The Secret Life of “Shamu”

So, you’ve seen Blackfish. Or maybe you haven’t, but are curious what all the fuss is about. I’ve been researching the subject for the last two months and have made a list of the dark secrets SeaWorld doesn’t want you to know about.

One of my favorite childhood memories was a trip to SeaWorld in Orlando with my parents. We also visited MarineLand, Miami Seaquarium, and many of other marine parks, as my mother and I have always shared a love of dolphins and whales. Sure, we’d heard that PETA and a few other extremist groups had their complaints, but what doesn’t PETA hate? Those adorable bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, and killer whales always looked so happy! Their trainers really seemed to love and care about them. Maybe captivity wasn’t the ideal situation for them, but most of them were rescued and wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild anyway, right? At least that’s what SeaWorld had us believing.

Looking back, I honestly can’t believe how naïve we were. From a logical perspective, why would a for-profit corporation put the benefit of their animals above the mighty dollar? And for that matter, why put the welfare of their trainers first either? No, all SeaWorld ever needed to do was get people to believe their animals were happy, and that’s a lot cheaper than doing the right thing. Ever since Blackfish was released earlier this year, the public at large has finally begun to realize the real truth of what SeaWorld does. 

Finally, the rest of us are figuring out what marine biologists and animal welfare advocates have known for decades. There’s a good reason eight of the ten musical acts planned for SeaWorld’s 2014 concert series have pulled out. SeaWorld itself is getting pretty worried; they’ve been taking out ads trying to dispute Blackfish‘s allegations, and even trying to rig polls to indicate a pro-SeaWorld point-of-view. I recently read David Kirby’s 2012 book Death at SeaWorld, and not only did it confirm the bleak picture of life at SeaWorld from Blackfish, it exposed a lot of things the filmmakers didn’t have time to explore in the documentary.

A painting of a black and white killer whale.
Original Art by Stevie Laws. Click for artist’s website.

I’m focusing on SeaWorld for three reasons. First, they’re the ones who are most in the spotlight ever since trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in 2010. Second, they’re the largest and most successful marine park in the world, with three locations. Third, they’re actually regarded as one of the best facilities in the world for captive marine mammals. So as bad as the animals at SeaWorld have it, the dolphins and whales at other parks generally have it much worse. I can’t cover everything bad SeaWorld has done, just the things I’ve learned about that stood out as particularly terrible and as most of my research has been about orcas, also known as killer whales even though they’re technically members of the dolphin family, much of the focus will be on them.

So, to get things started, here are the things SeaWorld doesn’t want you to know about:

1. SeaWorld’s rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation programs aren’t what they want you to think they are.

I’m starting with this because it’s the most common defense SeaWorld’s PR team has been bringing out ever since Blackfish was released. First of all, even if SeaWorld rescued thousands of animals out of the goodness of their own hearts, that’s no defense for abusing or mistreating the animals in their parks. Good deeds don’t give you a free pass to keep doing evil ones. It’s a red herring. Any good things SeaWorld does are completely unrelated to whether or not they mistreat their orca, or any of their other animals. It’s like if a man was arrested for domestic violence and tried to argue he should be allowed to abuse his wife because he volunteers at the soup kitchen three days a week. It’s ridiculous for SeaWorld to even bring it up, and it’s a desperate attempt to distract the public from the issue at hand.

