I would like to thank those who took the time to comment on my previous blog post, as it allows for scholarly debate. In regards to the comment that my earlier post sounded like a public relations statement for SeaWorld, I would like to point to the title of the article, in particular “A Case for SeaWorld“, and to the fact that I am in no way affiliated with SeaWorld. This article was intended to provide a different side of the story than that portrayed in the documentary film Blackfish, which was an extremely one-sided piece of propaganda.
The death of Dawn Brancheau was a true tragedy. The world lost a very passionate, and accomplished woman who was a pioneer in the field of marine research and an integral part of SeaWorld’s mission to bring the wonder and awe of marine life to those who visit SeaWorld parks. After Dawn’s death, The Dawn Brancheau Foundation was founded in memory of Dawn by her family. The Foundation’s website provides a detailed outline of Dawn’s lifelong dream to become a whale trainer at SeaWorld and that Dawn “left this world doing what she loved.” Unfortunately, Blackfish exploits the death of this wonderful woman by portraying Dawn’s work with orca whales as appalling and horrific, but this is not the case
Anthony Kaufman, a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune, mocked Blackfish for its obvious sensationalism. The one-sidedness of the documentary is exemplified when the film “opens with a sensationalistic emergency call, which recounts how a trainer was eaten by a killer whale…In one manipulative moment, trainers recount an incident in which a mother orca was separated from her offspring, and then emitted a kind of wailing sound. Her shrieking cries are then simulated on the soundtrack for extra effect.” Kaufman further states that “there’s also something unseemly in the tactics employed by Blackfish, whether it’s teary-eyed testimonials from suffering loved ones or sensationalistic tales of death…[the film is] full of ominous undertones and heavy dramatic beats—also displays a lack of subtlety, as do freeze frame images of SeaWorld representatives leaving a courtroom, which makes them look like mob bosses caught in surveillance photos. And the film’s sentimental, strangely cheery coda, in which the trainers rejoice in the wonders of witnessing free Willies while on a whale-watching expedition, is less affecting than affected.”
It is true that orca whale behavior is not 100% predictable, but given a large enough sampling size (the millions of whale shows SeaWorld performs), SeaWorld can predict with reasonable certainty how many interaction may result in some type of injury. As mentioned in the original article, that risk of injury is roughly .0012%. A preceding comment mentioned that my calculations were incorrect because “There have been more than 100 potentially injurious interactions at SeaWorld parks alone.” I would like to point out that in the Secretary of Labor in his brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stated that there have been 100 incidents of whale aggression from in a 20 year time span.
SeaWorld has implemented significant safety precautions within the past 20 years, and the vast majority of the documented whale aggression occurred towards the beginning of that 20-year period. Additionally, the recorded incidents of whale aggression do not necessarily correlate with aggression during trainer-whale interaction. Furthermore, the Secretary of Labor corroborates my .0012% chance of injury calculation by admitting that between the years of 1989-2009 only 11 injuries resulted from a trainer-whale interaction (the death of Dawn Brancheau adds to make a total of 12 injuries). It is unfair to try and impute any other trainer-whale related injuries to SeaWorld occurring at other marine parks, such as Loro Parque, which do not have facilities nor training requirements nearly to the caliber of SeaWorld. The poor condition of the whale facilities and training is not disputed in Blackfish.
A previous comment also mentioned “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%”. This method of calculation is flawed. For example, if one were to calculate the risk involved with flying on an Airbus 320 aircraft and compared the percentage of engine failures of Airbus 320 planes to the total amount of Airbus 320’s, that percentage would not t reflect the true risk one is exposed to for flying on an Airbus 320 aircraft. Instead, one should compare the percentage of engine failures on Airbus 320 aircrafts to the total amount of flights flown on an Airbus 320 aircraft. Airbus currently has approximately 5,000 Airbus 320 aircraft’s in circulation, and millions of flights are flown on the Airbus 320’s each year. Naturally the percentage of engine failure to number or Airbus 320 aircraft will be higher than the percentage of Airbus 320 engine failures to total amount of flights flown on and Airbus 320 aircraft. The latter represents one’s true risk exposure.
I would now like to address the comment stating “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.” SeaWorld too is continually refining and improving safety measures pertaining to trainer-whale interactions. SeaWorld has specific whale protocols, meaning a set of different protocols for each whale based on each whale’s individual characteristics. SeaWorld also carefully selects certain trainers to be with certain whales based on the trainers’ level of expertise and the behavior of the specific whale. Mandating that SeaWorld trainers are no longer allowed to perform in the water is not analogous to football players having reinforced safety gear. Requiring SeaWorld trainers to behind a barrier during shows is analogous to requiring the NFL to be “flag football.”
Finally, there still remains the fact that allowing trainer-whale interaction provides quite a bit of social utility. Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, Jack Hannah, made statements to CNN that the utility of having orca whales in a zoological setting and performing with trainers had provided invaluable educational information on orca whales. Jack Hannah proclaimed that you can do all the research you want in the wild, but it will not even compare to what SeaWorld has learned. That information that SeaWorld has acquired is invaluable to the survival of orca whales in the wild. Jack Hannah’s statements to CNN also touched upon the value of the trainer-whale performances to the public. Millions who have seen a SeaWorld show have described it as the most incredible interaction and incredible thing they had ever seen.
Grey Stafford, an animal trainer and educator, stated during his interview on CNN’s Crossfire that operant conditioning and positive reinforcement of orca whales works, and that SeaWorld trainers know the orca whales better than anyone else. Even the Secretary of Labor’s brief to the Court of Appeals admits that this type of scientific conditioning does work and allows whale behavior to be predictable, just not 100% of the time. As mentioned in the original article, the OSH Act duty clause does not require an employer’s work to be entirely risk-free. The fact that orca whale behavior is not 100% predictable, then, should not preclude trainers from being able to perform with the whales, especially when working with the orcas in the water is truly a choice.