In my book, “Rogue Justice” (under the “Books” tab), the plight of orcas in captivity is captured in fictional form, although the injustices they face are all too real. For animal lovers everywhere, holding these magnificent creatures captive in what are essentially concrete bathtubs is nothing short of a moral outrage. What’s being done to change this channel? Well, in 2013 a searing documentary called “Blackfish” sent shock waves through the multi-billion-dollar sea-park industry, most notably SeaWorld.
The film tells the story of Tilikum, a 6-ton performing killer whale who killed three people while in captivity, including veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau. In the wake of that documentary, attendance at SeaWorld’s parks plunged, long-time corporate sponsors severed ties, famous bands refused to perform at the park, and the company’s stock plummeted. On top of all that there were lawsuits, an intensive OSHA investigation, and a high-profile court case with a very controversial outcome. Still, the pressure from shareholders and the public continued to mount. Finally, in 2015, SeaWorld’s new CEO, Joel Manby, formed an unprecedented alliance with the company’s long-time nemesis, the Humane Society of the United States.
To seal the deal, Manby made two concessions: One, he agreed to halt SeaWorld’s orca breeding program that had been in place for years; Two, he further agreed to phase out all orca performances. That’s the good news. The bad news: the whales will continue to be held hostage in chlorinated tanks not much larger than a hotel swimming pool – for decades to come.
Is there hope? Yes! A dedicated group of scientists with The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to secure sites in Washington State and British Columbia to relocate the captive SeaWorld whales. Similar efforts by Orca Network have been underway for years to help free a killer whale named Lolita who has been performing virtually non-stop in a deteriorating stadium in Florida (Miami Seaquarium) since 1970.
Now, however, there’s another potentially ominous development. In March 2017, SeaWorld was sold for nearly half a billion dollars to Zhonghong Group, a Chinese investment firm. New aquatic parks are already planned for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Why ominous? Because given China’s abysmal track-record in the illicit ivory trade (known there as “white gold”), the two major concessions made by SeaWorld’s CEO, including halting the demeaning orca performances, could very likely be reversed.
Ric O’Barry, star of the Oscar-winning documentary, “The Cove,” sums it up this way:
“This show in nothing more than a spectacle of dominance, that’s all it really is. And it teaches us that dominance is good, dominance is right, dominance works. And that’s really the danger. It’s not just an animal rights issue, it’s about the millions of people who come through there every year and learn that it’s okay to abuse nature. As long as they call it education and research, they can literally get away with murder.”
Think about it: In the wild orcas routinely travel 60-70 miles per day and dive to depths of 300 feet, all the while interacting with their cohesive family units. What’s more, scientists agree killer whales are not only highly intelligent, they also possess an exceptional capacity for memory and communication.
Watch this space for updates…and information on a new documentary which picks up where “Blackfish” left off. It is time to end this travesty once and for all.