It’s a beautiful, sunny day on February 24, 2010 and excited audience members sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the show to begin. Tilikum, the 12,000 pound male Killer whale, emerges from the pool in a spectacular flip; the entrance of yet another of the thousands of performances he’s put on for SeaWorld over the years. The kids in the audience squeal with delight as the 22-foot whale and his 3 co-stars splash waves of water out of the pool with flaps of their tails. Forty-year-old veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau stands by as the shows grand finale approaches. The 4 Killer whales simultaneously jump out of the pool and flip as the crowd goes wild. The whales, including Tilikum, return to their respective trainers for their rewards, the audience begins to file out, and the 30-minute performance comes to an end. Moments later, Dawn Brancheau is pulled into the water and killed by the whale she worked with and trained for years. This wasn’t Tillikum’s first attack, and it won’t be his last…
What led this intelligent, majestic animal to attack in the first place? And what has SeaWorld done to improve working conditions and prevent something like this from ever happening again? After looking back into the history of SeaWorld, let’s look into the aftermath that struck the amusement park after Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death. We will discuss both sides of the debate on whether or not Killer whales should be kept in captivity and then look at the ethics behind the company that has been making a profit off doing just that for half a century. Was it Tilikum’s fault that Brancheau died that day or was it bound to happen anyway? Finally, we will look at where SeaWorld’s business is now and what could happen to them in the future.
SeaWorld has been entertaining guests with marine life and breathtaking shows for over 50 years. In the beginning, many of the animals featured at the water park were captured at a young age and held in captivity for their entire lives. In the last couple of decades, SeaWorld began buying Orcas that have already been held captive and cannot be released into the wild, as well as breeding the already captive whales. The fact still remains, that no matter how big their captive homes are, nothing is comparable to the natural habitat in which these animals came from. SeaWorld’s website claims that “For more than 50 years, we have been a leading theme park and entertainment company delivering personal, interactive and educational experiences that blend imagination with nature and enable our guests to celebrate, connect with and care for the natural world we share.” However, in recent years they have faced serious criticism since the death of the beloved trainer. More and more information has been uncovered about the true living conditions for the Killer whales held in captivity. Because of that, SeaWorld has dealt with declining attendance, major PR battles, and severe backlash from the documentary Blackfish, which aired in 2013.
Blackfish has been called “upsetting and scary” and “a damning documentary about the treatment of the animals by marine parks” by the Washington Post (O’Sullivan, 2013). The film features interviews from former SeaWorld trainers, clips of interactive shows with Killer whales, horrifying images of how the animals were captured from their natural environment, and detailed recounts of a number of tragic deaths caused by captive whales at SeaWorld. The films director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite stated that she was “initially trying to make a movie about the relationship between humans and animals that focused on the bond between Brancheau and the Killer whales at SeaWorld.” (Lee, 2014). Cowperthwaite notes that the movie became so much more than what she intended because of everything she uncovered while looking deeper into the behind-the-scenes of SeaWorld. “But ultimately, I think the trainers and the animals are safer as a result of this film,” Cowperthwaite states in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. The film had a much bigger effect than she ever could have imagined. Protesters and critics began popping up all over the country, and SeaWorld started to see the backlash that this documentary stirred up.
This fiscal year has been one of the worst that SeaWorld has seen.
As you can see in the image above (courtesy of Yahoo Finance), net income has continued to decrease over the last 5 years. Since 2010, the percentage of net income growth has declined from 21% to -34%. Less people have been attending the shows, which means that the company is bringing in less revenue. “SeaWorld reported that attendance at its parks declined by 4.7% – from 19.9 million to 18.9 million guests – compared to the same period in 2012” (Zimmermann, 2014). Worse for the company is that their stock price has also continued to fall, posting an all time low this quarter of $17.07 (Yahoo Finance, 2014). Financial analysts assume that this could be due to a recent termination of long time partnership with Southwest Airlines. The partnership provided promotion for both companies, and without it, SeaWorld has definitely taken a hit. Southwest released a statement that included, “We have a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together. We are engaged with SeaWorld related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen.” (Zimmermann, 2014). Many performers that were set to put on concerts at SeaWorld also backed out based on requests from their fans that are against the amusement parks.
