Listen To The Wailing Whales

Animals in captivity; it’s inherently wrong.

After the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 during a Shamu show, filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite began asking questions about why an incident like this occurred more than once. The same Shamu, known to trainers as “Tilikum,” was also involved in deaths of trainers in 1991 and 1999. Despite the recurring fatalities caused by keeping Tilikum captive, SeaWorld continued to put their trainers at risk for orca aggression.

Joyce Chen | New University

Joyce Chen | New University

Cowperthwaite began to investigate the ethics behind keeping animals in captivity for entertainment purposes. Airing on CNN, her documentary “Blackfish” has raised many questions on our ideas of entertainment and how SeaWorld has provided us entertainment at the cost of the safety and well-being of their staff and marine animals.

As children, many of us visit SeaWorld and squeal with joy at the performing dolphins and whales, while how these orcas and dolphins got from their natural, wild habitat to the small, confined pools positioned before the splash zone is a mystery.

It is a long, convoluted process for these marine mammals being taken from their natural environment to our theme parks, and the normality of zoos and aquariums don’t encourage us to question their captivity. The arguments in support of animal captivity for entertainment purposes are either partially accurate or completely misconstrued.

In a study done by the Humane Society and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, four-fifths of the public stated they believed in animal captivity strictly for education or scientific research. Most marine animal amusement parks boast dolphins balancing balls and tossing them to trainers as a display of impressive dexterity, but these specific physical abilities are not natural behaviors for marine mammals. What these trick shows highlight is the intelligence of these mammals to be trained in physical and mental exercises they are not naturally inclined to do. How can we justify keeping these animals captive for educational purposes when we aren’t watching or experiencing their natural habitat and actions?

While a lot of aquariums and sea parks justify their captive animals by claiming their commitment to conservation and scientific efforts, between five and 10 percent of aquaria and zoos are involved in “substantial” conversation efforts. Considering that the majority of marine mammals captured are neither threatened nor endangered, we must recognize the gross contradictions these blood-wrenching, money-hungry amusement parks cling to. Sea parks like Seaworld only perpetuate the misinformation of marine life to the general public and the vicious cycle of capture and trade.

Captivity has horrible, adverse effects on these sonically adept marine mammals. When they are kept in concrete tanks, sounds from people and the water filtration systems ricochet around the tank at extremely loud acoustic volumes that cause distress to these sensitive mammals. Marine mammals are also very family-oriented and tend to travel hundreds of miles a day with their family groups, but in captivity they have at most one or two miles of open water. While SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary questioning their method of captivity, they often times justify capturing orcas because of their extenuating circumstances in the wild. If they come across struggling orcas on their annual holiday whale-watching trip, SeaWorld takes it upon themselves to nurture them back to health, after which they become the main attraction of their amusement park.

In order for these shows to continue, mothers and calves must be separated, which encourages the mammals to retaliate against their situation. Despite their common name of “killer whales,” fatal Orca attacks on humans are extremely rare in the wild.

India is the latest country to ban the capture of cetaceans (the category that includes dolphins, porpoises and whales) for entertainment purposes, joining Costa Rica, Hungary and Chile. Despite the number of lobbying groups against the use of animals for entertainment purposes, the United States has failed to adopt any sort of measure and continues to allow companies such as SeaWorld to get away with these cruel policies.

SeaWorld has been hit with lawsuits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and PETA for putting the safety of their trainers and animals at risk. However, SeaWorld manages to maneuver their way around regulations and continue to put both trainers and animals in compromising situations.

More than the stress of captivity on marine mammals putting trainers in danger, wild caught marine animals give the public a false representation of the animals’ natural lives. And when we watch these animals performing before thousands of people with grace and natural smiles, it seems as if they are content, happy even, working for fish. We become desensitized to the cruel and unnatural techniques of captivity and forget that an animal’s natural purpose isn’t to serve as our entertainment. We should not manipulate their lifestyle for our fleeting moment of visual satisfaction. Keep wildlife in the wild.


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