Last Wednesday, another tragedy befell a trainer at SeaWorld. Dawn Brancheau was killed by a “killer whale,” named Tilikum, or “Tilly.” Tilikum is a 22-foot, 12,300-pound male orca, which is technically a member of the dolphin family. He is the largest orca in captivity. Brancheau was Tilikum’s third victim, having killed two other humans in 1991 and 1999.
The unintended loss of life is always a tragedy, human or animal. Yet it is by no means a surprise. Confining a wild animal in a concrete box and forcing it to do tricks for food in front of large audiences is a recipe for disaster. SeaWorld has called the incident a “tragic accident.”
Ric O’Barry, who was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film “The Cove” and serves as the marine mammal specialist for Earth Island Institute shared some thoughts on the tragedy with me. O’Barry has called for a federal investigation into Brancheau’s death.
“This was not an accident. It was a calculated risk that SeaWorld took, looking at their bottom line, their quarterly profits. This is criminal negligence. This is not an isolated incident.”
Ric is an expert when it comes to marine parks. He trained the famous TV dolphin Flipper, and trained the first orca in captivity, but has since dedicated his life to saving dolphins and other sea mammals from captivity and abuse. He’s also been on the receiving end of an orca’s power.
“He didn’t bite hard, didn’t puncture much of the skin, but it was a very scary feeling. It felt like having my leg in a vice. Orcas are wild animals. You don’t know what an animal is going to do. I knew then that this was extremely dangerous and somebody was going to get hurt. I went public and told people.”
In the wild, orcas commonly swim up to 100 miles a day and stay with their family pods all their lives. Tilikum was stolen from his mother at two years old in Iceland and sold into slavery, first in Canada, where he killed his first victim, then at SeaWorld in Orlando.
And so for 25 years, Tilikum has been swimming in circles, in a space that is said to be the equivalent of keeping a human being confined in a bathtub. He has lived a lonely, stressful, and mentally debilitating life. It’s no wonder he has snapped and killed three humans.
O’Barry explained the horrors of living in captivity for whales and dolphins.
“Their primary sense is sonar sound. Ours is light. We are visually oriented. But they live in a world of sound.” Small pools cause sensory deprivation, in which dolphins like Tilikum cannot make much use of echolocation living in captivity. Killer whales in captivity often develop pathologies, such as the dorsal fin collapse seen in 60 to 90 percent of captive males.
“Orcas are the most social animal on the planet, even more so than us,” said O’Barry. “Males will stay with their mothers their entire lives. When we capture an animal like Tilikum, we take him away from the two most important things of his life; the world of sound and family. We put them in a concrete box and expect him to stay mentally healthy. It simply doesn’t work.”
That is, it doesn’t work for the animals. It works very well for the corporations who profit from them. There is a lot of money to be made off of the exploitation of dolphins and whales. SeaWorld alone, which owns 20 of the world’s 42 captive orcas, made $1.4 billion in profit last year. It would be impossible to calculate the money taken in by the many amusement parks, sea aquariums, and “swim with dolphin” attractions around the world, all of which enslave and victimize animals.
In addition to ticket sales and merchandising, SeaWorld also makes millions of dollars force-breeding animals and selling their babies to aquariums around the world. Rest assured SeaWorld won’t euthanize nor send Tilikum to a sanctuary, because as a breeder, he’s worth millions of dollars. Tilikum has reportedly sired 17 calves, although some have not survived. Those that did survive become part of the system of exploitation for profit.
Their breeding programs are yet another way for them to capitalize on animals. O’Barry explains that captive-bred animals don’t fare any better at SeaWorld or elsewhere.
“It doesn’t matter if they were born in captivity or captured from the wild; the stress is exactly the same. Their behavior is radically altered, and you can’t keep them mentally healthy. As for research, the dolphins at SeaWorld don’t represent real dolphins any more than Mickey Mouse represents a real mouse.”
SeaWorld’s PR machine claims that SeaWorld supports wildlife conservation, research, education, and has rescued thousands of stranded and sick animals. They don’t mention that since 1986, 22 killer whales have died at SeaWorld, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report.
Indeed many people take their children to these parks thinking it’s an eye-opening educational opportunity. O’Barry has a different take, based on his years of experience fighting sea mammal hunting and capture in Japan
“SeaWorld claims that if we display the dolphins, people will be sensitized to them, and then they’ll be there for the dolphins. But look at Japan to see the smoking gun. The country of Japan is the size of the state of California. There are fifty dolphinariums in Japan, yet the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world is happening in Japan. No one from the dolphinariums, or their 100 million customers a year, are in Taiji trying to stop the dolphin slaughter. There is no connection between dolphin shows and conservation. It’s a big lie.”
The sad lesson Tilikum teaches us is the only interest SeaWorld has in dolphins and whales is profit. Thus the only way they can be stopped is if people like us stop buying tickets. Marine amusement parks are reprehensible enterprises, capturing and breeding animals for entertainment slavery, and these enterprises only survive through our willingness to participate in them. As long as consumers continue to support them, they will continue these despicable practices, practices that put humans at risk.
O’Barry knows the government isn’t going to come to the aid of dolphins and whales. “This is a case of supply and demand, like anything else. We have to go to the consumers, the people buying tickets. The key is to go after the demand side, not the supply side.”
Yet marine parks aren’t the only culprits here. All enterprises that use animals are unethical. There is absolutely no difference between marine parks, zoos, horse tracks, dog fighting rings, circuses and any other animal enterprise, all of which exploit animals for profit.
Animals all desire to be free, to be with their families and to fulfill their natural purpose. When we rip them away from their homes and their purpose, we not only cause them suffering and pain, but we cause ourselves suffering and pain as well. There are simply no good ethical reasons to use animals for entertainment, scientific research, clothing, or food. These enterprises only survive by our willingness to participate in their evil or by doing nothing.
“Whether we are going out to capture slaves, or we’re breeding them on the plantation, it is still unethical,” said O’Barry.
*If you wish to support O’Barry’s work, please visit the Earth Island Institute website and donate money or time. “The Cove” is available on DVD, click here to purchase. There will be a fundraising event on Saturday, March 6 to support the work of Ric O’Barry and The Earth Island Institute at which O’Barry will be speaking. To attend please visit this site.
Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in health and wellness, spirituality, animal protection, natural foods, documentary films, non-profits and socially beneficial companies. Gary and his wife adhere to a vegan lifestyle and live with their cat Chloe, in Sherman Oaks, CA.
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