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The Prisoners of Sea World
Since the premier of the controversial documentary Blackfish in 2013, accusations against Sea World’s care of their Killer Whales have surfaced. Investigators most significant cause of action is the tragic life story of Tilikum, the biggest attraction at the park for over twenty years, and how he formed an undeniable psychosis from the torment of captivity that has led him to kill three people. After all these years, the mental, physical, and emotional health of the Orcas has finally been investigated and Sea World’s secrets have been exposed. The whales in Sea World’s tanks, while seemingly happy performing their cute tricks, are stressed from captivity and all it entails to the point of a mental anguish that causes suffering, pain, loss, injuries to both the animals and the trainers, and the deaths of three people.
Tilikum, everyone’s favorite animal to see at Sea World, can balance a trainer on his back as he glides through the water, he can make a splash with his twenty-two foot long body that gets an entire audience wet, and he can perform amazing flips and dives that can’t be seen by any other whale anywhere else. But behind this masquerade of a happy, playful, whale, Tilikum has a dark past. At age two, in 1983, Tilikum was captured in the wild near Iceland, breaking the close bounds he had with his pod and mother. According to “30 Years and Three Deaths: Tilikum’s Tragic Story”, for nearly twelve months, he awaited transfer to a marine park in a dark, lonely cement tank in Iceland. He only had room to swim in circles all day, every day, which was nothing like the vast ocean he used to call home. After that, he was transferred to Sea Land, a marine park in Canada, where he was forced into a thirty-five foot deep pool to learn tricks and perform stunts that were unnatural to a wild orca. When Tilikum didn’t learn the tricks fast enough, no food would be given to him or the two other orcas that resided at Sea Land with him.
His nights there were the hardest for him; the two more experienced whales were frustrated that their food was withheld because of Tilikum’s inexperience. Every night, when all three whales –each much more than ten feet long- were crowded into an even smaller, dark, metal module, the two whales would drag their teeth across Tilikum’s back, a behavior called ‘raking.’ This torment went on nearly every night for fourteen hours straight until the park opened in the morning, and Tilikum could escape for a few moments of peace in a dingy swimming pool. This beautiful, giant, creature being oppressed in such a small habitat is bound to have some mental damages. “Can you imagine being in a small concrete enclosure for your life when you’re used to swimming 100 miles a day?” (Blackfish)
On February 21, 1991, Keltie Byrne, a trainer, fell into the pool in front of a full audience. She was dragged under the water by Tilikum and battered by all three orcas. Tilikum’s frustration, stress, and damaged mental state caused him to snap. His aggression led to the trainer’s death. After the shocking death of Byrne, Sea Land closed its doors and Sea World quickly purchased the biggest male orca in captivity for its breeding program, despite his reputation (‘30 Years and Three Deaths”).
Now the father of 54 percent of all captive orcas, Tilikum is an incredible animal that has been used in many performances over his twenty-one years at Sea World, with his many descendants following suit (Blackfish). But when he first arrived, he was again attacked by females in his enclosure, and his enormous body and undersized living space made escape impossible. Soon, his frustration and pain turned to aggression, and Tilikum has instigated numerous attacks against people, including lunging out of the pool at the trainers. These attacks escaladed to the loss of two more lives- Daniel P. Dukes’ and Dawn Brancheau’s (“Should Killer Whales Be Tourist Attractions”).
Orcas have never attacked or killed a human being in the wild. But in captivity, there has been a total 128 incidents in where the whales have showed aggression due to the stress of captivity and all the hardships that they suffer because of it (“Incident Analysis”). These attacks show a strong correlation with whale’s separation from its mother.
No matter the whale’s age, in the wild, –because of the orca’s strong need for family bonds and to uphold their advanced social structure- the whales never leave their mothers. But in Sea World they claim to have never separated a calf from its mother, never breaking the heart-warming connection this intelligent species obtains unless it’s for the benefit of their long-term health (“Killer Whale Social Structure”). But the tragedy Kasatka, the mother to Takara, went through is proves that statement a lie.
Kasatka and Takara were very close; a mother-daughter bond that is common, but special, in orca whales. It was decided by Sea World that Takara should be taken from her mother and sent to a park in Florida, where she would never see her mother again. Once Takara was lifted out of the pool on a stretcher and even as she reached the airport, Kasatka didn’t stop crying out and making vocals (noises produced by whales), cries that have never been heard before. “They brought in a senior research scientist to analyze the vocals [cries]. They were long-range vocals. She [Kasatka (mother of Takara)] was trying something that no one had even heard before looking for Takara. That’s heartbreaking. How can anyone look at that and think it is morally acceptable? It’s not. It is not okay.” (Blackfish- Interview with Trainer close to Takara) This is only one of the cases of intense grief seen in these animals.
A dedicated organization online, called Orca Home, has crafted an incident analysis report, stating the connection between orphaned calves and their aggressive tendencies. Over fifty other orcas have shown unnatural and dangerous behaviors; this ‘psychosis’ –as some experts in Blackfish have called the perilous behaviors of captive whales- is not an isolated case. “All whales in captivity have a bad life. They’re all emotionally destroyed. They’re all psychologically traumatized. So they’re ticking time bombs” (Blackfish). These behaviors aren’t unique to Tilikum.
