Lindy Williams, ’14
Picture this. You are placed in a dorm room with no window, no door and no way out. You have an endless fridge, a bathroom and shower and a sink with running water. Technically you have everything you need to survive. But even if you were born into this scene, you would know something was wrong. You would look at your legs, feel your muscles and strength of your body and recognize the restlessness caused by the confines of this room. Now stay there your entire life knowing you will never leave, only able to interact with a person who appears daily to make you perform elementary mind games, and honestly tell yourself you wouldn’t go crazy.
This is life in captivity for SeaWorld’s orcas.
The movie Blackfish by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, was released in July of this year. It is an eye-opening account of the history of killer whales in captivity and SeaWorld’s involvement with them leading up to orca trainer, Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010 at Sea World Orlando. Although criticized by SeaWorld for not giving adequate credit to it’s successful zoological institution, rescue and rehabilitation efforts and public awareness programs, Blackfish raises many legitimate questions about the danger and morality of keeping killer whales in captivity.
Killer whales, or orcas, are self-aware mammalsone of the few animals other than humans that are. They thrive on miles of travel in cold open ocean waters and live in family groups called pods. The social structure of the pod is matriarchal. Female offspring will never leave their mothers and males stay until adolescence when they search for mates in another pod.
Tilikum, a large male orca, is one of SeaWorld’s main moneymakers. He was captured in 1983 when he was two years old and since has become a star of their shows and breeding program. Also, in the last 12 years, Tilikum has killed three humans, the last being Brancheau.
The importance of Tilikum’sstory is a call to all involved to recognize the aggressive tendencies these whales can develop from the stress of living in captivity. Neurologist, Lori Marino commented during a CNN interview[DM1] , that orcas will not be sufficiently stimulated by doing tricks with hoola-hoops and balls in a tank. SeaWorld’s orcas are suffering from psychosis.
So why are they still there? The answer is obvious. Profit over moral right. SeaWorld brings in over 1.5 billion dollars a year. Its supporters argue that SeaWorld educates and inspires, but is that what they really want to do? Their real goal is to keep paying customers coming to their amusement park shows.
These whales are miserable, psychotic, and dangerous. Want to raise awareness, SeaWorld? Shiftyour billion dollar industry towards whale watching outreach programs. Seeing orcas in the wild, THAT’s what will inspire kids. Inspire kids not to be trainers and continue the practice of captivity, but to become researchers and scientists instead. And inspire them to be advocates of conservation efforts that keep wildlife in the wild and respect animals as the dignity-deserving creatures they are.
As for the orcas currently in captivity? They simply do not have the skills to survive in the wild. Maybe the only solution is for a semi-release into a netted ocean bay where they can escape the treacheries of their tanks. Otherwise, as orca expert, Dr. Ingrid Visser would say, these captive performing orca’s retirements will only come with their death.
What’s important is that the conversation about orcas in captivity is growing. Parents are questioning whether exposing their kids to captive orcas at SeaWorld is really the right way to get them inspired about nature. As long as the conversation continues, Naomi Rose, marine biologist and animal advocate at the Humane Society of the US, would say that we’re on the right path to finally putting into play “what we’ve really learned from captivity… That it’s wrong.”