“The Cove” Star Ric O’Barry on SeaWorld’s Despicable Track Record.

Via Gary Smith
on Mar 1, 2010
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ric o'barry seaworld tillikum

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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Some related videos, which may present this situation in a different light that the above:


About Gary Smith

Gary Smith is co-founder of Evolotus, a PR agency working for a better world. Evolotus specializes in nonprofits, documentary films, animal advocacy campaigns, health/wellness, natural foods and socially beneficial companies. Gary blogs at The Thinking Vegan and writes for elephant journal, Jewish Journal, Mother Nature Network and other publications. Gary and his wife are ethical vegans and live in Sherman Oaks, CA with their cat Chloe and two beagles rescued from an animal testing laboratory, Frederick and Douglass.


30 Responses to ““The Cove” Star Ric O’Barry on SeaWorld’s Despicable Track Record.”

  1. Aurora Cooney says:

    Very well said. Sea World is interested in profit, nothing else.

  2. Thanks for this. I personally view SeaWorld as a wonderful, rare opportunity to connect with these animals and begin to care about them in a way that isn't just via a book or youtube…it's surprising to hear so little appreciation for what SeaWorld offers. I've only been there once, when I was 8, and it was amazing.

    Horrible accidents happen everywhere, why single out SeaWorld? I do get however that the captivity has got to be horrrrrible for the dolphins, orcas, etc.

    Thanks for enlightening my ignorance on this subject.

  3. It bears repeating –
    * Animals Are Not Ours to Eat
    * Animals Are Not Ours to Wear
    * Animals Are Not Ours to Experiment On
    * Animals Are Not Ours to Use for Entertainment
    * Animals Are Not Ours to Abuse in Any Way
    Thanks Gary for putting the issues in context so well and for following the money.

  4. Thanks for the education.

  5. Doris says:

    Absolutely – this was no accident. SeaWorld gambled and lost. And they can afford to lose every once in a while, as their record shows. They will stop only when it stops being profitable.

  6. Judith says:

    I absolutely agree! Money, money, money, that's all that's important to these soulless people. How sick..

  7. Marilea says:

    ^5 and Amen/women Denis I will quote you and I hope you keep bear to repeat yourself. You are worthy of quoting.

  8. Marilea says:

    See Denis Hennelly

  9. Marilea says:

    I wish they had to support themselves on me. Dumpster diving is the only way they would survive. If only I could get others to boycott them too.

  10. Daniel Larson says:

    well said, i agree completely. no loss of life should be taken lightly, human or otherwise. yet another example of the power of the might dollar winning over compassion and accountability.

  11. Debbie Baker says:

    Thank you for that Denis – I agree entirely

  12. Debbie Baker says:

    Thank you tthank you thank you Michael for this information

  13. Lindsey says:

    Thanks Gary for this touching, well written article. It's painful to know how tortured these animals really are. I hope this opens others' eyes to what is really going on.

  14. Jonathan says:

    Great stuff Gary. Keeping animals in captivity for human pleasure and profit is horrific. The public should avoid zoos and animal theme parks to end the profit of continuing animal enslavement. A concern would be should animals currently held in captivity be released? A knee-jerk response is of course, YES! But that's likely short-sighted. Many animals are totally dependent on human care and would be skill-less in the wild. Perhaps the best solution is to close down the shows but maintain the facilities until the current captives who are deemed defenseless live out their lives. Regardless, it's a sad situation.

  15. Faith Pyka says:

    We cause ourselves great harm by holding wild animals, mammals, etc., captive and especially when we take whales out of ocean habitats where that is impossible to replicate. It takes them completely out of their natural surroundings and habitat of which we know little about. I have written a blog post entitled "Supreme Body – Mother Earth" on my blog under my name — dealing with this same issue and the Animal Kingdom must be respected. I would add one more to your list of exploitations of animals and that is the testing of drugs on animals by the drug industry. Millions of animals each year are used needlessly for this purpose. Acts of Kindness (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) extend into our Animal Kingdom. The irony is that every religion of the world practices this – yet this is what we allow to happen to our precious Animal Kingdom.