Now, that’s all assuming SeaWorld is actually selflessly helping rescuing and rehabilitating animals. Now, they have rescued animals. That’s not in dispute. But did you know they get government funding to do it? That’s right, SeaWorld isn’t paying for these rescues all by themselves, they’re getting funded with grants from the government. They’ve gotten $2 million just in the past decade, and every grant SeaWorld gets means less funding is available for legitimate non-profits. Now, SeaWorld supporters will argue that the government funding is only part of what they spend. That’s also true. But according to the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund website, a lot of their remaining funding comes from charitable donations they receive from park guests, through special items they sell to benefit their conservation fund at their parks (as a Busch Gardens season pass holder, I can vouch that there are all kinds of fundraisers going on inside their parks; these are specially marketed charity items you’re buying, they don’t just give a cut of everything they sell), and from charity galas and online donations. How much does the corporate ownership of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens actually give? According to a great breakdown from the blog Cetacean Inspiration, almost nothing. They made $400 million just in their second quarter, and only gave $109k for the whole year. Now all of these figures are from 2009; if you can find anything more recent, let me know. It’s possible they upped their spending after Dawn Brancheau’s death sent them a whole mess of bad PR. But either way, SeaWorld is trying to take credit for everything good their charity does when they’re only footing about one quarter of the bill. Furthermore, the amount they actually give is an extremely small percentage of what they take in. To top it all off, by heavily promoting their charity and the idea that they are funding conservation, they probably get people to spend more money at their parks because people think by buying their overpriced souvenirs, they’re helping stranded whales. Then the animals they are rehabilitating are put on display in their parks so they can make money off them. And of course, it’s great PR.

Also, they’re complete and utter hypocrites because SeaWorld itself is a major polluter and buys seafood from fisheries that harm marine habitats. 

2. Shamu’s family tree is similar to the Hapsburg dynasty’s.

In V.C. Andrews’s classic novel Flowers in the Attic, a brother and sister locked up together as they go through puberty develop an incestuous attraction. The same sort of thing is going on at SeaWorld. Kohana, a young orca owned by SeaWorld currently living at Loro Parque (more on them later!) is closely related to twenty of the twenty-six orcas owned by SeaWorld, and had two children with her own uncle. Her second child, Vicky, was sickly and died at only ten months, and there has been a lot of speculation inbreeding may be to blame.

While it’s hard to know how prevalent inbreeding is among wild orcas, it would have to be much more common at SeaWorld where for most orcas the only possible mates are their relatives. A small population, forced to result to inbreeding, is not sustainable.

3. SeaWorld orcas are unusually aggressive towards each other.

Here is some graphic, horrific footage of Kandu V, an orca living at SeaWorld San Diego, bleeding to death while her eleven-month-old daughter watched helplessly during a Shamu show. Kandu was the dominant female at SeaWorld San Diego, and was trying to attack Corky, a sub-dominant female. While attempts to show dominance are not uncommon in the wild, because SeaWorld mixes orca from different social groups together, they have difficulty communicating and tend to be more aggressive. Kandu rammed Corky so hard she injured her jaw and bled to death. Orcas communicate with each other using specific calls distinct to each pod. When SeaWorld puts orcas collected from all over the world together, they don’t tend to get along very well. Kandu was an Icelandic orca, and Corky was a Northern Resident from off the coast of Canada. Furthermore, there’s the obvious issue that when orca in the wild have disagreements, they can always just swim away from each other. At SeaWorld, the orca who is the target of another orca’s aggression has nowhere to run.

Orca society is matriarchal, and male orcas without mothers are typically at the bottom of the food chain. So Tilikum, the orca who famously killed three people, was a frequent target for abuse from dominant females. In the wild, an orca like Tilikum would remain with his mother or other members of his family his whole life. A large percentage of SeaWorld orca, both wild-caught and captive-born, were seperated from their mothers at young ages and thus have poor social skills.

4. When Shamu dies, he gets turned into fertilizer and pet food.

According to Death at SeaWorld, at least two deceased orca from SeaWorld were sold to rendering plants and might’ve ended up in your garden or in Fido’s bowl. Considering SeaWorld doesn’t seem to have much to say about what happens to their orca when they die, this probably happens fairly often, especially to adult males who leave behind the largest corpses. Think about it for a second. This is the send off these beautiful creatures get? This is the thanks for making SeaWorld literally millions of dollars every year? I would be horrified at the idea of selling my beloved pet to a rendering plant.

5. The orcas are all called Shamu so people don’t notice how many SeaWorld has gone through; and the same applies to their other animal performers.

