Florida bill would ban orca shows, breeding

January 10, 2018

Nearly two years ago, SeaWorld announced it would stop breeding killer whales in its facilities.

Now a new bill introduced in the Florida House of Representatives plans on holding SeaWorld to its word, aiming to statutorily ban the breeding or shows of killer whales throughout the state, following in the footsteps of the California Legislature.

The Florida Orca Protection Act was introduced Tuesday by Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, on the first day of the 2018 legislative session. Moskowitz says his bill was joined by a companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, but no companion bill was found on the Senate’s website Wednesday evening.

House Bill 1305 would make it illegal, beginning in July 2018, to hold an orca in captivity for entertainment purposes. It goes on to say that any orca located in the state on July 1, 2018, would be allowed to continue being held in captivity for entertainment purposes until December 31, 2019 — “and may be used thereafter for educational presentations only.”

Moskowitz defines educational presentations as a live display that provides “science-based education to the public” and includes “natural behaviors, enrichment, exercise activities and live narration and video content, a significant portion of which features orcas in the wild.”

“I think the public has made the decision that going and seeing the performance of orcas, that day has come and gone,” Moskowitz said.

For Lori Marino, the president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, the bill is a step in the right direction — although she remains wary of an apparent loophole in the bill’s text differentiating between entertainment and education.

“It is a gray area,” she said. “One would have to define what entertainment is versus an educational display.”

SeaWorld’s Orlando park houses six orcas, and the Miami Seaquarium is home to one, Lolita, the subject of frequent protests from activists. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” caused a tidal shift in the perception of orca captivity.Play VideoDuration 5:18

After a lifetime in captivity, the window for freeing Lolita, the Miami Seaquarium’s star orca, may be closed, activists say. As the campaign to free her continues to rage, they question whether freeing Lolita is in her best interest.By Alexa Ard | Brittany Peterson

SeaWorld views the legislation as a distraction.

“Given we’ve already made this change, the legislation is unneeded and distracts from the great work being done to positively impact Florida’s wildlife,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with the Florida legislature, and conservation leaders throughout the state, on meaningful conservation and animal welfare initiatives.”

But Moskowitz said it was important to hold SeaWorld accountable and draw a line in the sand in the event of future orca captures by other companies.

“I applaud them for their efforts, but they didn’t do that voluntarily, they did that because the public demanded them to do that and the business model has changed,” he said.

Source: Miami Herald.com



January 10, 2018

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) filed a lawsuit this week against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) related to the agencies’ refusal to enforce requirements for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment (SeaWorld) to submit necropsy results of three SeaWorld orcas who died last year.

Specifically, AWI is suing NOAA/NMFS for failing to respond to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents on the agencies’ decision. The agencies claim that an obligation under pre-1994 public display permits to provide necropsy results and clinical histories (complete veterinary records) is no longer in effect due to 1994 changes in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), but have offered no legal justification for the claim.

The three deceased whales (Tilikum, who was featured in the documentary Blackfish; Kyara, Tilikum’s granddaughter, who was just 3 months old at the time of her death; and Kasatka, who, along with Tilikum, was one of the last remaining wild-caught whales at SeaWorld) were the subject of MMPA public display permits issued prior to 1994 (in Kyara’s case, that of her grandfather). NOAA/NMFS claim these permit requirements have been extinguished, despite legal analysis to the contrary provided to the agency by AWI counsel.

“This is an issue of government transparency and sound science” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist. “We find it disturbing that the agencies have gone to such great lengths to hide their rationale for their legal conclusion. The government is allowing SeaWorld to withhold information critical to science—one of the justifications for public display under the law—that would shed light on the lives and deaths of these orcas.”

AWI and other organizations also appealed directly to SeaWorld for this information, including via an August 2017 open letter, to no avail.

In public statements after the deaths of each whale, SeaWorld cited generic lung disease as a cause of death. Fatal lung infections are all too common in captive orcas. A more detailed look at the necropsy results and clinical histories would provide scientists, including those involved in rescuing stranded whales and dolphins, with important information on treatments, diagnoses, and prognoses.

Source: awi online.org

SeaWorld CEO slams activists who criticized the company for breeding killer whales in captivity

January 8, 2018

  • SeaWorld ended its killer-whale-breeding program in 2016, after facing backlash over its treatment of animals.
  • The company’s CEO, Joel Manby, said on Monday that its current pool of whales, which can live up to age 50, would stay in its parks for years.
  • “I get frustrated with the small-minded arguments from activists that really don’t know what they’re talking about,” Manby said.

In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would end its killer-whale-breeding program after years of scrutiny about the theme-park company’s treatment of animals. The decision was seen as a necessary refocusing away from SeaWorld’s iconic live killer-whale show.

However, according to the CEO, the theme park has the whales necessary to continue a version of what was for decades its most famous attraction. While SeaWorld began phasing it out at some parks in 2016, its “signature killer-whale show” and animal viewings continue at others.

“We will still have the whales for 50 years,” CEO Joel Manby said on Monday at the ICR Conference. “They live a long time. This is a decision that is for the immediate. But we get to keep the whales and have the experience yet have some relief from a legislative standpoint.”

