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April 07, 2014

See World From Orca’s Eyes

It’s been just a little over four years since the captive orca whale Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando. But largely due to a powerful documentary, “Blackfish,” so many Americans now see the issue of cetaceans in captivity from a different perspective, and there are serious questions about whether a business model built around captive display of orcas is either economically sustainable or morally acceptable.

OrcaiStockphoto. 
Orcas are noted for their striking appearance, their intelligence, and their very strong social bonds

The HSUS has long opposed the display of captive whales and other marine mammals for entertainment, and in the early 1990s we created a program to make our case to the public. Orcas, in particular, are noted for their striking appearance, their intelligence, and their very strong social bonds, which rival those of elephants and higher primates.

Yet we could not have imagined the sequence of events that has unfolded since Brancheau’s tragic death in February 2010. In May 2012, a federal judge affirmed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determination that SeaWorld had exposed its trainers to a hazardous environment, violating federal law, and affirmed OSHA’s recommendation that trainers never again be allowed in close contact with the animals unless protected by a physical barrier.

In 2012, St. Martin’s Press published the riveting book “Death at Sea World” by David Kirby, who spoke around the nation about the hazards for trainers and orcas at SeaWorld. “Blackfish” added the visual details to the narrative, and when it aired on CNN a number of times during 2013, it drew huge audiences, especially among young people. When I spoke just a month ago at the University of Oklahoma’s business school, it seemed as if all the students had seen the film.  The film had become a cultural phenomenon, and we recognized its director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, at our Los Angeles 60th anniversary gala a little more than a week ago.

We believe the book and the film provided an important backdrop as The HSUS and other groups pushed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2013 to reject a bid by the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.  And they also set the stage for the introduction of legislation to end the captive display and performance of orca whales in California. 

In fact, on Tuesday, California state lawmakers serving on the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in Sacramento will conduct a hearing on AB 2140, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, introduced by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, to phase out orcas in captivity in California.  Assemblyman Bloom’s legislation, if approved, would end the captivity of orcas for the purpose of entertainment in California. The HSUS supports AB 2140, and California residents can use our online alert to contact their Assembly members.

Scientific opinion over the last two decades or so has coalesced behind the case against keeping orcas and other marine mammals in captivity. We are too aware now of their intelligence, social needs, longevity, ranging habits and size, and it’s just harder and harder to accept their turning tricks for audiences day after day.

A few days ago, there were news accounts that attendance at SeaWorld facilities is down 13 percent. The company’s owner since 2009, The Blackstone Group, is filing to sell another 15 million of its shares in SeaWorld (SEAS), after selling off 18 million in December 2013.  That would make Blackstone a minority shareholder, which must make its ownership feel better given the run of events.  In the meantime SeaWorld is acquiring some of those shares, in effect trying to buy itself.  At this point, that may be the only option, since I cannot imagine many companies investing in an enterprise built around the controversial practice of captive display of orcas.  I don’t expect the public will want much to do with such an industry in the years ahead, and the sooner SeaWorld embraces a new model for doing business, the better.

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