By Hana Koutsavlakis
Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP (via National Geographic)
SeaWorld, the theme park situated in Orlando, Florida, is a famous marine mammal theme park known for their killer whale, sea lion, and dolphin shows. SeaWorld’s collection of marine mammals, and more specifically their orcas, have been a controversial topic over the past few years.
Over the span of 30 years, Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity (weighing in at 12500 pounds and measuring 22 feet long) has attacked and killed three trainers. Tilikum is a symbol of SeaWorld’s mistreatment towards whales and other marine mammals held at the park.
Tilikum was captured when he was only two years old, split from his family and ocean home near Iceland in 1983. After being placed in a marine zoo in Iceland he was transferred to SeaLand in B.C., Canada. In 1991, Keltie Byrne, a trainer at SeaLand, fell into the pool where all three of the orcas were being trained. Tilikum pulled her to the bottom of the pool, tossed her around, and ended up drowning her. SeaLand closed after Byrne’s death and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.
Over his 21 years at SeaWorld, Tilikum has shown aggression towards humans which has resulted in the death of two other trainers. Both Daniel P. Dukes and Dawn Brancheau died after being tossed around in the pool by Tilikum, much like Keltie Bryne’s death. After Brancheau’s death in 2010, Tilikum was kept in a very small enclosure, isolated from humans and other orcas. After a year of isolation, Tilikum continued to be trained and he kept performing despite the risk to the trainers at SeaWorld and his own health.
In 2013, a documentary film, Blackfish, was produced after Brancheau’s death at SeaWorld. The documentary led to a decline in SeaWorld’s attendance, profits, and overall worth.
Finally, now in 2016, SeaWorld has announced their partnership with the Humane Society of the United States. Over the next five years, SeaWorld will be donating $50 million to fight illegal fishing of whales and seals and end shark-finning. The partnership will focus on putting an end to whale breeding at all of the SeaWorld parks, making this the last generation of performer whales at the parks. At this point, releasing the remaining orcas into the wild will most likely kill them. A few have been captured from the wild but most have been bred in captivity and are unfit to survive in some of the harsh conditions that come along with the wild.
For this reason, the orcas will be kept in captivity until they all pass away. Until then, they will no longer be used in their usual shows. Apparently, the orcas will now be displayed in more “natural” settings for the public to see. But what about the other mammals that will continue to be held in captivity once the orcas are gone? Does it make it right if captive animals are placed in more “natural” settings or should having them on display in any circumstances be put to an end?
Unfortunately, there wasn’t an announcement about ending their dolphin breeding programs. According to Shawn Noren, a physiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before Blackfish came out, kids “were giddy to meet our dolphins. Now, they want to know why we have these animals in tanks.” Noren has studied the physiology of whales and dolphins at marine parks for 20 years. She believes that keeping some of these animals in captivity is crucial towards further understanding their development.
To most animal behaviouralists, the step towards having a whale-free SeaWorld is great news for the orcas who need much more space in comparison to the other mammals in captivity. Dolphins are much more manageable in captivity and scientists haven’t learned too much from them yet. It seems that since dolphins are so adaptable and are very valuable to researchers in different fields, they will continue to be bred at the parks.
Although a huge step has been made towards creating a free world for future generations of whales, I can’t help but feel skeptical about what is to come for other mammals in the future. Is research enough of a reason to keep animals in captivity? And how valid is the research scientists are collecting if most of their subjects are depressed and deprived of their wild, free life?
It’s fantastic that future whales, like the innocent Tilikum who has suffered in SeaWorld’s care, will be given freedom. But it is no coincidence that SeaWorld’s partnership is happening at the same time as their plummeting success and popularity.