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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

Critics of the film point out that most of the former trainers interviewed haven’t been with SeaWorld for years—many of them were gone by the mid-1990s, more than a decade before Tilikum dragged Brancheau under the water to her death. But there’s one trainer interviewed in the movie, 39-year-old John Hargrove, who was with SeaWorld in San Antonio until just last year. He says Brancheau’s death and its aftermath was the breaking point that drove him to finally sever ties with the company in 2012. In an interview, he acknowledged he had been “disenchanted” with various things happening in the parks during his tenure there (he worked with killer whales for 14 years, eight of which were at SeaWorld parks), but it all came to a head for him when Brancheau died. He says he realized that, despite the husbandry and care the animals receive, and having trainers that cared for them deeply, the whales at SeaWorld parks were not getting what they needed to live happy, healthy lives. And SeaWorld, he determined, was unlikely to ever agree.

For instance, Hargrove says, SeaWorld boasts that it has a top-notch veterinary program for its whales—and it does—but that’s because it needs to. Hargrove claims that captive whales routinely break their teeth banging on metal gates. They become ill frequently and die of infections. They peel paint off the walls of their holding pools. They injure one another and sometimes fight.

“There’s a lot of boredom,” he says. “It’s such a sterile environment. When you step down to those whales and interact with them, you can make it stimulating for them, but there’s only so much time you’re down there with them. Even the amount of time we’re not there at night—they’re just in these concrete pools and there’s no environmental enrichment for them for hours and hours and hours.”

Jacobs flatly denies this: “That claim is untrue, and it reflects the agenda that drives this film,” he says. “Our zoological staff provides enrichment for these animals continually. SeaWorld trainers have developed hundreds of toys and other enrichment devices that the animals play with when they’re not resting, exercising, undergoing husbandry and veterinary care, or participating in the training process or shows.”

The film implies that as a result of extreme boredom, frustration and poor health, some of the whales act out—though 80 percent of the whales at SeaWorld facilities were captive- born, many of those interviewed for the documentary say the needs of these apex predators cannot be met living in pools and doing shows for cheering audiences. One could quickly draw the conclusion that Tilikum, the whale who killed Brancheau and one of the few wild-caught whales owned by SeaWorld, did so in part because of his environment—an insinuation that SeaWorld has a huge issue with. To this day, the park insists that Tilikum didn’t intend to hurt Brancheau at all: “Tilikum did not attack Dawn,” SeaWorld’s letter to film critics insists. “All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.”

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