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Cover 08/07/2013

Can Captivity Kill?: New documentary targets SeaWorld

Photo: Courtesy Photos, License: N/A

Courtesy Photos

A penny for your thoughts—where would Tilikum rather be? At SeaWorld or in the wild?

Photo: , License: N/A


The movie features former SeaWorld trainers, marine mammal experts and eyewitnesses who place blame on the park for how it handles its animals and their interactions with trainers. Conspicuously missing from the film, though, is any interview or comment from SeaWorld higher ups. Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite says she reached out to the park to participate, but her request was denied. Instead, in a rather unusual PR move, SeaWorld waited until just before the documentary was to be released, then sent a scathing letter to film critics that countered many of the points raised in the movie.

The documentary causes the audience to question whether SeaWorld, a publicly traded company valued at $2.5 billion during its IPO in April, is doing more harm than good to the killer whales it keeps in captivity. SeaWorld says the film is little more than an advocacy piece—animal-rights propaganda—but it’s up to audiences to decide for themselves: Is this multi-billion dollar company whose mantra is education via entertainment, doing its business for the good of the whales, or is it making its money, literally, off their backs?

•••••

The SeaWorld parks are owned by private capital firm the Blackstone Group, which has amassed a total of 11 amusement parks under the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment banner. In addition to SeaWorld, the most lauded and well-loved marine-mammal entertainment complex in the world, the company also owns Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., and Williamsburg, Va., Adventure Island in Tampa, Fla. and Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.

Though the SeaWorld parks are wildly popular and had an astoundingly profitable year in 2012, they’ve never been able to quite shake the bad publicity (or federal enforcement actions) that came in the wake of Brancheau’s death.

In early July, OSHA slapped SeaWorld with a fine of $38,500 for what it says is a “repeat violation” of continuing to operate a work environment that could “cause death or serious physical harm” to employees who work with killer whales. The company fired back at OSHA by pointing out that the citations are under appeal and that it voluntarily made changes to how trainers interact with killer whales immediately after Brancheau was killed. “OSHA’s enforcement activities and the new citation demonstrate the agency’s continued and fundamental misunderstanding of how to properly and safely care for and work around these animals,” the company responded.

Until recently, that claim—that nobody understood the work SeaWorld was doing except SeaWorld—was virtually unassailable. But increasingly, particularly after the death of Brancheau, SeaWorld and its business model have been scrutinized by a rash of journalists, marine-mammal experts and authors—even some former SeaWorld trainers. They insist that SeaWorld, which has always operated under the premise that its goal is to use entertainment to educate the public and rehabilitate wildlife, is doing the animals, the public and its employees a disservice by holding highly intelligent marine mammals (killer whales in particular) in captivity, expecting them to perform daily and not providing them with enough space, freedom or stimulation to lead anything resembling natural lives. As a result, some say, the frustrated whales are stir crazy and under-stimulated, which makes it even more dangerous for employees to interact with them. The voices of the critics have long been on the margin, and it’s been easy to dismiss them as animal-rights activists or clueless but well-meaning do-gooders. In the parlance of marine-mammal workers, they’re just “anti-caps”—people who simply don’t believe in keeping killer whales or other marine mammals in captivity for human enjoyment, even if there is a noble goal in mind.

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