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July 18, 2012

‘Death at SeaWorld’ Highlights Growing Movement against Keeping Orcas in Captivity

Rough water continues to swirl around the normally placid pools at SeaWorld, which recently appealed an administrative law judge’s decision to uphold an OSHA safety violation citation against the theme park after the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010. SeaWorld thinks its business model depends on putting trainers back into the water with killer whales, and it’s trying to make that happen. Yesterday, the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission declined to hear SeaWorld’s appeal, so it’s going to have to go to the U.S. Circuit Court for further redress.

Orca closeup
iStockphoto
Orcas don't belong in captivity.

The appeal process coincides with the release of a page-turning new book that chronicles the death of Brancheau and other victims of captive orcas, as well as the many instances of serious trainer injury at SeaWorld. David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld: The Dark Side of Shamu and Killer Whales in Captivity tells the backstage story there and includes statements by SeaWorld trainers and officials, as well as visitors.

Kirby’s book is also a chronicle of the sad lives of Tilikum and other orcas held by the multimillion-dollar marine park industry, one that delves into the ramifications of keeping killer whales in captivity. In his disturbing account of how Brancheau died during the “Dine with Shamu” performance, Kirby makes it horrifyingly clear how serious those ramifications can be for human safety and orca well-being.

Brancheau’s high-profile death, and Tilikum’s quieter banishment from the show for over a year, continues to raise the question of whether orcas should be kept in captivity. Kirby’s book explores the answer to the question as he pulls the curtain back on orca performance, uncovering a hidden history of human endangerment and harm to orcas that will be hard for SeaWorld to transcend. Death at Sea World is an open letter to the world about the inherent cruelty and risk of keeping orcas in captivity and having them perform for human pleasure. It features The HSUS’s marine mammal scientist, Dr. Naomi Rose, who has been perhaps SeaWorld’s biggest critic in the last two decades.

SeaWorld has been scrambling to position itself for the OSHA appeal, reopening the pool where Brancheau was killed, and spending millions of dollars on high-tech safety features such as fast-rising bottoms for pools and emergency “spare air” oxygen systems for trainers. SeaWorld claims these measures will make swimming with these top ocean predators just as safe as not swimming with them at all. If the only hazard a trainer faced was drowning, this might be true, but Tilikum did not just drown his victim–Brancheau died primarily from blunt trauma, after he slammed and shook her. A whale could do that about as easily stranded at the surface as at the bottom of a pool, unfortunately.

More fundamentally, these measures do not address the concern that millions of people worldwide have for the welfare of the orcas in SeaWorld’s care. The real arena of decision concerning orcas in captivity is not the courtroom, but the domain of public opinion. On Monday, The HSUS released a poll along with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Animal Welfare Institute. As a gauge of attitudes regarding the keeping of orcas in captivity, the first of its kind, the poll shows that today more Americans oppose the practice of displaying orcas than support it, some 40 percent to 26 percent. The main reason cited for opposition is concern for orca welfare. This should give SeaWorld and the other keepers of captive orcas serious pause, as should the findings that strongly held opposition outnumbers support for captivity by a three-to-one margin (24 to 8 percent) and that 71 percent of those surveyed said that they would continue to visit zoos, aquaria, and marine theme parks even if they ended the keeping of orcas in captivity.

One thing is certain–Dawn Brancheau’s death was not meaningless, and the past two-and-a-half years have seen the captive orca debate come to the forefront as a matter of public concern. Kirby’s book asks us to consider the plight of this enormous, social, intelligent predator, kept in small tanks merely for our amusement.

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