Response to Blackfish: A Case for SeaWorld

OrcasEarlier this week, CNN aired a documentary entitled Blackfish, which seemingly traces the history of captive orca whales—commonly known as killer whales. Although the documentary raised some interesting points about whether holding orca whales in captivity is cruel, the documentary was really nothing more than a criticism of SeaWorld. The documentary culminated around the death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced SeaWorld whale trainer, by SeaWorld’s largest orca whale, Tilikum, in order to promote a one-sided spin that SeaWorld trainers should neither be allowed to interact with orca whales, nor should orca whales be kept in zoological settings.  This article aims to address some of the public policy issues surrounding trainer interaction with orca whales and the maintenance of orca whales in zoological settings.

Many people see SeaWorld as a theme park whose main mission is entertainment, however, this perspective is misguided. First and foremost, SeaWorld is the world’s most respected zoological institution and the global leader in “ marine mammal veterinary care, husbandry, training, and welfare.”  SeaWorld’s mission is to “ inspire guests through education and up-close experiences to care for, and protect, marine mammals.” SeaWorld’s scientific research and conservation efforts are predominantly accomplished through maintaining orca whales in zoological settings and physical trainer interaction with the whales.

Nevertheless, after the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) claimed that trainers’ interaction with orca whales presented a “recognized hazard” that breached the OSH Act’s general duty clause to “furnish . . . employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to . . . employees.” However, the workplace need not be entirely risk free; the risk must only be feasibly reduced.  OSHRC never denied that SeaWorld complied with all relevant industry guidelines and requirements for the care and display of orca whales.

In fact, SeaWorld used a scientifically proven method—operant conditioning— for years to reinforce the orca whales’ positive behavior and minimize the whales’ undesired behavior. This type of conditioning renders whales’ behavior extremely predictable, allowing trainers to maintain close contact. Additionally, SeaWorld has whale-specific protocols, and requires daily behavior records of each whale, allowing trainers to detect any type of abnormal behavior. SeaWorld has extensive emergency procedures for unexpected whale behaviors, and each SeaWorld trainer must have a minimum of three years experience before he or she may direct a whale’s behavior and four years experience in an apprenticeship program before getting in the water with orca whales.

Notwithstanding SeaWorld’s best efforts, a judge ruled in favor of OSHRC disallowing SeaWorld trainers to come into contact with the whales during a performance show without being protected by a physical barrier, but still allowing trainer contact for purposes of husbandry and veterinary care. In essence, trainers’ interaction with orca whales for the purposes of performing a show was a recognized hazard. The judge’s line of reasoning could extend to consider almost any professional entertainment or-sport a recognized hazard, including professional football, boxing, or even NASCAR racing. Naturally, it is understood that serious injury may result from contact sports or high-speed car races. Should we ban these types of activities as well? No. There is almost always risk inherent with any activity, such as driving a car or even owning a pet.  This ruling should not stand.

Over the course of SeaWorld’s 50-year existence, there have been millions of trainer-whale interactions with only approximately a dozen interactions resulting in some type of injury, and (only one of which resulted in death). This means that the likelihood of injury relating during a trainer-whale interaction is roughly .0012%. There should remain the principal of assumption-of-risk and a balancing of the risks and utilities associated with the activity. The residual risk of interacting with an orca whale is open and obvious to those who become whale trainers. If the trainer consciously chooses to work with the whales in light of that risk, they are assuming the risk. Trainers are making an autonomous decision that the risk of serious injury is outweighed by the utility of interacting with the whale. That decision should not have been taken away when SeaWorld took all reasonable measures to reduce the risk of injury as much as was practicable.

