Allegations of whale doping bring a fresh wave of criticism over SeaWorld and prompt more concern over the treatment of animals held in captivity.
Since the 2013 release of “Blackfish,” a documentary detailing the life of an orca whale held by SeaWorld that has caused the deaths of three trainers, the Florida-based company has been on the receiving end of a negative public relations backlash.
The marine park chain has seen celebrity protests, a drop in public opinion and a 13 percent drop in attendance, which SeaWorld attributes in part to harsh weather over the winter and to a hike in ticket prices. Pixar has even decided to change the ending of the upcoming “Finding Nemo” sequel, “Finding Dory,” in response to the controversy.
“Blackfish” raised concerns over the animals’ welfare and treatment. But incidences such as the one on Feb. 22, when a nine-year-old visitor was bit by a dolphin at SeaWorld San Antonio, have prompted questions over whether it’s safe for these animals to interact with visitors.
“It’s stressful enough for far-ranging dolphins to be locked up in SeaWorld’s tiny tanks, but forcing them to interact with visitors is downright dangerous,” said general counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Jeff Kerr, in response to the San Antonio incident. “SeaWorld’s ‘Dolphin Cove’ is another example of how the park’s main priority is profit, not the welfare of the animals or the safety of its guests.”
In an affidavit filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice obtained by Buzzfeed, it is alleged that SeaWorld dealt with the issue of stress by giving the animals benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that include the human medications Valium and Xanax. In 2003, Marineland, a theme park and aquarium based in Niagara Falls, Ontario, offered to trade SeaWorld four beluga whales for one orca. In a dispute over the selected killer whale, Ikaika, Lanny Cornell, a veterinarian in consultation with Marineland, provided veterinary records for the whale in his affidavit, attesting to the health of the animal. The records show that SeaWorld staff regularly gave Ikaika the psychotropic drugs.
“The veterinary records show that orcas at SeaWorld are given psychotropic drugs to stop them from acting aggressively towards each other in the stressful, frustrating conditions in which they’re confined instead of funding the development of coastal sanctuaries — the only humane solution,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law for PETA.
Orcas, also known as killer whales or — less commonly — blackfish, constitute the largest known class of oceanic dolphins. An apex predator not known to be dangerous to humans, its high level of intelligence makes it difficult to successfully keep one in captivity without a heightened level of stress and stress-related behavior.
Orcas possess highly developed social hierarchies — only primates have been shown to have more complex social structures — and migration patterns that can range between 200 and 800 miles. These factors support the notion that keeping an orca in an enclosed area with unfamiliar animals can generate great amounts of stress for the orca.
“They do not cope with being kept in these tanks. They survive to some degree, but they don’t thrive to any degree,” said Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust. “They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank, and there isn’t a single orca living in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors, and in many of them you see multiple examples of these behaviors.”
SeaWorld has defended its use of benzodiazepines, stating that it is a common zoological medication used sparingly at SeaWorld and that its use is highly regulated by the company’s veterinary staff.
The question of stress for animals in captivity is not limited to dolphins, however. In 2008, there was an international call to stop the capture of elephants. Two studies released at the time showed that elephants in captivity were more likely to be obese, live only half the lifespan of an elephant in the wild and be subjected to a wider host of medical problems, including mobility issues.
“You would expect captive elephants to live at least as long, if not longer, than those in the wild because they are better cared for, but that is not the case. The difference is massive,” said Ross Clubb, a wildlife scientific officer at the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and lead researcher for one of the two studies.