SeaWorld says the average life expectancy of killer whales, also called orcas, is 46 to 50 years for females and 30 to 38 years for males.

The whales’ lifespan was a focus of the breeding-program backlash, which reached a fever pitch after the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.”

After activists petitioned for a ban on killer-whale breeding, arguing that orcas die younger in captivity, SeaWorld launched an ad campaign saying the whales live as long in its theme parks as they do in the wild. Experts told PolitiFact that SeaWorld’s claim was backed by some research but that it ignored issues such as the animals’ quality of life.

Manby said SeaWorld reallocated the $300 million it had before April 2016 planned to spend on expanding its pool of killer whales through breeding toward building more attractions.

The company’s strategy more generally has shifted toward education and animal conservation and away from its live animal shows.

“When you thought of SeaWorld five years ago, you thought of it as Shamu the killer whale,” Manby said. “When Shamu became a liability, it created somewhat of a confusion around the opportunity for us.”

Manby clarified that SeaWorld was committed to its decision not to breed and that it would not restart its breeding program, at least in his “human lifetime.”

The CEO says that he believes in SeaWorld’s mission but that many people misunderstand the company. Backlash against SeaWorld has been driven by “lies” and people lacking in “critical thinking,” he said.

“One hundred years from now, people are going to be begging for zoos and aquariums to take the animals from the wild because the extinction rate is so high,” Manby said.

People are wrong to focus on SeaWorld while fishing kills numerous sharks, dolphins, and whales every year, Manby argued.

“Those are the issues we should be talking about, not 29 whales at SeaWorld that have been born at SeaWorld and have lived there their entire life and cannot be released to the wild because they would die,” Manby said. “So I get frustrated with the small-minded arguments from activists that really don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Source: Business Insider.com

Advocates push orca breeding law as SeaWorld’s policy appears murky

The announcement was rolled out to the world as a pledge. A promise.

In March 2016 SeaWorld declared it would end killer whale breeding, making the orcas in its care in the United States and abroad its last generation to live in captivity.

Later that year, California passed a law solidifying that change, banning breeding, performing and introduction of any new orcas into captivity in the state. Now advocates in Florida, home of SeaWorld’s global headquarters, are pushing for the same legal protection, fearful that “corporate policy can always change,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, drafted the Florida Orca Protection Act ahead of the 2018 Legislative session but said he is still debating whether it will be one of the six bills he is limited to filing.

With SeaWorld in rebuild mode after years of decline and plummeting attendance, Larris said there’s an urgency to protect orcas in Florida amid the unpredictably of a struggling, publicly held company.

But in a recent transaction that occurred across the Atlantic, done with no public announcement or fanfare, it appears SeaWorld has already acted against its own policy, the Tampa Bay Times has found.

On the Spanish island of Tenerife, SeaWorld last month surrendered six killer whales that had been on loan to Loro Parque after the zoo’s president, Wolfgang Kiessling, publicly opposed the breeding ban. SeaWorld vaguely referenced the transfer in its 
Nov. 7 financial report.

On Dec. 5, Loro Parque announced on its website that one of those orcas, Morgan, was pregnant, confirmed by an ultrasound “four weeks ago.” Javier Almunia, director for environmental affairs of Loro Parque Foundation, confirmed to the Times on Wednesday that Morgan was impregnated by one of the two original SeaWorld males at the park.

SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said the transfer decision was made “before anyone knew their orca was pregnant,” but declined to answer when Morgan was bred and when the transfer was effective, whether this was a breach of the March 2016 policy change, or whether SeaWorld would support the proposed Florida bill.

Humane Society of the United States president Wayne Pacelle, who negotiated SeaWorld’s breeding ban and announced the 2016 policy in a joint statement with the theme park, said Monday that the Loro Parque transfer “does appear to be a breach of this policy.”

Pacelle said the policy held SeaWorld responsible for controlling the outcomes of their whales with lifetime care. Transferring ownership to an individual “who has a very different vision for how to care for animals,” breaks that accord.

“This was the biggest threat,” Pacelle said. “I think the Loro Parque circumstance is a cautionary tale, and SeaWorld should be in the forefront of supporting (the Florida legislation). I think there’s a trust issue now.”

• • •

Public acceptance of keeping one of the most emotionally intelligent mammals in concrete tanks drastically shifted after the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the psychological and physical trauma of captivity. It chronicled the story of Tilikum, a SeaWorld orca that killed three people during its life. There is no documented case of an orca harming a human in the wild.

By December 2014, SeaWorld’s stock price declined by 60 percent. The company faced an 84 percent drop in second-quarter income in 2015. Revenues this quarter fell to $437 million, down 10 percent from last year.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby acknowledged the changing attitudes in his 2016 announcement, also revealing a phase out of orca performances and replacement with an “orca experience” for visitors to view the animals in more natural presentations.

Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, said captivity even without a performance aspect has debilitating impacts on orcas, which have instincts to travel up to 100 miles a day and social bonds “that supersedes humans.”

