The killer whale captivity debate; AKA the real life version of the film “Free Willy”.
Once upon a time there was a company called SeaWorld. They had parks in Florida, Texas and San Diego in California.
SeaWorld’s main attraction is the “theatrical” performance shows including orcas AKA killer whales. The orcas perform stunts and flips and used to carry trainers on their backs. SeaWorld killer whales are either captured from the wild, or bred in captivity. In 2010 a whale called Tilikum dragged trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater, killing her. Linked to two previous deaths, Tilikum still performs at Seaworld Florida to this day. After Brancheau’s death SeaWorld trainers are now banned from entering the water with Orcas. 2013 documentary Blackfish sparked a massive debate over whether killer whales should be kept in captivity. Despite branding it “false and misleading” SeaWorld’s ticket sales and share price values plummeted.
In 2014, SeaWorld promised to build bigger tanks for its Orcas by 2018. Earlier in 2015 the San Diego park was banned from breeding killer whales in captivity. The ban doesn’t cover the other parks in Texas and Florida. SeaWorld now plans to phase out theatrical killer whale performance shows in SeaWorld San Diego by 2017. If you were hoping SeaWorld might release the whales, think again. “Phase out” doesn’t mean there won’t be killer whale shows. A new killer whale experience will replace the current shows. It will focus on the whales in a “more natural” setting. The current “theatrical” performance shows will continue in Florida and Texas.
Zoology student Helen Morrison believes that orca captivity should never happen;
‘Orcas suffer hugely as a result of captivity. In the wild they form strong family bonds that are not allowed in captivity. The amount of space they have is also ridiculous compared to what they have in the wild.’
Killer whales are big. They are usually around 20-30ft long and males can weigh more than 6 tonnes. To put that in perspective that’s almost the length of an American school bus. They can travel around 100 miles a day in the open sea. Whale and Dolphin Conservation estimates that to achieve this distance a whale would have to swim 1,400 times around the main SeaWorld pool. Ever get the feeling you’re going around in circles? So putting whales in a pool which to them is the size of a bathtub is probably not the best idea. Animal rights activists argue that captive whales die quicker than wild ones. The average life expectancy for SeaWorld whales is 13 years. Whereas US government estimates put the life expectancy of an a wild orca at around 30-50 years. Something has to explain this? Activists blame distress caused by captivity for the many times captive killer whales have lashed out at trainers. It’s not just deliberate attacks you have to watch out for. This video shows that putting a massive whale next to a trainer in a small space is a very silly idea.
SeaWorld faced a massive backlash after the release of the Blackfish documentary. They released an open letter, contradicting the claims made in the film. SeaWorld also set up the website SeaWorld Cares to combat some of the accusations in the film. They say it creates “false impressions” by highlighting certain events. For example it shows the separation of a mother whale and her calf. According to SeaWorld the calf was only moved as it was being disruptive to the mother. SeaWorld supporter @ClassyKalia believes the filmmakers showed a ‘clear bias‘ against SeaWorld and that this is a ‘journalistic crime.’
“The film did not inform viewers of potential bias that the interviewees might have, such as that Lori Marino is an employee of the Non-Human Rights Project or that Howard Garrett, Carol Ray, and Samantha Berg joined with PETA in suing SeaWorld for a “violation” of the 13th amendment.”
Blackfish has also been criticised by SeaWorld Truth, an independent blog which reports news about SeaWorld’s conservation efforts. According to them the film was intended to make the viewer feel more than think.
‘Many of the former trainers also had very little to no actual hands on experience with the whales or with Tilikum specifically, but yet they spoke in the film as if they had intimate knowledge and experience with him.’
In an interview with CNN, SeaWorld Vice President of Communications Fred Jacobs further defended the company.
‘At SeaWorld more than 11 million people each year (hundreds of millions since our first park opened its gates in 1964) have experienced killer whales in a way that is personal, enriching and inspirational….It is our hope that every person who has visited SeaWorld leaves with a greater understanding of and appreciation for all the animals we display, including killer whales.’
Keeping animals in captivity does mean that we can learn more about them. Fred Jacobs mentions scientific research by SeaWorld which has enhanced our knowledge of these animals. SeaWorld supporter @ClassyKalia got to see this research being carried out. “They are trying to figure out what makes orcas tick, and what makes them stressed… it’s going to help them learn more about wild whales and their conservation.”
‘They’re also doing a study on a mother-calf pair, Kalia and Amaya, to see how nutrients and toxins travel from the mother to the calf from the milk, which could be very helpful in saving the whales off Washington state who are highly polluted.’
What about the fact that killer whales travel 100 miles per day? According to Fred Jacobs this is more likely ‘foraging behaviour.‘ So, as SeaWorld provides all the food the whales don’t need to travel for miles looking for snacks. SeaWorld Truth agrees that searching for food is one main reason for wild whale migration.
‘In captivity, there is never a need for the whales to swim great distances to find their food because there is always a plentiful supply of sustainable food provided for them.’
A blog post on TheDodo counters some of the claims about whale starvation. Testimonies from other trainers state that anyone starving whales was ‘using techniques not taught to us in the SeaWorld system.’ Some anti-captivity activists want to see the captive whales released into the ocean. Yet this might not be a good idea. Keiko, the whale used in the film “Free Willy” died only a year after his release into the wild. Conservationist Dr. Jordan Schaul argues that it would be ‘negligent’ to release captive whales. Their immune systems would not cope with the ‘degraded conditions’ of the ocean. SeaWorld is clean; the ocean is dirty.
In focusing on killer whales we shouldn’t forget about the other animals in captivity all around the world. Though we haven’t all gone to SeaWorld many of us have been to a zoo. Is this any different? Even if animals aren’t made to perform they are still away from their natural habitat. Sometimes it’s hard to remember this when we’re taking a picture.
As Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish puts it: ‘I’d see hundreds of children smiling and think, ‘How can something that makes people so happy be such a bad thing?’ All of us are complicit, starting with myself.’
Captivity may seem cruel, and many think that conditions do need to improve. However some argue it can have benefits for animals and humans alike. What’s your view on killer whale captivity? Are you all for freeing Willy, or is that just silly?