SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment is a chain of marine mammal parks and theme parks located around the United States. One of its main attractions has been a killer whale show, where orcas are made to do unnatural tricks in front of audiences for food. Throughout the years, there has been much controversy about this attraction and it has been criticized by animal rights groups for years. Due to this controversy, SeaWorld has decided recently to cease to have its killer whale shows in one of its three locations and stop its breeding program for the whales, which will ultimately result in them having none in captivity sometime within the next twenty years. While they will still have the killer whales, it is said that they will push more natural encounters with them at the San Diego location, which will be more of observing them with more natural looking forced tricks to appease the animal rights activists. Yet, in the other two locations, the highly criticized shows will continue. None of the real problems with the treatment of the orcas regarding these shows or their habitats will be changing. It could be said that SeaWorld is trying to get on the good side of people by making the announcements they’ve made recently but do minimal work to actually fix any existing issues.
The start of the change in SeaWorld’s attraction in San Diego and the end of the breeding program is marked by the death of the most famously known killer whale at SeaWorld, Tilikum. Throughout Tilikum’s life in captivity, he has caused the death of three people; two trainers and one visitor to the park. It is debated in many circles as to why these people died and what Tilikum’s motivation was, but many people say it was because of his traumatizing time spent in captivity. It should be noted that all of these tragedies could have been prevented if there hadn’t been killer whale shows showing close human interaction with the orcas.
A movie was released in 2013 called Blackfish centered around the terrible treatment that Tilikum had endured that caused him to do what he did. Blackfish caused a huge drop in profit for SeaWorld, because the movie criticized the marine park and vilified them. The movie showed intense research done about the killer whales that piled things against SeaWorld and showed the consequences of keeping an orca in captivity.
Tilikum was captured in 1983, the capturing of these whales primarily involved high speed boats, nets, and even underwater explosives to scare the whales into going where the captors wanted. During an interview in the movie Blackfish, a captor of the orcas says that the pods, or groups the orcas travelled in, stayed and made noises like crying when separated from the captured whales. This is part of what vilified SeaWorld, the intense stress that the orcas feel after being separated from their families. SeaWorld also separates the parents from the offspring when they breed orcas and it is reported that this causes intense stress.
After he was captured, he was put in a small holding tank for about a year until he was transferred to a Sealand amusement park location. While at this location, he was put with two female whales that constantly were aggressive towards him and also was deprived of food as a training technique so he would perform eight shows a day, seven days a week. The fact that he was put with two orcas that were aggressive with him is very important because killer whales have very intimate relationships with the others around them to the point where if one is stranded on land and dying, others in the pod will refuse to leave the one and are often thought to strand themselves on purpose, thus killing themselves. Being taken away from his family and put into this environment is thought to have been a major causing factor for his aggression towards humans. When he was transferred to SeaWorld, he was once again put in an unnatural combination of orcas.
One of the things that is said to have caused Tilikum’s aggression is boredom. At both locations he was at, he was forced into a tank that was so many times smaller than the ocean he was used to. He was also forced to do repetitive tricks. There is research that says that orcas have as intense if not more intense emotional lives as humans. The different pods, or groups of orcas, are said to have individual dialect and noises they use to communicate, so an orca from one group would not be able to communicate with an orca from another group because of the language difference. This adds to the understanding that this treatment of killer whales that SeaWorld is doing is unnatural and cruel. A human also has a high possibility of being aggressive if they are locked in a small area with contact with only someone who spoke another language and then forced to do repetitive actions.
On February 21st, 1991, a Sealand trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped into the pool containing three killer whales and was repeatedly shoved under the water until she drowned. Tilikum was said to be the main whale to drown her. This was the first time in known history that a killer whale killed a human. Tilikum was then sold to SeaWorld, mainly for their breeding program and Sealand shut down because of the death of Byrne. Eight years later, a man named Daniel Dukes was found dead over Tilikum’s body. He had snuck into the tank overnight and was drowned and attacked viciously. Then, in 2010, a trainer named Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water by Tilikum, her cause of death was determined to be drowning and blunt force trauma.
Despite this aggressive behavior, SeaWorld continued using Tilikum in their breeding program and performances until his death on January 6th this year. Many animal rights groups have spoken out and mourned him, but have also rejoiced in the fact that he is finally free from the foul treatment he suffered through throughout his life. While the end of SeaWorld seems to be in sight because of the backlash from their horrible treatment of animals, it seems as though an evolution of the programs is enough hope to keep the business thriving. As observed so far, SeaWorld will surely find its way into the media spotlight in one way or another.