The long-awaited hearing between the Occupational Health and Safety
Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld started this week near Orlando, Florida. At the heart of the hearing are an administrative law judge’s attempts to evaluate whether the August 2010 citation issued by OSHA against SeaWorld is justified, and whether recommendations prescribed by OSHA to remedy the cited hazards are feasible. And we cannot forget that at the heart of this week’s review are the deaths of two beloved trainers, and the countless injuries of others. As I attend the hearing this week, it has become painfully obvious that SeaWorld is very confident: it is confident in its processes and protocols, and it is confident in its collective ability to control the behavior and responses of not only its trainers, but its orcas.
It is not merely arrogance that leads SeaWorld to claim a fool-proof system with a 98% success ratio between correct (desirable) and incorrect (undesirable) orca-trainer interactions while at the same time leaving its trainers to rely upon their personal judgments and abilities to remain calm in aversive or challenging situations with orcas. It is actually cavalier folly to rely upon a system that is based solely on the knowledge and judgment of individual human trainers. SeaWorld’s ‘system’ is based in the practice of operant conditioning (an animal training protocol based on positive reward and relationship building) and is comprised of ‘standard operating procedures’, ‘training the trainers’ and mentorship through on- the- job experience.
What is actually on trial is SeaWorld’s ability to convince the judge that in spite of ever-present human error, the unexpected behavior of a killer whale or even a perfect track record of performance between trainer and orca, the lethal or near-lethal events over the past twenty years are preventable and avoidable. That a captive orca can kill even the most experienced trainer grown in the SeaWorld system is explained away not as a failure of the SeaWorld ‘system’ and its safety measures,but as an incident borne of specific contexts and circumstances, a complex mix of trainer response and orca compliance, and one that requires each trainer to be fully aware of his or her surroundings at all times, accountable for every nuance of behavior of his or her whale in the vicinity. When the system works, SeaWorld claims that orcas are predictable. When the system fails, as it has done many times, SeaWorld claims trainer error, and moves forward with a blind eye toward the root cause of these calamities: the stress of confinement for the orcas in its possession.
SeaWorld may acknowledge the ultimate vulnerability of trainers, but cannot seem to find a way to acknowledge that its entire program is based upon a very flagrant denial of the risk involved in interacting with a wild and ‘caged’ animal. Orcas will never be domesticated, and to pretend that they are as predictable as your family pet dog verges on delusional.
In their testimony, SeaWorld representatives claim to have witnessed and identified every possible behavior a killer whale could express in captivity. There is little they haven’t seen. They work closely with these animals, they take into account their personalities and behavioral histories, and they know how to preempt an undesirable response from ‘their’ orcas. And yet, despite this professed familiarity with killer whales in general, and their individual orcas more specifically, they act surprised when an orca doesn’t respond like a predictable automaton, even as they have spoken out of the other side of their mouth that each interaction is variable and does not necessarily lead to an expected behavior or response. They claim that every killer whale has the potential to behave like any other, yet act surprised when an orca pulls a trainer into the water by her arm (a behavior that has been shown by another orca at another location). This also means they do not label a whale as aggressive, even with a history of deaths left in his wake. They label his behavior as aggressive, and continue to believe in a program reliant upon human judgment and interpretation, hoping and predicting that an aggressive tendency can be corrected or eliminated by the SeaWorld system.
Perhaps surprisingly, SeaWorld gives their orcas the benefit of the doubt. SeaWorld testimony suggests that captive orcas may respond aggressively in a certain stage of their life (like many of us do), they may outgrow certain behaviors (like many of us do), or they may learn from past ‘mistakes’ (also like many of us do). We are left to believe that the only weak link in the system is the trainers, and their ability (or inability) to predict the unpredictable. SeaWorld suggests that they ‘know’ whether an orca is enjoying an interaction, and are able to interpret every behavior to guide a favorable outcome. But a whale has to eat to survive, and the fact that he is performing a behavior for a reward or reinforcement of fish, ice cubes or gelatin is no guarantee that the whale is ‘enjoying’ the interaction, or that he will not someday, or in some instance, reject the relationship. And sometimes the rejection of that relationship ends in death.
Judge Welsch made a point at the very beginning of the hearing to clarify that its purpose was not to explore the issue of whether killer whales should be in captivity, or even whether SeaWorld is responsible for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, but to examine the citations issued in August by OSHA. But I would like to suggest that the hearing is all about captivity, and whether or not whales should be there.
