News that SeaWorld has been administering benzodiazepines – psychoactive, Valium-like drugs – to some of its captive orcas on a regular basis should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching the amusement corporation’s activities over the last few years. After all, they have a pretty long history of shady behavior behind them. Let’s recap on some of their most outrageous shenanigans:
1. Tilikum’s Tragedy
The organization’s treatment of Tilikum – the “prize bull” of SeaWorld Orlando, who has sired 21 calves during his three decades in captivity – has been nothing short of sadistic. Cooped up in a small concrete pool, frequently isolated from his fellow orcas, and forced to endure the unremitting boredom and frustration that accompanies his captive state, Tilikum has been linked to three human deaths – most famously, that of his trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010.
Tilikum’s teeth have been worn down to stumps because of his stress-induced habit of gnawing on the bars of his enclosure. His dorsal fin has completely collapsed. And yet, SeaWorld remains in full-on denial mode, with Fred Jacobs, vice-president of communications, insisting that he is “doing well.”
Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, at the age of two. Last week, Helen O’Barry of the Dolphin Project wrote very poignantly on OGP about the life Tilikum might have enjoyed if he had remained free:
“(H)e would likely still be traveling the deep, chilly waters of Iceland for miles each day, going from one destination to the next. His world would have been one of tremendous diversity, new challenges, and boundless activities, such as hunting, playing, and socializing with pod members. With every leap pout of the water, he would see an endless ocean, free of barriers other than where the ocean meets the shore. At more than thirty years of age, he would have acquired the skills of a master hunter, and, under the experienced guidance of his mother, would have learnt an impressive number of team-oriented methods of hunting live prey.”
However, SeaWorld believes that he much prefers being fed dead fish and performing silly tricks.
2. Glossing Over the Truth
Rather than admit that its policies had anything to do with Dawn Brancheau’s death (or take it as a sign that orcas should not be kept in captivity at all), SeaWorld chose to gloss over the incident and place the blame squarely on Brancheau’s shoulders. SeaWorld President Dan Brown even had the audacity to state, “we have never, in the history of our parks, had an incident like this” – somehow forgetting to mention that Keto, a SeaWorld orca on loan to Loro Parque, had violently killed trainer Alexis Martinez just eight weeks before Brancheau’s death.
According to Carol Ray, who started working for SeaWorld’s animal training department in December 1987 – a month before trainer John Sillick was seriously injured by an orca at SeaWorld San Diego – the amusement corporation has a culture of providing little or no information to its employees about past trainer/orca incidents.
She says that the John Sillick incident “occurred when I was working as a tour guide. The information we were given in that department was that it was a ‘trainer mistake.’ Naturally when I started working in the animal training department I expected more information, and asked. I was surprised to get the same response – ‘trainer error, simple as that’ – and nothing more.”
3. False Pretenses
It appears that SeaWorld will do anything to make it look as though everything is fine and avoid facing up to reality. Anyone remember the shiny, happy facade they tried to project with their Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float last year? They have also done their best to look as though they care about their orcas by purchasing, amongst other things, ludicrous “whale treadmills.”
Last month, they even used a scientific paper on dorsal fin abnormalities within a small population of male orcas in New Zealand to make the sweeping statement that dorsal fin collapse is a common phenomenon amongst ALL wild orcas. Dr. Ingrid Visser (author of the paper and founder of The Orca Research Trust) alongside former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre, wasted no time in tearing apart this distortion.
Is it any wonder they’ve been nominated for a Worst Company in America award?
In a horrible, twisted kind of way, the revelation that SeaWorld administers psychoactive drugs to their captive whales makes sense. After all, there’s no way an orca could get through an inane, humiliating show like “Shamu Rocks” if they were in their right (non-drugged) minds.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, has accused SeaWorld of “pumping these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks,” while Dr. Ingrid Visser believes that the drugs are used to treat conditions that have been caused by captivity.
Visser says, “(The orcas) do not cope well being kept in these tanks. They survive to some degree, but they don’t thrive to any degree. They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank. There isn’t a single orca in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors, and in many of them you see multiple examples of these behaviors.”
SeaWorld has rather predictably responded to this criticism by going on the defensive. Fred Jacobs (the very same Fred Jacobs who claimed that Tilikum was “doing well”) told BuzzFeed, “The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.”
Uh, slight correction, Mr Jacobs: SeaWorld has proven, time and time again, that its highest priority is profit. Human lives, the truth, the “health and well-being” of orcas like Tilikum – when compared to the bottom line, none of those things seem to matter.
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Image Source: Arthur Caranta/Flickr