In the wild, orcas live in complex social structures revolving around a matriarch, many with offspring remaining with their mothers for life and sharing unique vocalizations within groups. In captivity, they are often separated from mothers early on, like SeaWorld’s Keto, who was born at the Orlando park and moved three times before arriving at Loro Parque in 2006 at 10 years old.

MRI imaging of post-mortem brains shows killer whales have an extra lobe in the area associated with emotion not even present in humans, suggesting extraordinary capacity for processing emotions, thinking and self-awareness.

“They are animals with a level of social complexity that rivals our own culture,” Marino said. “In these concrete tanks they just don’t have the ability to exercise that most important part of their brains. They show all the classic signs of stress, extreme boredom and basically losing their minds.”

There are 60 orcas in captivity across eight countries today, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. SeaWorld has 10 in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The only other orca in America is Lolita, a wild-born whale brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970 that has lived alone in a tank only four-times the length of her body since 1980.

SeaWorld sent two males from Texas and two females from Florida to Loro Parque under a loan agreement in 2006 to help the zoo launch an exhibit. From the SeaWorld whales, the Spanish zoo bred Adan, who was born there in 2010. A second calf named Vicky died at 10 months old in June 2013.

Morgan was an injured wild orca rescued near the Netherlands and sent to Loro Parque by the Dutch government in 2011. SeaWorld claimed Morgan in an April 2013 SEC filing, when it declared “seven killer whales are presently on loan” to Loro Parque.

• • •

As SeaWorld continues to struggle, Chinese investment firm Zhonghong Zhuoye Group acquired a 21 percent stake in the company in March, becoming the largest shareholder. Two Chinese executives now sit on SeaWorld’s board, one as chairman.

It comes as China’s aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance.

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, said that influential ownership makes codifying SeaWorld’s breeding ban into law more critical. The proposed Florida bill would also prohibit the export of semen from orcas in the state and the export of Florida orcas to another country unless authorized by federal law.

“We will just wake up one morning and find (all the animals are) in China if people don’t recognize that is a dire possibility,” Rose said. “If in fact SeaWorld goes out of business and Zhonghong Zhuoye buys all the assets, there is nothing stopping them from shipping (animals) to China.”

The law passed in California with no opposition from SeaWorld. But the path to pushing the legislation in Florida has already proven difficult.

State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, drafted the bill last year but didn’t file it. Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, was interested in filing it in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she confirmed.

Diamond, who has until Jan. 9 to file his bill, said SeaWorld has made the case to him that because it has changed its policy, there is no need for a law.

Larris, with Animal Legal Defense Fund, said that stance raises concern.

“The fact (SeaWorld) is in a state of turmoil and changing leadership, the fact they don’t want to commit to this as a law, maybe tells us they are not in it for the long haul as a policy.”

• • •

As legal wrangling continues, an international group of experts is plotting a new chapter for captive whales and dolphins.

Because most captive whales cannot be reintroduced to the wild, the Whale Sanctuary Project is developing plans to build seaside sanctuaries in sites across Nova Scotia, Washington state and British Columbia.

The concept of ocean pens dozens of square acres long would require an estimated $20 million, exhaustive permitting and public buy-in. But Marino, who founded the project, predicts it could be realized within three years.

“It’s an ethical question and it’s one that has a foundation in science,” Marino said. “It’s not a question of ‘Would I like to see animals in tanks or cages?’ The data are in and they are all saying the same thing. They don’t belong in these facilities.”

Source: Tampa Bay.com

Is Florida ready to retire SeaWorld’s killer whales?

December 1, 2017

When ranking icons of Florida tourism, Shamu the killer whale is right up there with Mickey Mouse and Snooty the manatee (R.I.P. Snooty).

Since opening in 1973, SeaWorld Orlando has attracted hundreds of millions of visitors whose sole vacation mission is to see that orca shoot through the air, wave its flippers and plunge back down into the clear pool, splashing an unsuspecting grandma.

But those days are coming to an end.

Fresh off a legislative win in California, a coalition of animal rights advocates want Florida lawmakers to pass a law ending orca captivity, breeding and transporting. If adopted, the six orcas currently residing at SeaWorld Orlando would be “grandfathered” in. When they die, SeaWorld would be orca-less. The proposed bill also bans theatrical shows by captive orcas.

But will Floridians accept a SeaWorld without Shamu?

On Thursday, at the fourth floor café inside St. Petersburg’s Station House, a growing happy-hour crowd nibbled on vegan treats, imbibing beer and wine and talking orcas.

The event, “Change in the Right Direction: Protecting Florida’s Orcas,” was presented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer turned activist turned author, whom you might recognize from scandal-spawning documentary Blackfish.

Hargrove is probably the last person SeaWorld wanted to become an outspoken critic. He’s charismatic, speaks warmly and intelligently (well, usually) and, most of all, has years of experience working with orcas and management. For more than 10 years, he had one of the coolest jobs in the world, a profession children could only dream about.

At one time, a 6-year-old Hargrove dreamed about it, too, after first visiting SeaWorld Orlando and watching the animals perform in Shamu Stadium.  