From my perspective, it IS all about captivity that Mrs. Brancheau is no longer with us and died a horrible and tragic death at the mercy of a 12,000 pound orca named Tilikum. It IS all about captivity that orcas have displayed serious acts of aggression and aberrant behavior towards their human caretakers on over 100 occasions, but yet such aggressive acts towards humans have not been documented in the wild. And it IS all about captivity that orcas are the subject of the hearing that began on Monday where OSHA is facing off with SeaWorld to defend the citation it issued just over a year ago and reprimanding the theme-park giant with ‘willful’ negligence in failing to protect animal trainers from hazards associated with working with Tilikum and the other orcas at SeaWorld. The two are intimately connected: holding orcas in captivity and the inevitability of trainer harm. To pretend that the welfare of these animals is not important is to ignore the root of the problem.
SeaWorld has historically held a special place in our society. It has been blindly accepted and promoted as a cultural icon of entertainment and a popular family vacation destination. This seemingly blind acceptance of captivity by society is supported by annual attendance figures in the tens of millions. Is there any place more idyllic than a marine amusement park, where visitors can get up close and personal with ‘Flipper’ the bottlenose dolphin or ‘Shamu’ the killer whale? Orcas are among the most popular of species in the dolphin family. They share the captivity stage with belugas and bottlenose, but are distinguished by their stark black and white form and immense size. It’s good family fun, at least on the surface, especially if you buy into the feel-good advertisements that adorn our magazines, billboards and television sets. SeaWorld is represented as being just about as American as you can get, joining the ranks of baseball and apple pie, and perhaps even a bit more magical.
But all of that changed over a year and a half ago when Alexis Martinez and then Dawn Brancheau were killed within a few months of each other, both by orcas owned by SeaWorld. Captivity is not an end product, it is a process. It begins with the inhumane and traumatic capture from the wild or transport from another facility and ends with a life sentence of medication, cramped spaces and forced associations. Once in captivity,
if it is not septicemia or pneumonia that takes the life of a stressed and medicated orca, it will perhaps be the ingestion of foreign objects, routine medical care, or a variety of hazards associated with confinement. Regardless of how ‘state of the art’ a facility is, and considering the decades of breeding technology and methodology employed by captive facilities, there will always be the need for fresh DNA to maintain a healthy gene pool. It is a fact that US facilities are contemplating future captures of belugas in Alaska to freshen their gene pools, and orcas are on the menu for captures elsewhere in the world to replenish dying breeding lines. This means captivity is not just a welfare issue, but a conservation issue. And it is not only about the individual animal taken into captivity, but the families that are left behind in the wild.
Media attention to controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, inhumane transportation and injuries incurred in whale and dolphin interaction programs has had an impact on the public’s perception of marine theme parks. Opinion polls conducted over the past decade reveal that most people now think that captivity of marine mammals is justified only when there are measurable scientific or educational benefits.
I argue that the exposure to whales in captivity does exactly the opposite of what SeaWorld and other marine parks claim—instead of sensitizing visitors to marine mammals and their habitat, it desensitizes us to the cruelty inherent in removing these animals from their natural habitats and holding them captive for our entertainment and self-fulfillment. Education is one of the most important ways we can instill the foundations for humane and ethical existence alongside the animals that share our planet. It should not be taken lightly. I am certain the trainers and staff of these parks love the animals in their care, but is possession in the best interest of the animals—and in the case of captive orcas, in the best interest of their trainers?
Corky (SeaWorld) and Lolita (Miami Seaquarium) have been confined for over 40 years since they were taken from their families in the Pacific Northwest. I am certain that they still remember, and still long for their family members and the expanse of ocean that nurtures their intended role in the ecosystem. Is not freedom, especially after the significant cost of a life in servitude to our entertainment, the best educational message we can send for all living creatures and future generations?
I hope for the day when the public will perceive the captive experience for what it really is. The repetition of a whale or dolphin jumping through a hoop, begging for dead fish pool-side, or swimming in endless circles is nothing short of an experience in despair and deprivation, despite the sugar-coating that is part of the captive experience. Plush toys, thrill rides and marketing can do little to erase the realities behind captivity.
Times are changing, and so are public attitudes. It is time that OSHA and the public demand a “product recall” on captive orcas. And it is time for SeaWorld to stop gambling the lives of its trainers and orcas while pretending it is an acceptable cost of doing business. No safety measures can ever fully mitigate the consequences and depravity of captivity.
The long-awaited hearing between the Occupational Health and Safety