More information from former SeaWorld trainers and document leaks was published in Death at SeaWorld. Most of SeaWorld’s animals use “stage names” so the public doesn’t realize how frequently they die. When the star of one of their shows dies, SeaWorld quickly puts in a replacement so no one’s the wiser. This sort of thing has become much harder in our obsessive media age, where SeaWorld’s biggest fans (ironically, the same people who are going online defending them in the wake of Blackfish) are blogging and photographing individual animals and eagerly reporting any births and deaths that occur. But in the 1990s, SeaWorld staff were explicitly told in their guidebook not to use the words “dead” or “die”: “If people ask you about a particular animal that you know has passed away, please say ‘I don’t know.'”

6. The whole Tilikum handjob thing.

Yes, we’re going to talk about that. For the unaware, when a Mommy Shamu and a Daddy Shamu love each other very much and SeaWorld decides it would be economically advantageous for them to have a baby, a human will crawl in the pool with Daddy Shamu, make him roll over, bribe him with fish to make him expose his penis, and then manually stimulate it with some good old KY Jelly until he ejaculates and another human collects his semen and puts it in a freezer. Then later, miles away, another human gets in a different pool with Mommy Shamu and makes her roll over so they can put Daddy Shamu’s frozen sperm inside of her. In case you wanted to know, (and I’m sure you don’t want to know), there is video of this online. Don’t look at it while other people are around. They might think you’re a bit of a pervert.

A lot of anti-captivity blogs and websites refer to this as “masturbating” the male orca’s penis. But see, I object to that terminology. Masturbating is something you do to yourself. What these, poor, unfortunate trainers are doing to those even more unfortunate orca, is called a handjob. Just think about how bizarre this whole thing must be for the orca. These are intelligent animals, and this whole thing must be very confusing for them.

If corporations are people, can we please charge SeaWorld with beastiality?

I’m going to take a second to address how SeaWorld defends this, and let’s be honest, it’s pretty indefensible. In 2010 Tommy Lee published an open letter on behalf of PETA calling SeaWorld out and exposing their artificial insemination program to the outraged public. SeaWorld’s response, as told to TMZ, was first to just bitch about PETA being liars and Tommy Lee being an idiot. Then when they finally addressed the issue at hand:

The process of collecting semen for [artificial insemination] doesn’t differ in any meaningful way from the techniques employed in managing livestock or other species for zoological display.

Okay, I don’t think giving handjobs to animals is acceptable for livestock or zoo animals either. I just don’t agree with the idea of performing sexual acts on creatures who can’t consent. Maybe if you have a species that will otherwise die out because of animals refusing to mate with each other, but certainly not so anyone (whether it’s SeaWorld or some sketchy factory farm) can make a profit. But really, what offends me the most is that SeaWorld is equating orca, one of the most intelligent species on earth, with livestock. There’s no acknowledgement of these animal’s feelings, and they’re very emotional creatures. They have taken all the reproductive agency away from their orca. SeaWorld can say all they want about how happy Shamu is or how much they care about him, but at the end of the day all he is to them is livestock.

7. Shamu’s teeth are in really terrible shape.

One of the lesser-known side-effects to a life in captivity are terrible teeth. Orca at SeaWorld frequently bite the bars that are used to separate them, breaking their teeth and putting them at risk for oral infections. To combat this, SeaWorld’s veterinarians will drill holes in their teeth and remove the pulp. This is done without any anesthetic. Now, every time the orcas eat, food gets caught in the holes in their teeth. So their teeth must be flushed at least once a day to prevent infection.

Their teeth also tend to get worn down for more complex reasons, which makes it harder for them to chew food, hunt (if they were ever given the opportunity; SeaWorld doesn’t allow live fish in their orca tanks), and defend themselves. The longer the animal is in captivity, the worse their teeth get.

8. Captive orca are really, really aggressive.

There have been 114 incidences of captive orca aggression. Not all of these are extremely well-documented, but plenty of them are. In recent years, some have even turned up on YouTube. Orca in the wild are considerable less aggressive, with only a few, fairly minor instances of aggression against humans ever recorded, only one of which involved an injury, and no deaths. Four people have died from captive orcas: Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes, Alexis Martinez, and Dawn Brancheau. All four of those instances were covered in Blackfish. Two of the incidents took place at SeaWorld, one involved an orca owned by SeaWorld, and the other involved an orca now owned by SeaWorld. Three of them were the work of one orca, Tillikum.

