So there you have it. SeaWorld’s orcas are not happy. So much so, that their caregivers prescribe the veterinarian equivalent of Xanax and Valium – benzodiazepine – to get some of them through the day, according to recently leaked documents.
Sea World was already in hot, hot water after the negative buzz created by the scathing documentary BlackFish. Now the water is even hotter.
The practice of giving orcas psychoactive drugs was exposed in a dispute between SeaWorld and their rival company, Marine World, over the transportation of a prized male orca, Ikaika. The confession was made in a sworn affidavit filed in the Ontario Superior Court, where the dispute is being handled.
The affidavit states that psychoactive drugs are administered to ”mellow” the orcas to ”take pressure” off them when kept in unnaturally close confinement with other orcas.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) seized this leaked information and ran with it, hoping it may spell the end of orca captivity. They believe this is proof that captive orcas have dangerous mental health issues and that the practice of imprisoning these highly intelligent and social creatures must become illegal.
Jared Goodman, Director of PETA, told Buzzfeed (the website that broke the story), “the veterinary records show that orcas at SeaWorld are given psychoactive drugs to stop them from acting aggressively towards each other in the stressful, frustrating conditions in which they are confined instead of funding the development of coastal sanctuaries – the only humane solution.”
Sea World, of course, defended the use of psychoactive medication with this statement:
“Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting. These medications can be used for sedation, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures. The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld that the health and well-being of the animals in their care.”
PETA and other animal welfare advocates retort that the drugs are being used to cover up mental health issues that are anything but normal – and the direct result of being in captivity.
Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust argues that killer whales are obviously highly stressed from captivity. She lists a number of abnormal repetitive behaviors such as head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self-mutilation. Every captive orca, she says exhibits one of these behaviors and some, in fact, display multiple examples of these signs of chronic stress.
PETA’s President, Ingrid Newkirk does not mince her words in sharing her organization’s position. “SeaWorld is pumping these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks.” (If you want to tell SeaWorld to stop giving drugs to orcas, you can sign this petition.)
Will these leaked documents, combined with the third death of a SeaWorld orca trainer and the release of the stunning documentary, BlackFish, spell the end of society’s acceptance of orca captivity?
Personally, this is the final straw for me. I grew up in Southern California and thus annual trips to SeaWorld are a memorable part of my childhood. Years ago, I was super excited to take my children to see Shamu – and we went – but then I remember feeling really conflicted. As an adult and animal advocate, I realized during the show that this was not right and we will never go again. Orcas, like so many other intelligent and social animals, do not belong in captivity, no matter how much the public can benefit from the education and experience. This captivity, denial of free will and forced performance for the economic benefit of an owner is too akin to slavery. It is time to grant the freedom deserved by killer whales and other equally intelligent and emotional beings.
Fortunately, a forward-thinking California lawmaker has proposed a ban on orcas in captivity. Richard Bloom saw BlackFish and was so moved he decided to take action. His newly-proposed legislation the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, if passed will make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes.”
In essence, this law would shutter all killer whale shows in California. SeaWorld would thus be required to rehabilitate and return all their orcas to the wild where possible. The bill would also make the import and export of killer whales across state lines illegal, meaning the ten orcas currently held captive in California would have to either be released back into the ocean or if necessary, stay in coastal sea pens not open to the public.
So the time has clearly come for orcas to get off drugs and for the injustice of orca captivity to end. The good news is, that if the latter is done, the former will no longer be necessary. Thank you BlackFish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and California lawmaker, Richard Bloom, for helping make sure this happens sooner than later.
Sign this petition to ask California lawmakers to support and co-sponsor Bloom’s landmark legislation.
Next page: National Geographic footage of orcas in the wild and a news clip announcing the Richard Bloom orca legislation.