I am ashamed.
I have seen Blackfish and it made me ashamed that I had visited SeaWorld with my children. If you felt the same way after seeing that documentary you must read David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity.
Tilikum, the orca at the center of Blackfish, and the death of Dawn Brancheau, along with the deaths of Keltie Byrne and Daniel P. Dukes, plays a central role in the narrative of Death at SeaWorld but the story is a much broader indictment of the entire entertainment industrial complex that has been created around captive killer whales.
The death of three people traced back to a single killer whale in captivity and dozens of serious injuries attributed to other killer whales in captivity is just one part of this sad story. The most compelling part of Death at SeaWorld is the way in which the deaths of the killer whales themselves are laid bare for the reader. It’s a veritable slaughterhouse of cetaceans.
It’s the entire reason for the Shamu ruse. What’s the Shamu ruse? The original Shamu is dead. The original Shamu has been dead for over 40 years. But, by using the stage name for a number of killer whales SeaWorld is able to keep up the appearance of a single performer. Since 1971, 36 killer whales have died while in SeaWorld’s hands including the original Shamu. Only one, Orky 2, reached the age of 30.
If you want to check out the carnage for yourself just spend some time U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory database. I use the searchable database created by the Sun-Sentinel which has data from 2010.
Another great source of information about the deaths of killer whales in captivity is the list put together by the Orca Project. As of December 5, 2013 the figure was 159 deaths in captivity. Horribly, this number does not include the number of unsuccessful births which would add another 30 deaths to the list.
Not only are these intelligent and social animals ripped from their family groups, forced to integrate with other orcas from vastly different social hierarchies, and live in environments completely devoid of the stimulation required to satiate their curiosity, but it is likely that the animal will die much younger than their wild counterparts. Regardless of the marketing spin and public relations hackery that SeaWorld’s mercenaries pitch the fact remains that killer whales in captivity lead lives that are less healthy and shorter than wild killer whales.
Orcas at SeaWorld are bred in a way that reminds one of the worst practices of puppy mills, which are universally condemned for poor conditions. Animals are inbred—sometimes even having a young male impregnate his mother—and are bred in such a way that creates hybrids of differing orca populations that would not have occurred in the wild.
A common argument is that SeaWorld does valuable research on killer whales, but an objective review of the literature shows that almost all of the research is related to husbandry—which benefits SeaWorld’s own captive breeding program and does nothing to advance our knowledge of wild populations—and very little money is spent on research. If you read the quarterly filings with the SEC—SeaWorld is a publicly traded company so their financials are public record—the company describes itself as a “leading theme park and entertainment company…” Not once in the Business Overview does the company talk about research. Sure, a few animals will get rescued and some may even get returned to the wild—always with a lot of press coverage—but SeaWorld, at its core, is an entertainment company exploiting animals.
What value do we place on seeing the majesty of these animals? It is a common argument that SeaWorld provides an opportunity for people to see marine animals that may be impossible otherwise. I will ignore the fact that a single day admission for an adult to one of the parks costs ~$80 and a child not much less, so a family of four is looking at spending more than $300 just to get inside the park for the day. The fact remains that what we see in these parks is not the majesty of a killer whale, but a depressing distillation of artifice that cheapens nature.