Furthermore, there is quite a bit of social utility in allowing this type of trainer-whale interaction. It offers the public the opportunity to observe this type of interaction that would otherwise be unfeasible. It provides an educational experience for the public to better understand orca whales and SeaWorld’s care of them. Viewing this type of interaction also satisfies the general human desire to know, and interact with, the natural world. Guests have repeatedly written that watching trainers’ touch and direct whales’ behavior has inspired and “changed them.”  Additionally, SeaWorld argues that trainer-whale interaction in the context of training for and performing shows, is necessary for the health and well being of the whales. Trainers are better able to interpret and anticipate whales’ behavior and are the only people from whom the whales will take direction. Orcas cannot be anesthetized, so SeaWorld veterinarians largely depend on trainers to alert them to any signs of illness or injury. Allowing trainers to interact with the whales increases the predictability of whale behavior, helping to alleviate any unforeseeable behavior when the whales are receiving veterinary care.

The death of Dawn Brancheau was truly a tragedy; however, public policy demands that hindsight bias is should be avoided at all costs. Given the extremely low chance of injury occurring during trainer-whale interactions and the high social and educational utility in allowing this type of interaction, it is in the best interests of the public to allow the continuation of trainer-whale interactions at SeaWorld.

24 thoughts on “Response to Blackfish: A Case for SeaWorld

  1. This is a terribly disappointing article with mistakes galore and reads more like a public relations press release for SeaWorld than a serious look at the issues. For instance: Paragraph 2 calls SeaWorld “the world’s most respected zoological institution,” etc. The author is quoting SeaWorld and appears to be doing the same thing throughout the article which is scientifically and ethically uninformed and not reality based.

    • This article was written by Seaworld for Seaworld. They are obviously stepping up their propaganda effort with counter-blogs and other articles to try and sway people away from what should be correct ethical and moral choice – not to allow any intelligent creatures to remain in captivity in order to entertain us with stupid tricks doing things that are totally anti natural.

  2. You are quoting SeaWorld to prove your point about SeaWorld. That’s circular. SeaWorld is a commercial, for-profit enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with that conceptually, of course, but it seems a given that the primary mission of any publicly traded business is to satisfy its obligations to its shareholders. SeaWorld does so via entertainment. Caring for its animal collections is clearly a major factor in its success, but in the end, if the economic cost-benefit balance favors compromising animal welfare to maximize profit, and relevant laws allow it, then that’s what the company will do. This is only logical.

    SeaWorld claims that captive orca behavior is “extremely predictable.” From a biological standpoint, this claim is flawed. That’s like saying that human behavior is extremely predictable, but the spectrum of human behavior is very broad and its utter unpredictability is easily demonstrated. In addition, even “predictable” people make poor decisions and mistakes all the time.

    All an orca has to do is decide to go off behavior and a trainer may be injured or killed – only machines are “extremely predictable.” Orcas are thinking personalities, not machines. Therefore there is only so much predicting that can be done. SeaWorld’s over-reliance on – its arrogance about – being able to predict orca behavior was a major factor in the judge’s decision to uphold OSHA’s original citation.

    In boxing and racing, the individuals who take the risks are independent contractors or self-employed – the OSH Act does not apply. With football, a fantastic amount of protective equipment is now required. It is true that OSHA cannot require abatement that interferes with the ability to play football. So the protective equipment continues to be improved and added to, but the action on the field goes on. At SeaWorld, OSHA cannot stop the show. However, it can require “protected contact” – a term of art in the zoo and aquarium world – to abate the recognized hazard posed by close contact with orcas. Protected contact is required for elephants now (due to handler injuries and deaths) – it needs now to be required for orcas.

    As for the likelihood of injury or death, there have been at least 24 or 25 interactions with captive orcas (at various marine theme parks) that have resulted in serious injury (requiring hospitalization). “Some kind of injury” where hospitalization was not needed has occurred in probably dozens more. There have been more than 100 potentially injurious interactions at SeaWorld parks alone. And finally, there have been THREE trainer deaths – only one at a SeaWorld park, but another at a park under SeaWorld supervision (and by a SeaWorld whale) and another at a park that closed 21 years ago.