The term “Blackfish Effect” was implemented to describe the hit that SeaWorld took from the public, including a campaign website called “SeaWorld of Hurt” whose logo depicts the whale from SeaWorld’s logo chained to a ball that forms the letter O in the word “World”. PETA set up the website as a source of information for those against SeaWorld. It doesn’t hide it’s bias with obvious stabs at the company including the motto “Where Happiness Tanks” under the logo and articles that refer to the water parks as “abusement parks”. One of the featured articles on the site is titled “9 Times SeaWorld Lied to Your Face” and lists many reasons why Orcas should not be kept in captivity.
Let’s take a step back and look into the social, health, and psychological needs of Orcas in order to better understand the aggression from protesters who are against SeaWorld. Why have people just recently decided to question the ethics behind this company when its been operating the same way for decades? To discuss this, we must first look at and compare the livelihoods of both wild and captive Orcas. Blackfish exposes many reasons why keeping Killer whales captive is unethical based on how they live in their natural environment. One of the main differences is that in the wild, Killer whales live in close family groups and are extremely social, while captive whales are brought in from oceans all over the world and separated from their mothers at a young age. In the wild, Orcas travel in pods composed of caring, attentive mothers and their young. They hunt cooperatively and work together to make sure that every member of their pod gets to eat. There is also scientific evidence that whales in different pods have different languages. Meaning that when foreign whales are put together in a pool at SeaWorld, they have difficulty communicating with each other, which often leads to tension and conflict. The whale pods are matriarchal and have a social hierarchy with older females on top and young males at the bottom. When foreign whales are held in close proximity in their pools, they attack each other to try and establish dominance over the others. They fight and “rake” each other, which is a term used to describe when one whale scrapes its teeth down the skin of another, leading to scarring and bleeding. Why isn’t this behavior documented in the wild? Because, “in the ocean a whale can get away” (Brower, 2013).
These are just a few of the main points mentioned on SeaWorld of Hurt and in Blackfish that argue against keeping Orcas captive. More include the physical and mental health of the whales. For example, healthy bull Killer whales in the wild have a stiff, straight dorsal fin that can reach 6 feet in height (NOAA Fisheries). As you can see in the pictures below, the whale on the top is a healthy, wild bull, while the whale on the bottom has a floppy dorsal fin; a very unhealthy sign.
Scientists believe that the droopy dorsal fins are caused by the lack of exercise these captive whales experience. In the wild, Orca’s swim over 100 miles per day, a distance that would equal 1,900 laps around the main pool at SeaWorld (SeaWorld of Hurt, 2014).
Is there anything that SeaWorld can do now to improve the living conditions of the whales that they own? For starters, they need to increase the amount of space that the whales have by a lot. When SeaWorld was first established in 1964, there hadn’t been any studies or past cases to estimate the amount of space these animals would need. Now that people are aware of the issue, SeaWorld would have to invest millions of dollars in renovations to improve the situation. But even this wouldn’t begin to change the way that people now perceive the way the amusement park operates. A recent article published in the Orlando Sentinel discusses the ways that SeaWorld has begun to fix it’s image. “I think we’ve just realized we have to do a better job of telling our story, sharing the good work we do,” said Aimee Jeansonne Becka, a representative for SeaWorld (Pedicini, 2014). The “good work” she is referring to is the fact that SeaWorld has pledged $10 million to Killer whale research, in an effort to show the world that they care. However, a different article points out that records show “SeaWorld has given only $9 million over the last decade toward conservation efforts. That means for every 100 dollars in revenue they bring in, they donate approximately one cent toward saving the animals in the wild whose captive counterparts they are exploiting” (Shepherd, 2013).
Tilikum, the first (and at the time only) Killer whale to attack and kill a human, was captured off the shores of Iceland in 1983. Before SeaWorld, Tilikum was a performance whale at Sea Land in Canada. There he led a stressful life and was constantly punished for not completing tasks correctly and could go for long periods of time without being given any food. Many believe that a combination of stress, frustration, and confinement led him to his first incident with attacking and killing a trainer. Sea Land immediately shut it’s doors and put the whale up for sale. At the time, he was the largest whale held in captivity, so when SeaWorld heard news of his availability, they jumped on the opportunity for a new breeding whale. Former SeaWorld trainers who worked closely with Tilikum admitted in an interview in Blackfish that they had no idea of the whale’s history. Does SeaWorld have the responsibility to disclose potentially life threatening information such as a whale’s former aggression, to its trainers? Absolutely. There is no question whether or not SeaWorld’s employees deserve to know what they are getting into, especially when it could make the difference in saving a life. In Dawn Brancheau’s case, what went wrong? Why didn’t SeaWorld shut it’s doors forever after this tragedy? What exactly happened on February 24, 2010?
