Even in a culture of corporate entitlement and privilege, SeaWorld’s blatant defiance of federal safety standards reaches a whole new level. Federal authorities just issued the theme park a repeat violation for putting employees too close to orcas, despite the mauling death of trainer Dawn Brancheau just three years ago. Guests watched in horror as the orca Tilikum tossed, slammed and destroyed Brancheau’s body.
Following Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld was ordered to keep all orca trainers out of the tanks and to maintain a safe distance or physical barrier. Ignoring the order — and just plain common sense — the park still allows trainers to touch, hug, kiss and pat orcas (except Tilikum) with no barrier or distance at all.
The Department of Labor notes in the most recent citation that SeaWorld failed to protect employees from hazards (e.g., killer whales) likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Somehow, someway, SeaWorld management still insists that close contact with orcas is safe and acceptable. One of the company’s safety ideas is to install floor lifts in the tanks, designed to bring whales and trainers quickly to the surface in the event of an emergency. Another is to develop a remotely operated underwater vehicle that could be placed in the pool as a way to attempt to distract the killer whales who have lashed out — all this, instead of simply keeping trainers out of harm’s way. It’s difficult to comprehend this level of denial.
Jamming these keenly intelligent animals into concrete tanks and expecting them not to snap is folly. Orcas have pulled trainers into the water, held them at the bottom of the pool, head-butted them, slammed into them and breached on top of them. SeaWorld’s own corporate incident logs contain reports of more than 100 incidents of orca aggression at its parks.
Tellingly, no serious attack by a wild orca on a human has ever been recorded.
Captive orcas are denied everything that gives their lives meaning: natural foraging and migration patterns, social interaction, family bonds and the opportunity to choose their mates. Babies are torn from their mothers to be shipped to other parks, leaving the mothers to float listlessly and cry for hours after this separation. Orcas do not want to be friends with humans. Being patted and kissed by human trainers does not compensate for their isolation. Marine theme-park tanks are a drop in the bucket compared to the vast open oceans where orcas are meant to live.
Being confined to tanks is so far removed from what orcas want and need that their minds and bodies break down. Many destroy their own teeth by chewing on the steel gates holding them in. All captive adult male orcas, and many adult females, have collapsed dorsal fins — an aberration that is infinitesimally rare in wild orcas. Captive orcas have died from intestinal gangrene, acute hemorrhagic pneumonia, pulmonary abscesses, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular failure, septicemia, influenza and brain necrosis. They are dying far short of even their average lifespan in the wild.
Marine mammal theme parks exist to make money at the expense of animals, and employee safety is an afterthought. The public can take a stand by refusing to buy a ticket.
Jared S. Goodman is an attorney with the PETA Foundation
— McClatchy-Tribune News Services