The debate over human trainers performing in the water with killer whales, the ocean's top predator, has reentered the national dialogue now that a judge handed down a harsh rebuke to SeaWorld after it sought to overturn a safety violation in the 2010 death of Orlando employee Dawn Brancheau.
But for many observers, the real question is not about putting trainers in the water with orcas; it's about putting orcas in the water surrounded by massive stadiums filled with blasting music and camera-toting tourists. The stress this puts on these huge, intelligent, free-ranging creatures is believed to be enormous.
After carefully researching this issue for two years, I have joined other animal lovers in concluding that the public display of captive orcas is detrimental to the animals; and dangerous for people. It is time to start phasing out this entertainment relic that will one day be consigned to the history of bygone amusements, such as the cruel spectacle of Victorian-era dancing bears. Captivity for this particular species is wrong.
The Occupational Safety and Health Commission determined, and Judge Kenneth C. Welsch concurred, that close proximity to captive orcas is inherently hazardous. The evidence is overwhelming: Four people have died in killer whale pools and dozens were injured, some severely.
SeaWorld touts its safety record, noting that its well-trained killer whales largely perform without incident. One executive testified that they display predictable behavior in 98% of all interactions. But that means that in 1-in-50 interactions they do not perform as instructed. Any vehicle with that flimsy of a record would have been yanked from the road long ago.
There are no reports of any serious orca attacks on people in the wild. But those at SeaWorld have lunged at trainers, pulled them in the water, held them at the bottom, head-butted them, slammed them with tail flukes and breached on top of them. The safest orca, clearly, is a wild orca.
The 12,000 pound killer whale Tilikum, the world's largest captive predator, drowned a Canadian trainer in 1991, surgically opened the scrotum of a man who snuck into the tank in 1999 but did not make it out, and brutally killed Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Two months before Brancheau died, trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in Spain was violently rammed and killed by Keto, an orca on loan from SeaWorld.
But captivity, of course, is not just tough on the captors. Captive orcas have an annual mortality rate 2.5 times higher than those in the Pacific Northwest. Among some of those pods, males live up to 70 years, with an average life expectancy of 30, and females live to 90 or more, with an average life expectancy of 46. Most captive killer whales die in their teens and twenties, sometimes under excruciating circumstances.
SeaWorld's vaunted "human care" for its orcas is thus questionable. Trainers often stuff the gills of food fish with antibiotics, antacids and vitamins, and inject them with fresh water, because freezing, storing, thawing and processing fish reduces its nutritional value and fresh water content. Orcas such as Tilikum receive some 80 pounds of gelatin daily to combat dehydration. On the day he killed Brancheau, he was being treated with a variety of meds to combat illness.
Meanwhile, some whales break and wear down their teeth on metal gates and must have the pulp removed with a power drill. Teeth are flushed daily to prevent food from causing deadly infections. SeaWorld calls this "world-class dental care."
SeaWorld rationalizes the sub-par life for its killer whales by claiming to promote education and conservation efforts to save the world's oceans. But contrary to popular belief, SeaWorld conducts only limited scientific research on its killer whales and does little to improve orca habitat. A careful review of the published, peer-reviewed literature shows that most studies done on SeaWorld's orcas pertain to the husbandry of captive animals, with little benefit for those in the ocean.
Even more disheartening, SeaWorld does not exert much effort toward saving the threatened and endangered orcas of the Pacific Northwest or the wild salmon on which they depend. It has spent more than $65 million on new safety devices to get trainers back in the water with orcas, but precious little to save the Southern Resident population of the Northwest, which was hit hard by SeaWorld whale collectors in the 60s and 70s and has never fully recovered.
Because SeaWorld and other marine parks no longer capture wild orcas, they rely on breeding programs to propagate their highly profitable collections. But artificial insemination (mature males are masturbated almost daily) has created a legacy of orcas closely related to each other in a way that never happens in the wild.
Most SeaWorld orcas are unnatural hybrids -- bizarre mixtures of fish-eating resident whales and mammal eating transient whales from the Pacific, and Icelandic whales from the North Atlantic. Many of Tilikum's descendants are being bred with each other. In one grotesque case, a young male impregnated his own mother, something that is as socially taboo in wild whales as it is in human societies.
Finally, unlike most animals that generate profits by entertaining humans, captive killer whales are not allowed to retire. They work literally until they die. Many of the older whales deserve early retirement in a remote sea pen.
It is up to the courts and the government to decide if people should be allowed to perform in the water with killer whales. But it is up to the public, especially those who pay $80 or more to visit SeaWorld, to decide if orcas are better off in tanks, or in the ocean where they naturally evolved.
All of the statistics and other facts in this article were taken from David Kirby's new book, "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity," to be released July 17 by St. Martin's Press.