    When you actually look at the number of individual whales who have been involved in these dozens of negative interactions, it comes out to at least two dozen different whales. That is, more than 10% of all the orcas ever held in captivity anywhere have been involved in at least one negative interaction (minor to serious injury/death of trainer). Just looking at SeaWorld whales, it’s more like 25%. So if orcas were machines, they experience a double digit failure rate. That’s more than enough for a factory recall.

    The factory workers who were routinely injured in the packing companies in Upton Sinclair’s day knew the risks too, but they needed a job, so they ignored them. The OSH Act arose from their dilemma. With orca trainers, they take the job and keep it because they love the whales. This devotion to their charges should not result in facing a risk in the workplace that is abatable.

    You base your conclusion that SeaWorld took all reasonable measures to abate the hazard on SeaWorld’s own claim that it did. That is not sufficient – obviously a vast majority of employers will disagree with an OSHA citation. OSHA came to a different conclusion. The question is what would any objective person reviewing the evidence conclude? That’s what the judge represented and now we’ll see what the appeals court says. But just because SeaWorld says it doesn’t make it true.

    SeaWorld argued in court that being in the water with the whales was necessary for the animals’ health and well-being and THEN testified, in complete contradiction, that the health and well-being of the five drywork-only whales already in their collection before Dawn Brancheau died were not compromised in any way.

    They cannot have their cake and eat it too.

  3. To be fair, SeaWorld does some great things in terms of taking in injured and sick sea life that washes up on Florida’s beaches, saving them, and rehabilitating them so that they can be released back into the wild. They Do Really Great Things in that regard.

    However, the entertainment side is a different operation and works on profit. The last time we went to SeaWorld for the entertainment part we found that the scripted and programmed animal shows weren’t all that much fun. Also, several of the other attractions were closed and locked up tight for no apparent reason. The best thing, at least at first, was watching below surface through Plexiglas as a big walrus swam the same route in a little tank over and over and over again. After a minute or so I felt sorry for that walrus. Not going back.

  4. Power on, Mahalia!

    Glad to see a logical response. It is tiring to see how easily people are manipulated by their emotions. The fact is, there are millions of trainer whale direct contact interactions and miniscule serious problems. This whole issue demonstrates how emotion trumps logic when people don’t think carefully.

    For example, our chances of being murdered by a known human are far greater than a trainer getting hurt by a killer whale. Are we going to outlaw direct contact with other people? The chance of a Sea World trainer getting killed in a car accident is a greater risk than dying by animal event. And if we let racers, boxers, policemen and firemen choose a risky working conditions, why do we not allow trainers to make similar choices?

    I have been working in direct contact with animals for over 40 years and am very happy there was no one to protect me from them by forbidding direct contact. Yes, there are risks, but the risks are reasonably manageable. Let’s take safety precautions, work carefully and proceed, logically, to continue to work in close collaboration with our animal partners. We all benefit.

  5. The same whale that killed Dawn Brancheau previously killed two other people. And saying “it is in the best interests of the public to allow the continuation of trainer-whale interactions at SeaWorld” clearly shows the bias of the writer in favor of a profit making entity as opposed to the well being of the whales, which, after all, is what the documentary Blackfish advocates for.

    • Your information is incorrect, Julie Core. And the risk for Sea World orca trainers is less than the risk for many other daily activities, including driving. Perspective needed here.

        • I repeat, your information is not correct. And distracting us with another claim does not change the fact that your facts don’t check out. Readers beware.

          It is up to others to check out what they read. I do, and you are giving incorrect information.

          Here is something else. You are projecting your ideology onto whales and trainers. You are making judgments. You have no first hand knowledge of this subject. If you do the research, you will find plenty of examples where the animals show that they (repeatedly) choose captivity. Here is one: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9343538/#.UuBAJxAo6Hs

          There is a reason that zoos are the most popular family venue. I have seen that we love animals and we naturally are fascinated by them. And, they are fascinated by us as well. Once experienced in captivity, they often choose to return. Wild conditions seem to be vastly overrated by ideologues. In reality, many of us humans choose public transportation, a car, an apartment, and a refrigerator over a hut in the amazon and a life plagued with parasites, heat, predators, and other life threatening challenges. Do you live in the wilderness? Why do you think an animal would prefer such hardship?

