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Captivity and Confinement: The Plight of Shamu

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By Helene Hesselager O’Barry
Campaign Associate
Dolphin Project
Earth Island Institute

In the spring of 2012, administrative Law Judge Ken Welsch announced that SeaWorld trainers need more protection from killer whales, also known as orcas. The aim is to prevent further incidents of killer whale attacks. In a 2010 tragedy, a Florida trainer died when an orca named Tilikum pulled her under water at SeaWorld’s Orlando amusement park. At the time of the attack, Tilikum, who had spent almost three decades in captivity, had already been classified as a difficult animal.  According to news reports, Judge Welsch pointed to more than 100 reports of trainer incidents with “misbehaving” orcas, three of which were fatal. The judge ruled that more security measures are needed to protect SeaWorld trainers from orcas, highlighting physical barriers between trainers and orcas as one feasible solution.

However, physical barriers do not address the root of the problem. A very different kind of barrier is needed in order to prevent more outbursts of frustration by incarcerated orcas: This kind of barrier needs to be reminiscent of the one that is created when humans leave orcas to live in their natural habitat – the wild.

In nature, orcas spend their time foraging, navigating and socializing, enjoying the ability to move freely in a vast, three-dimensional ocean environment. Orcas swim up to 100 miles in a day and dive several hundred feet. The only barriers known to them are those formed by the ocean floor, the water’s surface and the shoreline. Using capture nets, explosives, aircraft and speed boats, dolphinariums have assaulted the natural space of orcas by chasing them down, yanking them out of their ocean home and confining them to miniscule tanks.

From the moment they are captured, orcas are controlled with food and other bribes to make them suppress their natural skills and replace them with a series of abnormal behaviors that entertain huge, paying audiences. Dolphin trainers often refer to their training techniques as “shaping,” where they first strip the orcas of their true identity as wild and independent foragers and reshape them into begging pets that depend helplessly on their trainers for food and attention. While orcas in nature make complex decisions regarding the details of their lives, captive orcas have no choice but to obey their trainer’s never-ending demands and carry out behaviors that must seem utterly absurd to them, such as beaching themselves on platforms, waving at the audience with their flippers and nodding their heads in agreement when their trainer cheers, “Are we having fun?”

Letting trainers ride their backs and splashing water on spectators are not natural orca behaviors, nor is eating dead fish or swimming aimlessly in small circles. The killer whale show, which typically features a rowdy mix of blasting rock music, cheering dolphin trainers and applauding audiences, must seem like a complete mad-house to these ocean-roaming marine mammals.

Nothing in SeaWorld’s barren concrete tanks even remotely resembles the natural ocean world that orcas, through millions of years of evolution, have conquered as their domain.  In nature, these highly intelligent and majestic marine mammals enjoy the status as top-predators and true masters of the sea. In captivity, they are not in charge of anything, and there is nothing masterly about obediently carrying out their trainer’s belittling commands. Lifelong confinement in a claustrophobic world of concrete barriers and the task of having to carry out one inane behavior after the other just to survive would drive any sentient being to the brink of insanity. Yet when orcas vent their frustration, they are branded as “difficult” and “misbehaving.” They are neither of those things. They are simply striking back at those who hold such tremendous power over them and use that power to shape them into something they were never meant to be.

Lack of proper security measures is not the real reason captive orcas attack their trainers. Years of human dominance is. A headline in the media cried out: “SeaWorld Trainers Need Protection from Killer Whales.” However, it is the other way around: Killer whales need protection from SeaWorld trainers.

Unfortunately, no judge is likely to see it that way.


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