After every show, trainers and their whales are required to have “relationship time” in which they lay quietly together in shallow water, make eye contact and connect with one another (CNN Transcript: Blackfish, 2013). As seen in the video below, a family who attended Dawn’s show that day recounts the details of what happened at the moment of the attack.
Brancheau was laying with Tilikum, when he took her ponytail in his mouth, rolled over, and pulled her to the bottom of the pool. Autopsy reports include details of crushed ribs, lacerations and abrasions, and the fact that the whale took off and swallowed the woman’s arm. In its defense, SeaWorld made claims that Dawn slipped and fell into the pool where she died. After eye-witness videos were released, SeaWorld then changed their statement to place blame on Dawn’s shoulders for wearing a pony tail. “Dawn, if she were standing here with you right now, would tell you that it was her mistake in allowing that to happen” said former SeaWorld Executive, Thad Lacinak in an interview for Blackfish. Meanwhile, there are thousands of videos with trainers, including Dawn, wearing their hair the same way and not having a single problem. Many think it was just a matter of time before Tilikum acted out again; the longer he is in captivity, the more psychological problems will build up for this poor, majestic animal. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist is quoted in Blackfish, stating that, “All whales in captivity have a bad life. They’re all psychologically traumatized. So they are ticking time bombs. It’s not just Tilikum.” (CNN Transcript: Blackfish, 2013).
What is SeaWorld’s response? They’ve tried to disprove facts exposed in Blackfish, they’ve had current trainers speak out against the film, and they’ve had trainers that were interviewed in the film retract their statements. They’ve set up a page on their company website titled “Blackfish: The Truth About the Movie” that lists reasons why the film is “propaganda, not a documentary”. Denise Lee Yohn, a branding consultant and author brings up the point that, “Rather than fighting a public-relations war, SeaWorld should probably focus on making big changes in its parks” (Pedicini, 2013). However, they still hold wild animals captive. Tilikum spends his days in a small pool, only performing at the very end of shows as the grand finale. In an attempt to increase the safety of whale trainers, OSHA pushed a bill to be passed that all SeaWorld trainers must have a physical divider between themselves and the whales at all times. A judge passed the bill, however SeaWorld fought back and appealed the ruling (CNN Transcript: Blackfish, 2013).
The “Blackfish Effect” really comes down to whether or not the documentary inspired a change in the way SeaWorld treats its animals and protects its employees. “I don’t think SeaWorld speaks the language of ethics, of right and wrong. But they do speak ‘Revenue’. This could spur meaningful, massive change on their part,” Cowperthwaite said on the impact that her film should have (Tribune wire reports, 2014). “I don’t care why they change. I just want them to change.”
For now, it appears as if SeaWorld is here to stay, but they have absolutely noticed the effects from Blackfish. They know that in order to maintain their business, they must change the way these animals are kept. Even those who dispute Blackfish, like former SeaWorld trainer, Bridgette Pirtle, still speak out against keeping the whales captive. “[SeaWorld] would spend millions of dollars renovating a children’s play area or revamping the sound system. But there wasn’t enough pool space.” (Lee, 2014). Pirtle argued that Blackfish was not what she expected it to be, however she has fought with SeaWorld to change their conditions. Blackfish ends with a quote: “It’s time to stop the shows. It’s time to stop forcing the animals to perform in basically a circus environment. And they should release the animals that are young enough and healthy enough to be released. And the animals like Tilikum, who are old and sick and have put in 25 years in the industry, should be released to an open ocean pen so they can live out their lives and just experience the national rhythms of the ocean.”
O’Sullivan, Michael. “‘Blackfish’ Movie Review.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 25 July 2013. Web.
Lee, Jane J. “Family of SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Orca Speaks Out for First Time.” National Geographic. National Geographic: Ocean Views, 22 January 2014. Web.
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Killer Whales. Retrieved 21 November 2014. NOAA Fisheries. http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/education/cetaceans/killer.php
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Zimmermann, Tim. “First Person: How Far Will The Blackfish Effect Go?.” National Geographic. National Geographic News. 13 January 2014. Web
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Pedicini, Sandra. “SeaWorld works on improving its image.” Orlando Sentinel. Orlando Sentinel. 18 November 2014. Web.
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