          It may be that you are telling yourself a post hoc story. A little research ( Katrina dolphins, Andre the Seal, the Navy’s attempts to retire its marine mammals to the wild, to name three off the top of my head) and you will see that your arguments don’t seem based in reality. Animals who have human friends often prefer to keep those friendships, and live a more sheltered life. You claim the orcas have no choice. But you don’t propose to ask them what their choice would be. You simply presume to choose for them, in the direction of your personal ideology. So you are not about freedom, you are about imposing a return to the wild, no matter the dangers, shortages and needs to help people and animals connect more directly.

          I don’t want your form of kindness. I don’t want to be thrown into the wilderness some where, so I can gratify your projections of naturalness. And if you think it is so good, go try it and report back here.

      • My information is 100% accurate. It’s a matter of public record. Additionally Sea World continues to try to do end runs around the law preventing import of wild caught cetaceans. To wit, their appeal to the ruling denying the import of 8 wild caught belugas by the Georgia Aquarium, which is ongoing today, 1/15/2014 http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-09-30/business/os-georgia-aquarium-beluga-whales-20130930_1_whales-beluga-georgia-aquarium

        • Your protests don’t change the facts. You are correct in that the facts are a matter of public record. This makes it all the more irritating that you are not reading the public records carefully and you have distorted the actual facts to push your ideology. If you are planning to work in the legal field, I hope you will do better research and analysis than we are seeing here. The public records clearly show your inaccuracies. I hope others will be curious enough to check for themselves.

          On one level, we could be allies. I am passionate about animals and their welfare. But I love people too. I believe that both animals and people can benefit and thrive with good interaction. It can change one’s life to simply achieve communion with a sovereign animal. I wish that for every reader here, and I strive to facilitate that. I am not impressed when someone says I am wrong because they have some idea, springing from their limited experience, and they are going to attempt to control me and others based on their opinions.

          I don’t want your religion, I don’t want you controlling others, especially others who are working to bring animals forward into human society.

          • My religion?Whatever are you talking about? And what inaccuracies are to talking about? I gave NO detail, simply a link. It’s CLEAR that Sea World tries to circumvent the law. Why else would they enjoin in the appeal by the Georgia Aquarium? The judge in that case has already stated that he was of the opinion that the animals would end up being transferred to Sea World. Are you aware that Sea World used a WINCH to YANK a stillborn calf out of Gudrun, then let her bleed to death over a period of DAYS, yet reports that they have Veterinarians available 24/7/365? And what on EARTH are you talking about when you say “bring animals forward into human society”? Your RIDICULOUS assertion that animals choose captivity is laughable. Tell me why Sea World spends MORE MONEY on Lobbying than on rescue and then we can have a dialogue. By the way, the appeal in conjunction with the Georgia Aquarium, along with monies spent, appears at the bottom of the link. Cheers! http://influenceexplorer.com/organization/seaworld-parks-entertainment/0cc0ce4b70b24ebca2535ac1da0c79cb

          • Oh, and your arguments are invalid because you MAKE MONEY from the training of these animals. Try getting a job that doesn’t involve the suffering of animals. You might also look into getting a trainer for yourself. http://synalia.com/about/

  6. I saw the Black Fish movie…and it was shocking what these whales are made to go through. It’s one thing to rescue an animal and nurse it back to help…yet it’s another thing to to breed these Killer Whales. I can’t get it out of my mind the calves being separated from their mothers….and Sea World wants to say they care about the well being of these giant creatures? I don’t think so…otherwise they would be free…living free not confined to a tank the rest of their lives. The article didn’t do anything for me to see the good guy in Sea World…it’s not there.

    • Human children often cry on their first day to go to school, but we don’t close down schools. Where is the perspective when you want to close a place down when a young animal cries, but you don’t think a thing about a human child crying over an analogous situation? Do you realize that SeaWorld has not captured an orca for over 30 years? Are you aware that they contribute greatly to our greater understanding of the abilities and sensibilities of the orcas? The fact that you care about orcas is largely due to the great work the SeaWorld team has done in bringing an appreciation of the majesty and ability and relatability of these animals.

