Political documentaries like “Blackfish” and special interest groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and student groups like Cease Animal Torture mislead the innocent and uninformed into thinking SeaWorld is actually the enemy. And now, the University Student Union at Cal State University Long Beach no longer sells SeaWorld tickets to students – discouraging them to ever visit a place where animals are “tortured.”
“These organizations have a very strong goal, and they’re very passionate about it, but they have no problem misrepresenting information; they have no problem using things out of context,” said Mike Price, SeaWorld’s assistant curator of fishes.
A graduate from the CSULB marine biology program, Price adds that he is saddened to see his beloved alma mater choose to no longer sell SeaWorld tickets just because a few people on campus decided to rally against the San Diego theme park.
“For me, it’s frustrating to see the university, which I believe has a very strong science background, make a decision that was without science,” Price said.
That science, Price explained, is better understood when people get a hands-on experience when they come to visit places like SeaWorld and see for themselves how animals are cared for. Watching documentaries like “Blackfish” and nature shows is not the same as “hearing a 9,000 pound whale take a breath, or feeling what a sea urchin feels like, or being splashed by a dolphin, or seeing a polar bear rip into a toy,” Price said.
Instead, many people believe the countless myths weaved by animal rights groups and clever filmmakers condemning SeaWorld for abuses such as “forcing” killer whales and dolphins to do tricks.
“They’re 9,000-pound animals; if they don’t want to participate [in the trick], they’re not going to participate,” SeaWorld trainer Wendy Ramirez said. “It hurts [when people criticize the way SeaWorld trainers treat their animals] because you dedicate your career and lives to these animals.”
Killer whale trainer Ken Peters added that there are many other myths about the animals in SeaWorld’s care.
“People are only given bits and pieces, not the whole story,” Peters said.
For example, “Blackfish” depicts workers at SeaWorld separating a whale calf away from its mother. You would think it was the killer whale version of “Sophie’s Choice,” but Peters said the way “Blackfish” depicts the tearing away of the calf from its mother is incredibly inaccurate. For one thing, it’s not as if animals in the wild stay together forever. Second, the calf is sometimes removed from its mother if the mother rejects it. Sometimes the mother can turn on her young, so they are separated from the mother for protection.
Another myth about SeaWorld, according to Peters, is that the cramped killer whale tanks create an unhealthy environment for the animals—their curved dorsal fins being an unnatural side effect of the harmful living conditions. In reality, Peters explained, the killer whales in SeaWorld’s care don’t have to swim 80 to 100 miles a day like they would have to do in the wild to find food; and thus, swim more towards the surface in the exhibits at SeaWorld; their dorsal fin curves naturally when they swim at the surface, whereas it is much straighter when swimming below the surface.
“Maybe we do have a higher rate of dorsal fins bending over to either side, but that’s because the animals don’t have to go hunting for their food, so they can relax and rest more.” Peters said. “But that has nothing to do with their health … what PETA seems to explain is that it’s a negative attribute of them being here [at SeaWorld], but the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t affect their health.”
The well-being of the animals at SeaWorld is always top priority, according to dolphin trainer Lindy Donahue.
Many of the tricks that the animals perform for spectators are in reality “husbandry behaviors,” actions the animals are taught that assist in their own health examinations, Donahue said. For example, dolphins are taught to flip over and “fluke present” so that veterinarians can take blood samples to monitor the animals’ health.
Even the iconic “Shamu pose,” where the orca slides out and lifts its fluke out of the water, is a husbandry behavior designed to measure the weight of the animal, SeaWorld veterinarian Hendrik Nollens said.
“If half your body is still in the water, you can’t get an accurate weight,” Nollens said. “We are very proactive with all our animals to assess their behavior—whether it’s in their appetite or their weight, and even subtle things like how high they sit in the water and how fast they respond to their trainer.”
Every animal receives a monthly health examination, Nollens said, and there are vets conducting walkthroughs each day, monitoring the well-being of the animals. Nollens just finished giving an ultrasound to a killer whale named Ulises, for example. He was checking Ulises’ gastrointestinal tract, making sure the orca’s bowels were normal.
“In many ways, these guys get better healthcare than the average American,” Nollens said. “I mean, how many Americans go see their general practitioner every month?”
The animals at SeaWorld San Diego are even fed a rich diet, consisting of a variety of seafood, according to SeaWorld animal care supervisor Jody Westberg.
“It is incredibly important to us that this seafood is all sustainable and it is all restaurant quality,” Westberg said. “There’s more to it than just fun and games; there’s a lot of hard work that goes into caring for these animals, and food prep and diets are extremely important.”
That hard work includes a team that comes in every morning at 6 a.m. to sort out and organize the variety of meals planned for the next day. The park stores two weeks’ worth of seafood for the animals that include those rescued from the wild.
“Primarily the animals that we rescue are malnourished and a lot of the times they’re young animals—pups who get parasite overloads,” Westberg said.
Westberg pointed out an orphaned Guadalupe Fur Seal picked up by the SeaWorld rescue team two weeks ago as evidence of a victim of malnourishment. The pup was somehow separated from its mother and was found stranded on a rock much further north than its original habitat—on the shores of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. The pup is being treated with antibiotics for a severe infection and has gained weight since being seen emaciated on the shores in the wild.
SeaWorld helped rescue over 400 sea lion pups last year and more than 200 this year. In one instance, over 80 hooks were removed from a California Sea Lion. The SeaWorld rescue team even recovered three sea lions with large fishing gaff hooks wedged in their sides. The hooks were removed; two were saved, but one had to be euthanized.
“The goal is to rescue [the animals], rehabilitate them and return them to the wild,” Westberg said.
What’s actually happening at SeaWorld is far different from how the park is represented in the media. SeaWorld does not go out and capture animals and throw them in tanks, forcing them to perform tricks, Westberg said. In fact, Westberg said, SeaWorld rescues debilitated animals and restores many back to health. Yet, several of the animals were raised at SeaWorld and wouldn’t survive in the harsh wild. Their immune system wouldn’t be able to handle the toxins that are in the ocean, and they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves.
But it takes seeing the passion in the eyes of people like Westberg to understand the truth about SeaWorld. It takes seeing the playful and energetic dolphins to realize just how happy they are in their environment and how much they love their trainers. It takes learning from the source and hearing from the dedicated and caring trainers and veterinarians who treat the animals like their own kids to understand how the animals at SeaWorld are treated.