  16. Gary Smith says:

    What an absolutely wonderful story. I'm so glad to hear that you and your daughter were able to see how miserable it is for a beautiful killer whale to be in captivity. Thanks for sharing!

  17. […] Divas video: pre-Oscar Award Green Carpet ft. James Cameron, eco stars (including Leilani Munter, Ric O’Barry). […]

  18. […] week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ric O’Barry for a story I wrote about SeaWorld for Elephant Journal. The evening before the Oscars, I also had the honor to attend a fundraiser for Earth Island […]

  19. Sarosh says:

    Who will sue Sea World on behalf of dolphins and whales and get reparations for the torture and murder of these sentient beings torn from their families and enslaved and tortured for life. Animal rights are no different from human rights.

  20. Gary Smith says:

    Wonderful post, Janice. Thank you.

  21. Debbie Blundell says:

    Well said Sarosh.

    This will only stop when the world population stands by animal rights and marches against the confinement of these innocent, wild animals who only deserve to be back in the wild in their beloved oceans.

  22. Yes Free Tilly says:

    Lisa – Thank you for sharing this story. I felt the same way when I was a kid and went to SW. I know a few people that would love to see this video for "educational" purposes. Can you post it on youtube and then share the video?
    Here is a video on how it all started.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2_-lJILmO4

  23. whowantstoknow says:

    I have spoken to dozens of SeaWorld employees. They are crazy about their animals. They love them half to death. SeaWorld is the world's best marine mammal facility, hands down. I have been back behind the scenes of SeaWorld's orca tanks. The tanks, besides being massive with a total of seven, are clean, and the animals are as well cared for as they can get. Unless you have actually seen these people working with their animals not in shows, you cannot know just how much they care for them.
    Also, on my recent visit to SeaWorld Florida, I saw Tilikum playing with another whale in a 7-million-gallon tank. He is not isolated or mistreated. Get over it.

  24. anonymous says:

    You should watch "The Cove" documentary. And while the trainers do care for the animals, and treat them "nicely", they should be doing more to end captivity, rather than make a profit from it. Watch "The Cove" and you will see what I mean.

  25. Canice says:

    Occasionally, I actually just wonder, how can individuals be so stupid? You can find kids at my school who are my political and smart then the idiotic adults who voted for him and worship him? This man is corrupting America. I at times wish I could move to ANY nation other than this dump!

  26. Alaina says:

    I am 8 . I loved going to seaworl, but after I watched disneys oceans and saw that dolphins and whales were being killed , it made me really sad and I started learning more about why this was happening. When I found out that places like sea word paid dolphin killers lots of money to get the best dolphins and pretty much put them in jail, I decided I can go there anymore and had my dad help me make a website, http://www.savetheseaanimals.com so that even though I am still young I can do what little I can to get the word out about what is going on

  27. JEL says:

    Very well put. I was just there with my daughter and we did the behind the scenes tour, and the love that everyone there has for those animals makes me happy…I love all of the information we got there and I love the interaction that my daughter at 6 was able to learn and experience that without places like Sea World would not be able to. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but thankfully, not everyone has the same one.

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  29. […] we further acknowledge that personal reports like Richard O’Barry, The Cove, have reported watching animals commit suicide or go crazy in capture. Does it still feel […]

  30. eijs says:

    hi Jel,indeed, the only thing real en true at parcs like seaworld is the band between the trainers and the whales. absolutely! Thats the thing that sells and what makes people emotional.. The trainers do not own the animals, sea world does. Trainers and sea world personel are very much programmed to think a certain way and how to speak out to people. I understand what you say. After discovering many intervieuws with ex sea world trainers (john hargrove , john jett , jeffrey ventrey, Samantha berg) you might never think the same about sea world and their method of spreading information. I hope you check out some intervieuws and learn about it to make a differents some day for the animals. thank you, peace!