“I was completely seduced by the entire environment,” he recalls. “The huge stadium. All the people. I loved the water. I love animals. …I decided then I would become a trainer. And I never went off that path.”

At 20, SeaWorld hired Hargrove as an apprentice at the park’s Texas location. He climbed the ranks to become a senior trainer, eventually transferring to California. He left the company in 2001 and worked with orcas at Marineland in France for a few years. After a five-year hiatus from training, he returned to SeaWorld San Antonio in 2008.

That’s when the dream job became a nightmare.

First, in December 2009, an orca on loan from SeaWorld killed a trainer at zoo in Spain. Then, in February 2010, an orca named Tillikum grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau by her ponytail and pulled her into the water. As recounted in Blackfish, her death was the third such incident involving that whale.

Hargrove was also beginning to understand the negative effects of captive breeding. Ever since the ban on capturing wild orcas, SeaWorld began using artificial insemination to ensure future generations of Shamu. In addition to the very unnatural process of masturbating a large male whale, catching the sperm and inserting it into a female, Hargrove says the babies are taken from the mothers too early.

“In the early years, you don’t exactly know what’s healthy or not, what’s right or wrong,” he says. “First, it’s questions. Then the questions turn into the realization: This is not right, this is not healthy.”

“It was just destroying these animals,” he continues. “I foolishly thought for a long time I could change it. You get very blinded by that love for the whales. Almost like you’re in a bad relationship. You’re invested in the love and you start to rationalize things away.”

SeaWorld Orlando did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment; however, past statements deny orca calves are prematurely separated from their mothers. The company has repeatedly denied Hargrove’s allegations of orca mistreatment and has attacked his credibility, including the release of an 8-year-old video showing a drunken Hargrove joking on the phone with a friend and using racial slurs.

“I don’t try to make any type of excuses for it,” he says of the secretly taped video. “Even if SeaWorld wouldn’t have released it and it stayed among friends, it was still wrong.”

Eventually, after years of fighting with management, Hargrove realized SeaWorld did not plan on changing its practices and resigned in 2012. A week later, the producers of Blackfish interviewed him.

SeaWorld always had to defend itself against animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but Blackfish brought the $2 billion corporation to its knees.

Attendance plummeted; stocks nose-dived. The company still hasn’t recovered: Attendance at SeaWorld parks nationwide fell 6 percent in the first nine months of 2017 compared to last year, according to corporate documents. Revenue is down tens of millions of dollars.

A year after the documentary’s release, a Santa Monica assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Welfare & Safety Act to end the display and breeding of the animals. The bill initially stalled but the lawmaker tried again last year. After Before it passed by a wide margin, SeaWorld announced the company would voluntarily end the breeding program and phase out performances by 2019 at all of its properties.

So, why is there the need for a law in Florida?

“Laws keep people accountable,” says Lindsay Larris, who oversees legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Policies can change, but laws don’t.”

The Florida law would essentially mirror the one passed in California, Larris says. Problem is, they have not found a legislator to sponsor it.

“Nobody has actually agreed to yet,” admits Larris. “Not because they don’t want to. The only pushback has been their list of priorities.”

Florida state representatives can only file six bills in a session, so finding room for killer whales between tax breaks and educational initiatives can be tricky. (Of course, that has never stopped some legislators from proposing utterly ridiculous laws.)

And as Larris travels across the state talking to stakeholders, she confesses, “Florida is in a very different political climate than California.”

Rep. Thad Altman, a Republican from Indialantic, seemingly withdrew his support for a captive breeding ban over the summer and blamed his staff for erroneously sending a letter backing the bill, Politico reported.

Larris has found allies in the state, though, including state representative Ben Diamond, a Democrat serving St. Petersburg. Before Thursday’s event, she met with the representative to discuss the latest draft of the bill.

“I think it’s an issue that warrants some study and a great deal of thought by our legislature,” Diamond told CL. “I haven’t committed yet to file this bill, but I’m studying it.”

Laws move slowly, he cautions, while expressing optimism about widespread support.

“I don’t view it as a partisan issue,” he says. “This is, in my mind, a public safety issue.”

SeaWorld also has deep pockets and lobbyists at a capitol obsessed with tourism. Larris says she thinks attendance might actually increase if visitors don’t have to feel guilty for visiting the park. That would be good news for visitor bureaus, who hold some clout in the legislature. (Representatives from Visit Florida and Visit Orlando did not return requests for comment.)

Ultimately, the tide of public opinion — what swayed SeaWorld to enact its own policies — will decide the fate of the last generation of orcas.

“I understand why the public wants to see them up close,” says Hargrove. “You see them in a show and you are just in awe. But what people don’t understand is the price they pay for being there.”

Source: cltampa.com

SeaWorld’s Toothless Denials Expose Orca to Peril

October 19, 2017

Damaged orca teeth, chipped, broken, worn to gums, USA. (I. N. Visser, Orca Research Trust)

Rot and decay of orca teeth is but a symptom of a far more menacing threat to orca in captivity.

