Basu: SeaWorld should end orca captivity altogether

Basu: SeaWorld should end orca captivity altogether

Pia Basu, Columnist

Since the success of the 2013 film “Blackfish,” SeaWorld has seen a significant drop in theme park attendance and profits as the American public appears to have become increasingly disapproving of keeping orcas in captivity to make them perform.

In response to the growing public opinion, SeaWorld announced on Monday it would be phasing out its orca shows at its San Diego location so as to accommodate its customers’ changing preferences for watching whales behave as they would in nature as opposed to performing tricks. CEO Joel Manby told his company’s investors that whale shows, which formerly included Shamu performing stunts with his trainers for an audience, will now “offer a different kind of orca experience focusing on the animal’s natural setting and behaviors, starting in 2017.” SeaWorld also aims to emphasize conservation efforts and focus more on educating park guests about whale and sea creature behaviors. This park policy change is likely also an attempt on SeaWorld’s part to mitigate their public relations nightmare. However, the change will only take place at the San Diego location, while the Orlando and San Antonio parks will continue the same orca shows.

As we learn more about the problems that arise from SeaWorld’s captive orcas, it becomes clear that these announced changes fall short of the most honorable outcome: ending all orca captivity at SeaWorld.

“Blackfish” addresses the issues that arise when orcas are held in captivity, forced away from their families and into artificial social groups contained in relatively tiny tanks where they must perform every day. The movie also offered a behind-the-scenes look into the way in which SeaWorld’s management allegedly mishandles the deaths of their trainers. The film specifically looks at one male whale captured from Iceland named Tilikum, who along with two other orcas, killed a trainer. The film features testimonials from former SeaWorld trainers who claim to have been given misinformation by SeaWorld management about the true dangers that working with orcas poses.

In some instances, trainer deaths as a result of aggression from whales were classified as tragic “accidents.” Supposedly, new trainers were often not aware of prior dangerous incidents with the whales.

The movie also describes how orcas are accustomed to swimming hundreds of miles a day within their family units; they are highly socialized creatures who can experience human emotions such as grief and actually have more complex brains than humans. In the film, a former orca hunter likens taking baby orcas away from their mothers in the wild to kidnapping a human child.

Experts agree that whales are capable of having a sense of self, language, collaborative skills and a strong sense of family and community. Whales in captivity are constantly in distress and have been known to maul each other and develop serious tooth and digestive problems.

Practices such as food deprivation when orcas make mistakes as enticement to perform tricks are not uncommon. It makes sense that whales kept in captivity display different behavioral traits than they otherwise would in the wild. The severe discrepancies between their lives in the wild and their lives in SeaWorld’s captivity almost certainly account for their aggressive or psychotic behavior. Park executives notably declined interviews for the film.

The fact of the matter remains that even if the focus of the orca show shifts to natural behavior, whales are still being kept in captivity, meaning they will still pose a danger to their handlers and experience similar physical and psychological problems. Changing the nature of the orca shows doesn’t change the fact that they are not living as they would in the wild, which is the real issue.

It’s hard to imagine a SeaWorld without orca shows at all, especially given the awe that the orca shows and other sea animal exhibits inspire for young children and their families. I’ve seen the movie “Blackfish” and feel appalled by the corporate cover-ups by SeaWorld management as well as fascinated by how socially intelligent these whales are. To me, keeping and breeding these emotionally complex and dynamic creatures and locking them away in relatively tiny tanks is inhumane. But, admittedly, my fascination with and deep appreciation for, whales and dolphins only began after my parents took me to see Shamu shows at SeaWorld in Orlando. It’s even harder to think about a world without SeaWorld, but marine mammals, especially whales, are meant to be wild. This recent policy change in San Diego is no cause for real celebration.

For years now, SeaWorld has profited from the misery these animals endure. Now that we recognize the extremely negative effects this practice has on their physical and mental wellbeing, it is time to end orca captivity altogether.

Pia Basu is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.