      • Actually the reason most of us care about Orcas and any other animal is because we are compassionate humans. We don’t need a multimillion unethical company to make us aware of anything. If anything I would thank the amazing producers of the BBC Earth Documentaries.
        If SeaWorld so so much good, how come they don’t have any endangered Dolphin Species and reproduce them and release them to the wild in order to help dwindling populations. Instead they only keep the highly trainable Bottlenose Dolphins who do stupid unnatural tricks for food. How you can you claim SeaWorld contributes to Orca knowledge? We no longer need to know anything about orcas but the fact that they should be in the wild. The only person who would agree to keeping cetaceans in captivity is an egotistical selfish narcissist.

        • When knowledge and information fail you, get hateful? You don’t strike me as being open minded, but I am happy to answer your questions because there are countless people out there who are open minded and moderate and I want them to hear the gentle voice of reason and not just the violent voice of hate.

          Here is why people who actively work to ensure animals survive agree that SeaWorld makes a very significant contribution to our knowledge of marine mammals: http://www.hswri.org/Publications.php

          This research is expensive, as are the stranding and breeding programs. One needs to make money to support these programs. So when a capitalistic company does invest significant money in research and support for the wild populations, shouldn’t they get some recognition from others who hope to help animals? No matter what SeaWorld does, you twist it to the worst interpretation.

          You will see that the majority of these papers have no apparent economic motive.

          And, there are good reasons to focus on Tursiops truncatus: It is an intercostal dolphin and does better in captivity than pelagic dolphins. We know that it is difficult to keep pelagic dolphins in captivity, so unless they are injured/stranded, most oceanariums that I know of do not take them. We have plenty to learn about them and how to support them before we branch out to more difficult species. I hope you are aware of the incredible numbers of sudden die offs of dolphins in recent years? Do you know about the acidification of the oceans? How about Fukushima? Rather than venting endless venom on a place that actually does a good job for its animals, how about working toward ensuring that these animals will be able to survive in the wild that you are so eager to thrust them back into?

          Oh, but it is much easier to criticize others than to improve something. Any idiot can destroy something. It tales genius to repair and create.

          Perhaps it is not about orcas at all. Perhaps extremists are just clutching for an excuse to be hateful to others. Someone who is truly compassionate would not talk to people or animals the way that you are talking here.

          • I think I have a relayively good understanding about most eco systems as well as atmospheric science. So yes I do know why the ocean becomes more acidic the more CO2 we emit because of the positive hydrogen ions that create acidity.
            How about I ask you some questions… Why don’t you do what real scientists do and study animals in the wild where they are free from human intervention, which logically would seem more reasonable, as human interaction alters and destroys their natural behavior in which case, how can you take any samples of SeaWorld studies as valid? Surely they are all corrupt?
            I’m totally 100% convinced you are contributing positively with the SeaWorld Progam that invests about $1m a year in conservation. There is nothing wrong with that as it can only be positive so anyone who works for that area of SeaWrold should rightly believe they are doing right. $1m a year out of $1.5bn in sales is a pittance. It represents 0.066% of their revenue given to the greater good… Do you really think they care? Sure the people doing the hard work in the field care for sure but a company is a reflection of its leader. Do you really think they even care about marine life? I just think it’s very highly unlikely. In which case we can assume that 0.066% if Seaworld are conservationists working in a company where the other 99.934% don’t care. I suppose you can compare it to rape, whee the guy treats a girls nice to get her whee wants buy in the end she gets raped and it does not matter how well she was treated at the beginning.
            Seaworld is the same. If they had good intentions would they really need to use deceptive marketing to attract cuatomers and make all all think th animals are all happy. Hardly any orcas have any decent sets of teeth left on them for chewing bars and concrete out of boredom all day long… Hardly and enriching life for a fellow nonhuman.
            The fact is SeaWorld only have animals for one reason and that is Entertainment in order to bring in the billions to feed shareholders who don’t give a damn about the oceans. If they cared they would be speaking up against all the Dolphin hunts round the world in order to try and end these cruel practices. But we all know why they don’t criticise them… How can anyone even begin to defend just last week the slaying of the 250 dolphin superpod? If we don’t do something soon superpod sightings will become a thing of the past. Yet you feel comfortable working for a company that could easily end all this? With the resources and money they have all cetacean cruelty would be a thing of the past. Yet were stuck in Roman times watching ones species kill another.

