Who's the Killer

Written by Yahawa Ashaqua

Image by Daniel Cicchelli

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SeaWorld is a theme park of family fun and discovery. It’s a place where the public can interact with stingrays, dolphins, penguins, and other marine life. Behind the scenes, however, lies a world of captive animals, secrets, and horrors. When handling wild animals in captivity, there is always a downside. When habitat and care standards aren’t adequate, it can lead to the captive animal suffering adverse effects. In recent years, the negative impact of the animals in captivity at SeaWorld have surfaced, explicitly concerning the orca or killer whales. The suffering plight of the orca in captivity has led mental instability and a decreased lifespan due to captive conditions. Since this concern has been brought to the public eye, SeaWorld theme parks have suffered a loss in attendance.

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While most of today’s theme park killer whales were born in captivity, many whales have been taken from their natural habitats to be put on display since the 1960's. These kidnapping operations were strategic. Juvenile whales have pulled away while their families watched helplessly. Many of the early captured whales died shortly after apprehension due to unfit habitat conditions, which led to depression, illness, infections, and other complications. SeaWorld started its first killer whale attraction with Shamu in 1965, though live captures of whales peaked in the 70’s. Later, theme parks began to breed them in captivity by using artificial insemination. Currently, between all of SeaWorld’s locations, they house almost a dozen whales. While SeaWorld would claim that the lifespan of an orca is greater in captivity than in the wild, orcas do tend to survive better in their natural born habitats. Their average lifespan is not too dissimilar to that of a human (typical 60-80 years or females and 50-60 for males).

Life in captivity is entirely different from living in the wild as well. These animals weren’t captured to swim around in a tank. They go through rigorous training to prepare for shows where trainers use positive reinforcement to reward for completed activities with food or play time and take away such privileges when they do not behave correctly. Then they work for years performing several shows a day. Some whales are just kept around for breeding purposes though; the captive breeding program and orca shows are supposedly in the beginning stages of being phased out at SeaWorld. The remaining whales will live out the rest of their life in captivity where the minimum dimensions of their habitat are only required to be twice the length of its body and 12 feet deep. One can imagine that being in such a small enclosure similar to a prison cell could cause them to affect their mental health. They swim in circles without end, which is also the cause of dorsal fin collapse in captive whales. These animals are highly intelligent and - like humans - are capable of suffering from depression, stress, and psychosis, which could be the cause for some of their more violent behaviors.

Tilikum was one of the most famous whales at SeaWorld. His case was highlighted in a documentary called Blackfish. In this documentary, several people - including former SeaWorld employees - described the horrors that went on during Tilikum’s life in captivity. He was captured at the age of two in 1983, and from that point on was forced to live his life in captivity and perform shows. During his lifetime, he was involved in three fatalities. While it is common for trainers to sustain injuries during practice and performances, deaths related to an orca in captivity are infrequent. As of 2013, there were only four documented fatalities from killer whales, and three of the four incidents were linked to Tilikum. Two of them were workers, and one was a civilian. All of the trainers that had worked with him described him as being a kind and agreeable orca, but there’s only a thin line between play and aggression. Quite a few orca incidents started off seeming like play, to end with workers being seriously injured. Despite the fatalities on his record, SeaWorld did not retire him. He worked in theme parks for over 30 years. He was also a favorite for the captivity breeding program where they milked him for artificial insemination. Tilikum passed away just recently on January 6th, 2017 at the age of 35.

The Blackfish documentary brought to light the many issues orca suffer during their life in captivity. The problems were not just mental, but physical, as well. Orcas and dolphins in captivity tend to demonstrate specific stress-driven behavior, which can include injuring themselves and others in a variety of ways, potentially leading to scars, broken fins, broken teeth, and even death. Both dolphins and killer whales are highly social, but keeping them in such proximity and forcing them to perform for years without end is cruel and unhealthy. It is also dangerous for the animal handlers who interact with these creatures.

Blackfish emphasized the dangers of keeping animals in captivity like Tilikum and the treatment of the incidents surrounding him. The film was received well by critics while the company claimed the film was “inaccurate.” Since the release of the documentary in 2013, SeaWorld has suffered from its image and attendance rate. They have been down in profit and their stock price, which has pushed the company to change their marketing strategies to promote the park as more of a wildlife conservation learning center than a circus act. They are hoping to phase out Orca shows in all of their parks by 2019.

While the controversies surrounding SeaWorld and their animal treatment have simmered, a spotlight has been put on the subject of the conditions of animals in captivity. Throughout the years, many orcas have suffered in captivity, which has caused them to live decreased lifespans, suffer mental illnesses like depression and psychosis, and even be a danger to humans that interact with them. Now that these issues have been brought to the public eye, we finally see some progress at SeaWorld parks, but there’s still a lot more progress to be made regarding the welfare of captive animals around the country.