SeaWorld’s orca — the inimitable ambassadors of the marine theme park’s captive cabaret where “wild” is but an illusion — face an unhealthy state of decline much like the industry itself. The severity and prevalence of dental pathology among captive orca is now prompting scientific scrutiny and animal welfare complaints.

In an earlier article, the observational focus was on the teeth of six SeaWorld orca held at Loro Parque, Tenerife, Spain. The basis was a report prepared by Dr. Ingrid Visser and Rosina Lisker of the Free Morgan Foundation who observed and photographed SeaWorld’s orca at Loro Parque in April 2016.

The images of the orca’s teeth at Loro Parque were hard to look at and induced widespread revulsion at the calculating cold heartedness with which Loro Parque dismissed the concerns that were raised.

Despite ever-increasing evidence that the commercial exploitation of these sentient beings serves no legitimate purpose; SeaWorld continues to mount toothless denials to justify keeping orca in captivity.

SeaWorld claimed their orca were happy and well-adjusted to life in captivity; then came the documentary Blackfish. SeaWorld claimed the dorsal fins of orca in the wild collapse just like 100% of all SeaWorld’s adult captive male orca; but the scientific literature does not bear this out. SeaWorld threatened to sue the State of California over the “right” to breed orca in captivity; then SeaWorld voluntarily agreed to end the captive breeding of all of its orca. SeaWorld told investors that anti-captivity campaigns have had no effect on its business; now SeaWorld is laying off 350 employees citing “public perception issues” for dropping attendance and its executives are under criminal investigation for misleading shareholders.

When the Visser & Lisker report came out, SeaWorld’s proxies in Loro Parque bumblingly dismissed the findings despite photographic documentation to the contrary:

Now, a new peer reviewed scientific paper, Tooth Damage in Captive Orcas, takes the discussion a step further. All 29 orca held captive by SeaWorld at its parks in the United States (San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio) and at Loro Parque (Tenerife Spain), were included in a first of its kind study of orca dentition in captivity.

Co-authored by former SeaWorld trainers Dr. John Jett and Dr. Jeffrey Ventre; orca biologist Dr. Ingrid Visser; cetacean dentition specialist Dr. Carolina Loch; and investigative researcher Jordan Waltz, the paper appears in the September 2017 Archives of Oral Biology, an international journal “which aims to publish papers of the highest scientific quality in the oral and craniofacial sciences.”

The ramifications from the findings of this new scientific paper may prove to be the most damaging yet for the captive orca industry. Using high-resolution photographs, individual teeth in the mandible and maxilla of captive orca were scored for coronal wear, wear at or below the gum line, fractures, bore holes and if the teeth were missing altogether.

The results of this new peer reviewed scientific study are jaw dropping and cannot be ignored. Here is what the authors are saying:

We investigated 29 orca owned by one company and held in the USA and Spain. Every whale had some form of damage to its teeth. . . more than 65% possessed moderate to extreme tooth wear in their lower jaws, mostly as a result of chewing concrete and steel tank surfaces.” (Dr. John Jett)

“. . . the teeth of captive orca are incredibly compromised and you just don’t see this type or level of damage in the wild.” (Dr. Ingrid Visser)

“. . . the damage to the teeth of these animals is so severe that most individuals can be identified by the specific fractures and tooth wear alone, much like forensic pathologists use for identification of humans post-mortem.” (Jordan Waltz)

A drilled tooth is severely weakened and if any other trauma occurs, fractures will happen. We have documented more than 60% of the second and third teeth of the lower jaws were broken and this high number is likely linked to the drilling.” (Dr. Carolina Loch)

“. . . teeth damage is the most tragic consequence of captivity, as it not only causes morbidity and mortality in captive orcas, but often leads to chronic antibiotic therapy compromising the whale’s immune system, as we saw recently with the orca known as Kasatka.” (Dr. Jeffrey Ventre)

According to the authors, captivity-induced dental pathology among orca has been evident since at least the late 1980’s. But despite the animal welfare implications of tooth damage in captive orca, limited empirical research on the topic exists.

Considering nearly one-half of all the orca held in captivity are under SeaWorld’s care, the fact that SeaWorld itself has not published any peer reviewed or substantive scientific papers on the subject is hard to defend – maybe it can – but it hasn’t yet.

Facilitating this growing animal welfare scandal and acting as spectators of indifference rather than agents of change is the captive orca industry itself as well as government regulators like the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Compromising ethics and morals and sacrificing honesty and accountability in defense of corporate interests and shareholder profit, should never trump the welfare of any animal held in captivity in an advanced, enlightened and humane society.

As the authors of the paper note, SeaWorld is in a unique position to advance our knowledge and insight into this phenomenon by making dental and health records publicly available to independent researchers.

The common thread throughout is the welfare of SeaWorld’s orca. With that goal, a commitment to transparency by SeaWorld is long overdue.

Source: Huffington Post.com

Ex-SeaWorld president helping feds in ‘Blackfish’ investigation

September 25, 2017

The former president of SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, Terry Prather, is helping the feds by giving evidence in their probe into the company for matters related to CNN’s “Blackfish” film.

