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October 17, 2011

Orcas Belong in the Wild

Humane Society International

  • The evidence against captivity is clear. Sergey Ivanov/istock

by Naomi Rose

Since 1964, killer whales, also known as orcas, have been entertaining people in theme park performances, showing off their dramatic black and white markings and beautiful acrobatics. But the glamor of the show has hidden what goes on behind the scenes, including dangerous interactions between trainers and whales, whales injuring each other, early deaths, and forced weaning of calves. The public is only slowly becoming aware of these negative aspects of the captive display of orcas.

Tragedy spotlights problem

The curtain was pulled back firmly last year, when a popular and experienced trainer at SeaWorld Florida, Dawn Brancheau, was killed in a horrific and violent manner by a whale named Tilikum in February 2010. The subsequent investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uncovered a great many negative facts about the maintenance of orcas in captivity, facts that are now being made public via the courts.

OSHA issued a “willful” citation in August 2010—“willful” is defined as plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety—and SeaWorld is contesting it. The court hearing to determine whether the citation stands or is withdrawn began on September 19, 2011, went on for one week, and will conclude in a second week starting November 15. The hearing is open to the public and all of the information presented in court, including testimony and documents submitted by both sides to be reviewed by the administrative law judge hearing the case, will be publicly available.

An alarming record

Witness testimony, mostly from SeaWorld employees, has revealed a long history of whales putting trainers at risk, not just in a couple of incidents, but in more than 100 for which the company maintains official records. During the OSHA attorney’s examination of a SeaWorld executive, it became clear that additional incidents never made it into the official records. In short, SeaWorld has been presenting a smiling face to the public while behind the scenes (and sometimes very much in front of an audience) captive whales have been acting dangerously and unpredictably.

Captive orcas have seriously injured dozens of people and killed four. However, there is no record of any wild orca seriously injuring or killing anyone at any time in history. The most logical explanation for this marked difference is that the psychological well-being of orcas is negatively affected by captivity, making the artificial proximity of people and orcas in a captive setting a disaster waiting to happen.

Awareness increasing

While this news is grim and there is no escaping the tragedy of Ms. Brancheau’s death, there is something positive to be found in all this. The revelations in the Florida courtroom are finally making transparent—to the ticket-buying public—what has been for too long a dirty little secret. Orcas in captivity are not happy performers. They are stressed captives whose relationship with their trainers is tense and unpredictable, far from the magical bond depicted in shows. Trainers believe they understand the way orcas think—and these intelligent animals do think—but the facts strongly suggest otherwise.

No one working that day at Shamu Stadium expected Tilikum to do what he did. He pulled Ms. Brancheau into the water and behaved in a way that seemed frustrated or angry. No one, including his trainers, knows why. But this was not an accident, in the sense of an event that was unavoidable or unintended; this was a deliberate act by Tilikum that left him isolated and a person dead.

Keep them free

The only predictably safe way for orcas to be trained is to keep barriers or distance between them and their trainers, as OSHA spelled out in its citation. However, this is arguably inhumane, since the interactions between captive orcas and their trainers are important to these very social animals. So clearly the only true solution to this dilemma, as animal advocates such as HSI have been saying for years, is to end the practice of keeping this species in captivity in the first place. And perhaps for the first time in 45 years, the general public is beginning to agree.

Dr. Naomi Rose is senior scientist for Humane Society International, specializing in international marine mammal protection issues.

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