These are intelligent animals. They know they can’t eat humans, and this isn’t a misguided attempt to be playful. And it certainly isn’t, as SeaWorld would have you believe, the fault of trainer errors. These animals are fighting back.

9. Trainers get paid really poorly.

Now, what with the risk of dying a horrible violent death, and the performance of regular orca handjobs, you would think SeaWorld trainers must get a pretty good paycheck every month. I mean, if there’s any job that warrants it, surely this one does!

Nope. Trainers with five years experience can expect to make about $18-$21 an hour. And when they’re not in the water, they’re kept busy with various menial tasks from morning until night. They also have to keep their bodies in peak physical condition, much like an Olympic athlete. But so many young people who love animals are eager to work there, and SeaWorld can remain confident people will always be lining up to apply. There used to be a five dollar an hour bonus for orca trainers, but not anymore because that would mean acknowledging that it’s actually kind of dangerous.

They also cut the hours of most of their employees to get out of giving them health insurance. And the Chairman of Blackstone, the group that owns SeaWorld, compared President Obama to Hitler for trying to raise his taxes.

 10. Mothers and children are separated all the time.

Probably the most heart-breaking, rage-inducing part of Blackfish is the separation of orca mothers from their calves. Orcas are as social, or more social, than humans, so this isn’t like separating farm animals or pets from their families. It creates a dysfunctional family structure, and leads to bitterness and trauma for the involved mothers and children. Why does SeaWorld do this? Money, of course. They have three parks, and in order to keep attendance up at all of them each park needs to have a diverse group of orcas. This would include a cute baby, a large male for the splash routines, and some breeding females. In order to keep up that balance, sometimes families have to be separated.

Here is a list of the mother/calve separations that SeaWorld and other parks are responsible for. Considering the relatively few successful births SeaWorld has had, children are separated from their mothers about as often as not.

11. The “extra” orcas SeaWorld owns have been dumped at Loro Parque.

SeaWorld found a great way to profit off the extra, dysfunctional young orcas that these parent-child separations create by sending them accross the ocean to Loro Parque, a theme park in the Canary Islands. SeaWorld was also hired to supervise the set-up of Loro Parque’s orca program, and are still associated with them to this day. SeaWorld still legally owns the orcas they sent to Loro Parque, and another orca, Morgan, who was “rescued” by a Dutch aquarium and then sent off to Loro Parque. Loro Parque was supposed to be “caring” for Morgan, and not training her to perform, but they’re doing it anyway, as well as trying their best to get her pregnant so they won’t ever be compelled to release her. SeaWorld now owns Morgan and has no intention of ever letting her go. Honestly, she would be better off at any other facility than Loro Parque, where the orcas were all separated from their mothers, are unusually prone to aggression, and have been physically attacking Morgan.


5 replies on “The Secret Life of “Shamu””

Sea World is pretty terrible and the PR campaign to lessen damage control is pretty aggressive here in Florida. This has been a long time coming because the stories covered in Blackfish have been floating around for years. Some of my friends who work for Sea World (none of them are trainers) are looking for other work because the massive layoffs are probably around the corner.

That would be a good idea. It’s worth noting that the higher ups also seem determined to screw employees out of whatever benefits or bonuses they can. I have heard rumors that SeaWorld’s back up plan, if regulation or bad PR make their current business model unprofitable, is to open up parks in Russia, China, or Japan where there’s pretty much no regulation and where wild captures are still permitted. They could probably make a lot of money that way, and they could ship over their most valuable animals, like the orca. Orlando would probably the the last US park they’d keep open as it is the largest and most profitable, but they might close one or both of the other parks and move the animals out of the country.

There’s really not much SeaWorld’s PR can do at this point except for lie. A lot of the things described in Blackfish, like the mother/calve separations, were caught on film.

Thanks for unpacking some of the things discussed in the Blackfish documentary. I recently watched it myself, and while I wasn’t surprised at the treatment of the animals, I was somewhat surprised at the lengths SeaWorld has gone to deceive the public about what’s happening there and some of the outright lies told about the quality of life for their animals at their compounds versus in the wild. Amazing.

Leave a Reply