The company has said it’s the subject of probes by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investigations are looking into “disclosures and public statements” made by company execs in 2014 or earlier “regarding the impact of the ‘Blackfish’ documentary” on SeaWorld’s stock, according to a filing.

A source says the feds are investigating whether there was a coverup at SeaWorld about the negative effect of the documentary as Blackstone took the company public in April 2013.

In the months before the IPO, “Blackfish” debuted at Sundance, was acquired by CNN Films, and was released in July 2013.

CNN’s “Blackfish” details the mistreatment of orca whales at SeaWorld, particularly in Orlando, Fla., where killer whale Tilikum was involved in three deaths. But then-SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison said in 2013, “Ironically, our attendance has improved since the movie came out.”

Shareholders sued SeaWorld in 2014, alleging the company deceived investors about the impact of “Blackfish” before and after the IPO. The DOJ asked for a pause in the civil litigation while it conducts a “federal criminal investigation.”

Prather — who was president of SeaWorld Orlando from 2010 to 2015 — plans to cooperate with the probe. It is believed the feds want him and others to talk so they can go after “the bigger fish” at SeaWorld, which denied wrongdoing.

Prather’s attorney Sal Strazzullo said, “He wants to make sure that any person involved in covering up the problems at SeaWorld will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that may include very senior figures.”

Blackstone bought SeaWorld for $2.3 billion in 2009. Shares were priced at $27 in the 2013 IPO, hit a low of $12.12 in September 2016 and were at $18.30 in March, when Blackstone nearly tripled its money on its investment in SeaWorld by selling it to a Chinese firm. Blackstone declined to comment.

Death by 50m camera clicks: As THREE SeaWorld killer whales die in a year, a former trainer says when the show is over, the gentle giant’s lives are a ‘disgrace to humanity’

August 19, 2017

  • John Hargove was a SeaWorld trainer for 14 years, quitting his job in 2012
  • Now he wants to expose the San Diego theme park for its malpractices
  • The trainer claims the animals are kept in tanks that are too small, become violent and develop diseases they would never get in the wild
  • SeaWorld said claims are a ‘miscalculation’ and they are committed to welfare

A thousand tourists hold their breath as a giant killer whale leaps skyward, the sun gleaming off its smooth back. 

As if auditioning for a Disney movie, the two-and-a-half ton leviathan performs an elegant backflip before landing with a thunderous splash.

It’s a Thursday afternoon, but SeaWorld in San Diego, California, is packed with visitors, many of them British, all drawn by the undisputed star attractions: ten huge killer whales performing two shows daily.

Who would not be moved by such a magnificent spectacle of nature?

And yet who would not be disturbed by the accounts now emerging of how these intelligent creatures are imprisoned away from public view, ridden with disease, and separated from their family members in what one former SeaWorld trainer last night described as a ‘house of horrors’?

It is once the sun-burnt crowds have drifted away that SeaWorld’s killer whales, or orcas, are herded off to backstage pools where, with little room to dive, they swim listlessly in circles, often banging their heads against the concrete sides in boredom or frustration.

Or worse, as last week’s death of disease-ravaged Kasatka made clear. ‘Euthanised’ after falling incurably sick in her artificial environment, she is the third SeaWorld killer whale to die this year alone. 

And this, in the outspoken words of Kasatka’s former trainer, is ‘a disgrace to humanity’.

John Hargrove, a SeaWorld expert turned whistleblower, is in tears as he describes the orca’s fate to The Mail on Sunday.

‘What continues to go on in parks like SeaWorld is an abomination,’ he says.

‘They claim captive orcas help educate people, and for years I bought into it. But Kasatka lived in misery, in barbaric and horrific conditions, and died in agony. She lived out her days in a house of horrors – and I was complicit in selling the lie to the public.’

Hargrove has already played a central part in Blackfish, an award-winning documentary which gained near cult status after its release in 2013, and caused SeaWorld’s shares and attendance figures to plummet.

Viewers were shaken by one horrific scene in which Kasatka is shown dragging trainer Ken Peters to the bottom of a tank in 2006, nearly drowning him.

SeaWorld lambasted the film, calling it ‘inaccurate and misleading’.

Yet it has helped drive a growing international movement to ban the captivity of whales and dolphins, and Hargrove, for one, is unshakeable in his convictions.

‘In the wild, these magnificent creatures live to 80, 100 years old,’ he continues. ‘I have to speak out because if it stops just one person paying to go to a park where orcas are tortured to perform circus tricks, then Kasatka’s death won’t have been in vain.’

While capturing wild orcas has been banned by many Western countries, including the US, Russia and China continue to hunt and trap them. 

Globally, 50 million people visit marine parks with captive orcas. 

Thanks to films such as Blackfish, SeaWorld and other aquatic parks have been forced to change – although the message that ‘cuddly’ cetaceans are not pets is yet to reach the wider public, as shown by the needless death of a baby dolphin in Spain last week.

New legislation in California means mothers and calves can no longer be separated and captive breeding has ended.

SeaWorld, which also has parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, owns 21 orcas and attracts 10 million visitors each year, including thousands from the UK. 

They pay up to £75 to watch the killer whales pirouette to music and ‘beach’ themselves on the concrete sides of the pool. 

