SeaWorld of exploitation and desperation


After the release of CNN’s “Blackfish,” SeaWorld has continued its ad campaign to try to improve an image that has been thoroughly tarred and feathered as of late. I will be the first to admit that, after watching “Blackfish,” I wish that CNN had made more of an attempt to offer SeaWorld’s point of view, even if the theme park declined to participate in the documentary. Former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons, for instance, seems to have more of an objective point of view, yet he claims to have been interviewed by CNN for the better part of three hours for the film, only to have just a snippet of it to appear in the final cut.

Here is Simmons, who worked at the park from 1987-96, in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News:

I was physically present during many of the events that (the trainers) talked about in the movie, and I can tell you firsthand they completely misrepresented, provided disinformation and in many cases blatantly lied about those events.

I think CNN did have a clear agenda, and as a bit of failed journalism, did not put forth enough effort to portray multiple sides of the story as it relates to the treatment of orcas at SeaWorld.

That being said, SeaWorld has not done itself any favors in public relations in first, declining any and all interviews with CNN in responding to criticism. I suspect that SeaWorld has done this with the mindset that if officials respond, that would automatically give legitimacy to its critics, but I think it conveys the opposite message. By refusing to tell its side of the story to the media and the public and just releasing its own barrage of ads in an attempt to passively save face, it is operating as if it’s in its own insular cocoon, ever evasive and skirting transparency, not unlike Scientology or other subversive outfits coming under public scrutiny.

In any case, SeaWorld, cultish as it is at this point, has chosen it’s path, so let’s take a look at one of its ads currently making the rounds on TV:

First off, let me say that I went to SeaWorld in San Antonio once as a child, and excited as I remember being about seeing the whale show — Shamu, now deceased, was all the rave at the time — I always thought it was a little bizarre that having the whales simply do tricks in the water was not enough. SeaWorld had the whales get up out of the water and onto this platform at the front of the pool, do more tricks, splash the crowd, etcetera, like some clown of the deep.

Memory fails me on whether the particular whale I saw that day in the late 1980s or early 1990s had a bent dorsal fin, but watching the videos as an adult and seeing this deformed physiology seems now like a perverse show of exploitation, and however safe and humane SeaWorld may be in its treatment of orcas, the setup is certainly far from natural, as anyone can see. As this paper from Dr. Ingid Visser suggests, the prevalence of bent dorsal fins in wild male orcas is very low in most locations, at less than 5 percent in British Columbia and less than 1 percent off the coast of Norway. In captivity, however, this phenomenon is common.

According to a paper from the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

The collapsed dorsal fins commonly seen in captive killer whales (Hoyt 1992) do not result from a pathogenic condition, but are instead thought to most likely originate from an irreversible
structural change in the fin’s collagen over time (B. Hanson, pers. comm.). Possible
explanations for this include (1) alterations in water balance caused by the stresses of captivity or
dietary changes, (2) lowered blood pressure due to reduced activity patterns, or (3) overheating
of the collagen brought on by greater exposure of the fin to the ambient air. Collapsed or
collapsing dorsal fins are rare in most wild populations (Hoyt 1992, Ford et al. 1994, Visser
1998, Ford and Ellis 1999) and usually result from a serious injury to the fin, such as from being
shot or colliding with a vessel.

In any case, in one of its latest ads, two doughy-eyed SeaWorld workers outline some “facts” SeaWorld would like to clear up about its handling and care of orcas.

The ad really only presented two actual “facts,” so I’ll take a look at these here:

  • “We don’t collect killer whales from the wild and haven’t for 35 years” — While it is nearly impossible to substantiate this claim, SeaWorld is, as we speak, profiting from a number of orcas that were indeed captured in the wild, whether directly or from third-parties. Corky II, 47, currently living in SeaWorld San Diego, was captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1969 and is the longest surviving captive killer whale in the world. Although she does not have the bent dorsal fin like a lot of her fellow captives, this characteristic is mainly seen in males of the species. Katina, who lives in SeaWorld Orlando, was captured in Iceland in the late 1970s. Tilikum, of course, is currently living in Orlando and was caught off Vancouver Island in Canada. The whale first lived at Sealand of the Pacific. Ulises, captured in 1980 in Iceland, currently resides in Seaworld San Diego. So, while it may be true that SeaWorld has not and does not currently engage in catching orcas in the wild, the company has by this time bred enough of the animals that were previously captured, either directly or indirectly, to continue profiting off these animals for years to come. Yet, its current attempt to now wash its hands of the practice is disingenuous at best. Imagine a plantation worker in the antebellum South who once bought and profited off the back of slaves. Although most of them were no longer engaged in human trafficking by the mid-18th century, they were still benefiting from the practice and were very much a part of the legacy of that noxious system. By the same right, merely putting up a barrier of years between the present and the shameful years in which hunters were engaged in a veritable free-for-all of animal poaching does not allow SeaWorld to escape complicity.
  • “Our whales are healthy” and “thriving” and “they live just as long in the wild.” — PolitiFact rated this claim as half true and partially misleading. First, of course, whales have the potential to live longer in a facility because they don’t have to worry about predators and other environmental factors, so while the lifespans may be comparable, this claim doesn’t offer a full picture. Second, the argument that the whales are “thriving” is nothing more than pure conjecture and wishful thinking. They may look happy enough performing tricks on the pool platform, but the evidential record that captive whales can become understandably aggressive because of their cramped confines, develop bent dorsal fins, sustain injuries and undergo other mental and physical issues is so substantially documented that to suggest orcas thrive more so in captivity than they would in their own free-ranging environment is laughable.

    Here is PolitiFact’s conclusion on this claim:

    At its core, this claim is an oversimplification of a much more complex issue. Recent independent data suggests that survival rates for captive and wild orcas are about equal, but that by itself isn’t all that significant, experts told us. The data is limited and comparisons between orcas in captivity and in the wild are tenuous. Experts also noted that logic suggests captive whales should live longer because they don’t face predators and receive medical care, which makes SeaWorld’s claim further misleading.

While the public may be led to believe that the ads are purely the result of SeaWorld trainers wanting to clear up misrepresentations and assert how much they care for the whales, significant losses in attendance and revenue are really what’s behind this PR campaign that smacks of corporate desperation.

I have no doubt that most or all of the trainers currently working at SeaWorld facilities “love” the animals and may want to see them thrive, the common sense stands on its own: Killer whales, nor any other species of wild animal, can’t possibly be happier living in a cage or pool than they would be in an open world environment, of which, so long as the operation of their theme parks are profitable, suits at the corporate offices at SeaWorld presumably don’t care two wits.

So long as the largely ignorant and uninformed public continues supporting places like SeaWorld and helping the company churn out hundreds of millions in profits, the exploitation will continue. For, if SeaWorld really “loved” these animals from the board room right down to the training staff, they would simply find another, less injurious business model and cease profiting off the exploitation of the natural world.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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