s Resolution for Captive Orcas
Sea Shepherd is calling on orca lovers to send in photos or a short video of themselves holding signs stating that their New Year’s Resolution is to never attend SeaWorld or other marine parks again. To participate, send your stuff to firstname.lastname@example.org before 5 pm PT on January 4, 2014.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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