          • Spelling excused. Nice you noticed.

            But that is the least of it. You are proposing that understanding that proton donation is involved indicates a good understanding of ecological systems?

            And you think most scientists conduct their studies in the wild rather than a lab?

            You think SeaWorld is behind the Taiji slaughter? Based on?

            For the record, the slaughter of marine mammals makes me sick to my stomach. But I cannot control people in another country – especially when they are in their own country. My question to you: why are you messing with SeaWorld when this much more grievous event is going on? If you are sincere in your care for marine mammals, how can you rest, knowing that is going on. That is not a distortion by a movie maker. That is a real event. Get busy.

            And you infer I work for SeaWorld. Based on? My resume is a matter of public record. The interest I share with SeaWorld has already been stated here. Do you just specialize in inflammatory opinion backed by nothing?

            Read carefully, think more carefully, and go do something constructive – like try to change the culture of whaling countries. Let us know how it goes, and I sincerely wish you good luck.

  7. That we NEED animals in our society, and they need us. We are travelers on this earth together and our welfare is inextricably intertwined. I am tired of seeing every form of interacting with animals continually attacked by groups that want to remove animals from our society. I am standing up for working animals and their human partners. Please help me do that.

    For more information, check out synalia.com and see the post.

    You can sign the petition by clicking below:

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/mayor-bill-de-blasio?source=c.tw&r_by=5575156

    • Kayce Cover, like Sea World, your INCOME depends on interaction with animals. Just a suggestion, get a REAL job then come back and argue your point. Since you make your living training animals your voice is but a noise.

      • Thank you for demonstrating your real agenda and character.

        Yes, I have dedicated my life to working with and for animals. And for people. I see a tomorrow with healthy, contented people and animals working in partnership and all being the better for it. The very name of my method, “Syn Alia” means “With Others”.

        People can visit my youtube channel (kaycecover) or my website (http://www.synalia.com) to see animals working freely with people, often for their own benefit, and even answering questions directly. They will see animals RUNNING for the chance merely to say ‘hi!’ – heck the animal leaves food! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGZkxFii37c) Or an animal STOP running rather than leave me behind – even though the horse could have continued to run straight to her evening feed! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9yHsp2bKjU). They will see the horse answering questions, and more to the point, they will see a human listening to her answers.

        They can see animals reclaiming and recreating their lives, and with satisfaction, I know they went on to live long, happy lives as companions. They will see a dog facing euthanasia for obsessive compulsive disorder, learn to manage herself in less than thirty hours of help from a trainer – and no medication. They will see animals getting medical care – with less stress, because we are able to explain the procedures to them. They will see that I have been instrumental in creating these techniques and breakthroughs and that I have been walking the walk – not talking the talk – for over 40 years.

        In short, they will see that I have legitimate expertise in the subjects we are discussing here. They will see that I worked for the Smithsonian, and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the National Zoo. And more.

        What do you have to recommend your words to anyone here? Besides the use of distortion, venom and sensationalism?

        Here is an article that people here might find quite relevant, explaining the danger, and the ugly need, of people who try to impose their agenda on others. http://www.bedlamfarm.com/2014/01/24/legacy-of-the-central-park-horses-who-save-the-animals-from-their-advocates/

        He eloquently describes the ugliness of Blackfish, and the agenda of animal rights extremists. It is not about the animals, it is about control obsessed people.

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