In January, an orca called Tilikum, notorious for killing his female trainer, died after a long battle with a lung infection. 

Then last month, Kyara, a three-month-old orca that was born under the park’s now-defunct breeding programme, died from pneumonia. 

Now it has been announced that Kasatka, too, was put down last Tuesday. At 41, she was half the age she might have lived to in the ocean.

‘In the wild, orcas rarely show aggression towards humans. But I lost count of the attacks I witnessed and suffered first-hand,’ Hargrove says. 

‘I’ve been butted against the side of the pool, grabbed by my torso and dragged down. I’m amazed I’m still alive.’ 

Kasatka, too, had become violent in captivity, as the Blackfish film demonstrated.

‘She was one of the most dangerous animals I met,’ continues Hargrove, who suffered broken ribs, fingers, toes and facial fractures during his time as a trainer. 

‘These animals are trapped, frustrated, unhappy. Of course they take it out on humans they come into contact with. Being in a tank for years on end wrecks them mentally.’

Hargrove, 43, worked for SeaWorld for 14 years until quitting in 2012. He had been friends with Dawn Brancheau, the female trainer killed by Tilikum after he grabbed her ponytail and dragged her to her death in 2010. 

Trainers were banned from the water after that. Hargrove claims that many of the attacks are laughed off as play by park officials, or not reported at all.

‘They tried to explain Dawn’s death away as a simple misunderstanding, as horseplay. Dawn had her scalp ripped off. Her spinal cord was severed. Her left arm was ripped off.’

Perhaps it is little wonder. Blackfish exposed how the whales were forced to perform thanks to training techniques including food deprivation, and how their calves were forcibly removed and shipped to other parks (in the wild, orca families stick together for life).

‘They chew the metal bars separating the enclosures, they grind their teeth on the concrete sides of their holding pens,’ says an emotional Hargrove. 

‘Pin-holes develop in the teeth and stuff gets stuck in there, causing infections. We used to drill the teeth down, using no anaesthetic, to clean the mess out.

‘Their eyes close, their jaws quiver. It’s obviously painful.’

SeaWorld has vehemently denied charges of cruelty and put out its own moving statement last week on the death of its star attraction.

Trainer Kristi Burtis was quoted as saying: ‘Today, I lost a member of my family. I am grateful for the special time we had together and for the difference she has made for wild orcas by all we have learned from her.’

While SeaWorld officially attributed Kasatka’s death to lung disease, Hargrove believes it was caused by fungal and bacterial infections brought on by years of being force-fed antibiotics. 

‘Orcas in captivity are constantly sick. They get daily doses of antibiotics and other drugs. Eventually their immune system breaks down. By the end she had lesions on her face, like an AIDS patient. SeaWorld will never release the autopsy but the internal wounds will be far worse.

‘She suffered unbearably so that kids could watch her do tricks and SeaWorld could get richer.

‘People always ask me why I didn’t quit sooner but it’s like being in a cult. I loved the animals – I bought into the mantra that we were educating people about these magnificent creatures by allowing millions of kids and their parents to see them up close.

‘I believed we were helping the species by the breeding-in-captivity programme. In reality, Kasatka was a corporate asset worth millions of dollars to a company which only cared about her ability to perform and generate cash.’

Hargrove adds: ‘Even as I started seeing the daily reality of the pain and suffering these animals go through, I stuck with it. How could I leave Kasatka? But in the end I knew I had to speak out. It’s too late to save Kasatka but if we can end this horrific practice of keeping orcas in captivity, I will be able to die in peace.’ 

While SeaWorld admitted in its statement last week that Kasatka had been ‘chronically ill’ since 2008, Hargrove says the company chose to increase her burden further, artificially inseminating her in 2011. 

She was also one of SeaWorld’s most successful breeders, giving birth to Takara in 1991, Nakai in 2001, Kalia in 2004, and Makani in 2013. 

Ha also points out that the hot southern states of America were thousands of miles from home for Kasatka, who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1978. 

Hargrove recalls the death of two whales from mosquito-borne diseases – encephalitis and West Nile disease. 

‘This is because they were wallowing motionless near the surface of their pools, something which doesn’t happen in nature,’ he says. ‘Wild orcas are constantly on the move and not exposed to mosquitoes, which are limited to coastal areas.’

He is haunted by the anguish he believes Kasatka felt when her first-born calf Takara was forcibly removed from her. 

‘Takara was dragged off and taken to the Texas park. Kasatka was bereft. She vocalised her pain and swam around her pool violently. 

‘Years after they were separated we played Takara’s vocal sounds to her mother and Kasatka went nuts. She never forgave or forgot.’

Today, Hargrove treasures a picture of himself with Kasatka but can barely bring himself to look at it: ‘I’m beaming. It was back before I realised how wrong it all is. I feel guilt every day that I let her down.

‘Now she’s dead. My only comfort in her death is she is no longer being exploited. Finally she is at peace.’

Last night SeaWorld said: ‘These allegations are the same distortions and mischaracterisations that have been made and discredited over the years. No one is more dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our animals than the expert veterinarians and animal care staff working with this family of killer whales every day.