The other orcas at Sea World have been through similar trials in their youth as Tilikum. Their care and health –all aspects of their health: mental, physical, and emotional- at the famed marine park is now under the microscope.
“And, living in these habitats, our whales show every sign of physical fitness including healthy weight, muscle tone, respiratory efficiency, strength and heart rate. While our whales do not live the same lifestyle as their wild counterparts, this difference does not translate to negative welfare of these animals” (“Killer Whale Health & Daily Care’).
This quote from Sea World’s official website never truly touched on the mental health of the animals in their care, only saying that they’re all happy to perform those stunts for an applauding crowd and live in the concrete enclosures. But the process it takes to do the tricks –tricks that go against the normal, primitive, nature of the orcas- that these intelligent animals perform causes them great stress to learn and executed.
Sea World also claims that their ‘international recognized standards’ may keep the whales physically well, but they don’t explain the social bonds they’ve broken by separating pods and the grieving mother’s they’ve left behind. They also dispute any accusation that the orcas or Tilikum is mentally unsound due to years of anguish in confinement (“Sea World Unleashes 8 Assertions”).
Sea World’s staff has stated that the orcas that they have living together are now a family, a pod. Social bonds are critical to a healthy life of an orca, and so they claim they’ve created a ‘pod’ for this assortment of whales. “And they say that they’re a family. That the whales are in their family. They have their pods but that’s just an artificial assemblage of their collection. However management decides they should mix them–whichever ones happen to be born or bought or brought in–that’s not a family” (Blackfish).
Sea World’s staff, especially the trainers, has also reinforced the idea that the whales and their trainers have a close relationship. There is no doubt that loving relationships can form between human and animals. But many people, such as Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist consulted on for Blackfish, wonder if this relationship is based on reward and punishment rather than love. The trainers have the food that the orca’s want; have the whales shown happiness because they love their trainer or they expect food?
“When you think about the psychology of the trainer and the captive, it’s not a healthy relationship, clearly. Because there’s somebody that has complete control and someone who doesn’t. So the extent that a captive can have, you know, a close relationship with a captor — I’m not sure that can be a healthy relationship in a real sense” (“Inside the Mind”).
If the trainers and whales have a close relationship, it still doesn’t satisfy their need for a true pod. This lack of a family leads the orcas to an isolation of sorts, which is one of the causes of their violent tendencies.
All of these issues above were first truly brought to the world’s attention with the airing of the documentary Blackfish. This enlightening film brought to light the candid operations at Sea World, the truth on how orcas aren’t made for entertainment, and the shocking deaths and ‘accidents’ that have occurred over the years because of the disturbed mindset of their entertaining whales. The public began demanding a response from the famed marine park, and news sources quickly picked up the story. Soon everyone began to ask if Sea World’s concept –keeping such intelligent and potentially unsafe animals as entertainers- is ethical at all. First, Sea World blamed Dawn Brancheau for her own death, saying she did not handle Tilikum properly- even though she was the senior trainer, worked with Tilikum, and praised by nearly everyone in her field.
Sea World asserted the eight most important things that the film got wrong, listed in the article “SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About Blackfish and Filmmakers Respond.” They span from topics on whales attacking each other to Dawn Brancheau’s death. Each was accurately disproved by the Blackfish filmmakers. (For all eight assertions, visit the article SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions About 'Blackfish' and Filmmakers Respond listed in the bibliography.) Sea World’s stumbling defense in this article and others, their ‘explanation’ for each death occurring with Tilikum never ringing true, and their lack of evidence to refute the other accusations are all indicators that something unethical is happening at the well-loved marine park.
Twenty-one years of confinement led to Tilikum’s mental instability, and he played a hand in three deaths. Many more captive orca whales have similar stories, and many whale activists against Sea World believe that these whales will have similar behaviors like Tilikum, leading to more unhealthy whales and regrettably, more chance of deaths. Unless Sea World changes how it views these intelligent, social creatures and how they use them as show dogs, the mental and emotional health of these whales, trapped in what is basically proportional to a bathtub, will not improve. We can’t ignore what researchers have found about these whales. These animals grieve when they’re children are stolen from them. They mourn the death of their mothers. They can lose their healthy mentality when they lose their pod.
The orcas in captivity deserve freedom, happiness, healthiness, and most of all, peace of mind. But simply freeing them back into the ocean wouldn’t be the healthiest for most of the whales featured in Sea World; most were born in captivity and others could have an unhealthy view of human interaction and attack people in the wild. We must find a way to right this wrong. This injustice that has been inflicted on these animals will not go unnoticed. The first step is to stop being naïve to the history of the once beloved vacation destination. Sea World is anything but ‘As Real as It Gets,’ as their motto so transparently deceives. These whales were not made to perform tricks in swimming pools. For the safety of whales and humans alike, Tilikum, and all the captive whales, are owed a life lived in freedom and family, not concrete.