By Malia Mosser
Although SeaWorld has decided to stop breeding orcas, SeaWorld must treat their orcas properly and stop doing live shows with the intelligent marine animals. Many deaths of trainers at SeaWorld (and other water-themed amusement parks or aquariums such as SeaLand of the Pacific, which is now closed) have happened because of live shows or from improper treatment of captive orcas, such as deprivation of food as a punishment, and keeping the large animals in confined spaces.
The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” generated a great amount of controversy by exposing how orcas are mistreated at SeaWorld. The film featured a male orca named Tilikum, who is mostly known for his entertaining performances at SeaWorld and previously, SeaLand—but he is also well-known for the death of two women. The first woman killed by Tilikum was named Keltie Byrne. The tragedy occurred at SeaLand in 1991 when Keltie fell into the pool while Tilikum was performing with two female orcas. Tilikum, who had been repeating the same actions every day and was most likely bored and looking for some excitement, pulled Keltie by the legs under the water with his teeth. Keltie ultimately died from drowning, even after resurfacing two or three times. After the incident, SeaLand closed down and Tilikum was sold illegally to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
At SeaWorld, Tilikum seemed to enjoy working with the trainers, and performed amazing stunts, but he was still mistreated, as he is to this day. Tilikum was used for mostly breeding, and some live performances. But one day, Tilikum was performing and he apparently misunderstood a command, which led him to not be rewarded with food. As the performance went on, his trainer Dawn Brancheau began to run out of food, which Tilikum could sense due to the sound of ice sloshing at the bottom of the food bucket. As he continued to fail more and more “behaviors”, he became frustrated and pulled Dawn into the water by her arm. What could have been play, frustration, or aggression, escalated and became extremely violent. Dawn suffered from many extreme injuries and died from drowning. Although the accident was clearly not Dawn’s fault, many people claimed that Tilikum grabbed her by the ponytail, yet she was actually grabbed by the arm.
These two extreme deaths may lead you to think that Tilikum really lives up to the name of “killer whale”, but is it really all his fault? If SeaWorld and other companies didn’t capture orcas, there would be next to no cases of orcas injuring or killing humans. There have been no documented cases where a wild orca has injured a human—because they have no need to. Orcas in the wild work together, and if something doesn’t work out between two orcas, they have the whole ocean to escape. If they are confined to small spaces, like Tilikum was, they do not have the freedom to escape from their attackers, and instead have to either fight or suffer.
SeaWorld may seem like the best possible environment for orcas, but comparing the lives of wild orcas to orcas in captivity, you will notice how the orcas are being mistreated. The lifespan of an orca in captivity is dramatically shortened—male orcas in the wild can live up to 70 years and female orcas can live up to 100 years, but in captivity, the average age that orcas die at is 13 years old. Another stunning sign of mistreatment is that most orcas in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins, and although SeaWorld claims that it is a common trait, it is very rare in the wild; a collapsed dorsal fin is a sign of an injured or unhealthy orca, which may be the result of the small spaces or the unnatural diet of thawed-out dead fish.
Orcas are highly intelligent and social marine animals; they work in groups to hunt down seals and sometimes stay with their mother until she dies. They are wild creatures, they are meant to swim in oceans and hunt down their own food, they are not meant to be kept in a tank, be fed frozen already-dead fish, or perform stunts in a water-based circus.