‘Our animal care programmes and policies are stringently regulated by US federal laws. The US Department of Agriculture has oversight of SeaWorld. Our park is inspected annually, often multiple times a year.

‘We pass these inspections, maintaining the highest quality standards. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums said SeaWorld is meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organisation in the world.’

To view the original article as well as VIDEO of John Hargrove and New Zealand Orca Researcher Ingrid Visser visit Daily Mail.co.uk

Hurricane Irma: SeaWorld Orlando to CLOSE for two days as Florida braces for destructrion

September 8, 2017

The theme park tweeted out that it would be closing at 5pm tomorrow and remaining shut on Sunday and Monday as they monitored the storm

SEA World Orlando is set to shut its doors as Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida.

The theme park tweeted out that it would be closing at 5pm tomorrow and remaining shut on Sunday and Monday as they monitored the storm.

Florida is bracing for the strongest hurricane on record to form over the Atlantic to hit over the weekend.

The Caribbean has already been devastated by the 185mph winds that have torn through the popular holiday destination.

Irma is expected to bring 20-foot storm surges to the Bahamas, before moving to Cuba and ploughing into southern Florida.

And that would totally devastate an island visited by millions of tourists and newlyweds every year.

Source: The Sun.co.uk

Frustration to attacks: Why captive orcas kill | Opinion

August 3, 2017

By John Hargrove

SeaWorld’s announcement introducing their new “Up-Close tour” is troubling. This ‘educational’ opportunity, where — according to SeaWorld spokeswoman Susan Storey — “visitors can signal for whales to do a tail wave or send them off for jumps,” is a not so thinly veiled entertainment show, through and through — and likely the first of many foreseeable broken promises.

During my 14-year career as a senior trainer at SeaWorld, guest interactions with the animals posed a challenge to us as trainers, or as SeaWorld now calls them, “behaviorists.” The interactions were both predictable and boring to the orcas. Often, we withheld food from the whales so we could use larger amounts of food for the interaction so they would be motivated enough to participate. Even then, it was not uncommon for the technique to be aversive, causing whales to refuse to cooperate after the punishment of withheld meals.

Behaviorally, there can be severe consequences to boredom and predictability because this causes frustration, which is a leading cause of aggression. I personally witnessed numerous incidences of aggression by the animals toward trainers during guest interaction sequences. When it happens with orcas, the potential for serious injury and death increases exponentially.

Case in point: Dawn Brancheau.

It cannot be overlooked that Dawn was grabbed and pulled into the water by Tilikum during a very predictable part of a guest interactive “Dine with Shamu” show, immediately before she was to point him underwater to another trainer to interact with a park guest through the underwater viewing area. We will never know why Tilikum made the decisions he made that day but it was discussed internally — at a senior level — that predictability and frustration could not be discounted as a possible large contributing factor to the fatal attack. Despite attempting to categorize her death as a drowning, the gruesome fact was that she was dismembered and the released autopsy report proves it. During my killer whale career alone, SeaWorld orcas killed three different people.

Since 2013, which saw the release of the revealing documentary “Blackfish,” the strides made in ending orca captivity have been unprecedented. The passage of ‘The Orca Protection Act” in California forced SeaWorld to end their orca breeding program, made them change their circus-like theatrical shows to more ‘educational’ ones and prevented SeaWorld from separating mothers from their calves by making it illegal to ship whales across state lines. This law also prevented shipping orcas to other sea parks worldwide — including genetic material used for artificial insemination. These laws ended SeaWorld’s breeding program, but the company proclaims they voluntarily ended it, which is simply false.

The tide has turned and public sentiment has changed, no one can argue on that. The public, in ever increasing numbers, has realized it’s unethical to hold orcas and other animals in captivity for profit and entertainment, and lawmakers in the United States and multiple other countries have agreed.

Now other bills are in the pipeline which mirror the bill signed into law in California. The Florida Orca Protection Act, championed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, would solidify in law SeaWorld’s “promises.” With the company’s recent infusion of Chinese investors— and the potential for additional backslides in corporate policy —codification can’t come soon enough.

SeaWorld’s desperate attempts to rehabilitate their image, especially in the wake of new explosive revelations of two separate federal investigations against them by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding securities fraud, are falling flat. The facts are the facts and the public is aware and watching.

A 3-month-old orca died recently in captivity from disease, bringing the total of orca deaths in captivity in the past 10 years to 10. Most recently, Tilikum died in January of this year and Unna last year, at only 18 years old. Despite these immunosuppressive related deaths and the fact that other whales are being treated with drugs for chronic illnesses, SeaWorld still maintains that their whales are “healthy and thriving.” Even as Kasatka, the matriarch orca, fights for her life, SeaWorld maintains their party line, concealing her true condition.

As someone who has spent countless hours caring for these animals – the animals who never benefit from the revenue brought in, who continue to swim in the same small facility — and who will only grow more frustrated and potentially aggressive with increased “guest encounters,” I am forced to ask, why hasn’t SeaWorld learned from past mistakes?

Source: Sun Sentinel.com