Industry on Trial: How Many More Must Die?

Posted by Jenni James, ALDF Litigation Fellow on November 12, 2013

Why would SeaWorld, a multi-billion dollar company, spend years in court fighting a $75,000 fine, even after the fine was reduced to $12,000? One reason: they don’t want to admit the truth.


Captive orcas at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida on March 21, 2010. (CC George)

The truth is keeping orcas in captivity is a bad idea. For orcas—and the people who work with them—it’s not only dangerous, it’s deadly. Four people have died after entering the water with a captive orca. Others have escaped with serious injuries. Yet, despite more than 100 documented incidents of orca aggression, SeaWorld’s lawyers appeared today before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that swimming with captive orcas does not violate the Occupational Health and Safety Act—which requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards likely to cause serious bodily injury or death. This is why ALDF asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate the other marine “abusement” parks that display captive orcas—before it’s too late.

The D.C. Circuit Court must now rule on the issue only as it applies to SeaWorld of Florida, whose employee, trainer Dawn Brancheau, was killed in 2010 by Tilikum, the largest orca in SeaWorld’s possession. SeaWorld’s vigorous defense belies the true stakes: the industry itself is on trial.

Holding orcas captive leads to aggression. SeaWorld argues their trainers are so adept at predicting this aggression, they are not at risk. In fact, SeaWorld recognized that Tilikum was dangerous when they acquired him. They knew he had killed Canadian trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 after she fell into his pool. In 1999, they found Tilikum with the dead body of Daniel Dukes, a trespasser who entered Tilikum’s tank after the park closed. Predicting Tilikum’s aggression was not enough to protect Dawn Brancheau, whose death launched the investigation that led to SeaWorld’s fine.

SeaWorld argues Dawn Brancheau’s death was not the result of unsafe working conditions, but an unfortunate accident that can happen whenever humans interact with nature. But there’s nothing natural about keeping orcas in captivity. The risk of swimming with frustrated orcas is nothing like going for a hike or a sail; it’s more like playing Russian roulette. It’s not a question of whether orcas will attack but when.

OSHA is obligated to ensure our workplaces are safe; they should be preventing deaths, not investigating them. Yet OSHA has done nothing to prevent tragedy at Miami Seaquarium, where trainers continue to swim with and ride on Lolita, the orca who has been held captive there since 1970. For decades, the Seaquarium has held Lolita in conditions that violate the Animal Welfare Act—depriving her of space, shade, and companionship—forcing ALDF to sue for enforcement.

Will OSHA take action before another life is lost? Companies like SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium view regulatory fines as a cost of doing business. SeaWorld would rather pay a small fortune than admit they have blood on their hands. Will OSHA act before they have the blood of another trainer on theirs?

16 thoughts on “Industry on Trial: How Many More Must Die?

  1. Laurie says:

    I just want to say that as much as I loved going to seaworld as a child and even took my kids I have come to realize that these mammals should NOT be in captivity. they should be in the wild and free as they are intended to be…I haven’t gone to SW since I have realized that. I love that place but at what cost. I will NEVER be going there again. My heart goes out to all mammals and animals there…Its so sad..PS the people working with them have a choice those Orca’s do not..

  2. Barb Robinson says:

    They punish them by depriving them of food which they get for performing or put in a tiny tank in the dark with no companion ship of any kind I ask is this humane please free them like they are meant to be enough is enough

  3. Stephanie says:

    I have never been to Sea World but many of my family and friends have. I refuse to go I am highly offended by the fact that that they make those animals perform. A lovely creature such as those at Sea World should not be kept in such small spaces it is cruel. Why should they be confined in such small prisons when in their natural habitat they have the whole ocean..Not some small A$$ Tank!!! ugghhh Sea World Pisses me off… they are more about the money and entertainment and selling stupid Sea World crap!!

  4. Norma Scott says:

    I will never go to Sea World and neither will my family go, these beautiful animals belong in the sea to swim free and not in a tank to be tortured and starved to have food to perform.. So sea world can satisfy their greed for money… I fully support all who wants Sea to be shut down….

  5. Greg says:

    I don’t believe that Orcas should be in captivity. But will individuals such as Lotita and Tilikum be able to survive in the wild? Clearly Seaworld has set objectives. If Seaworld lose what plans are in place to look after these whales? Where will they live?

  6. GenNai Smotrulla-Milner says:

    I will never support SeaWorld. After watching the documentary BLACKFISH, I was sickened. I will never understand how anyone could take these beautiful creatures and hold them it captivity for the almighty dollar. I will never forget the sounds that these whales made when they became separated from the young orcas. This has to stop, these animals deserve to be kept in the wild, if we allow this type of entertainment to continue, these whales will suffer greatly.

  7. Jane says:

    I too had never really thought about the ethics behind zoos, marine parks, rodeos, live export or even factory farming. Since becoming vegetarian a few years ago after the shocking abuses of Australian livestock in Indonesian abattoirs, I have steadily realised that essentially we treat animals as products. Products for consumption, clothing, entertainment, dubious sexual enhancement (tigers, rhinos, elephants). I suppose it aligns with the greater human tendency to not care about anything that doesn’t directly affect it. This explains the cognitive dissonance as we treat our pets as companions while we chow down on a baby lamb. The answer is to respect life in all forms.

  8. Sue Hodges says:

    I feel so ashamed that when my children were little l took them to SeaWorld in Queensland ….we live in Australia. It’s so heartbreaking and disgusting the terrible things we do all for the sake of money. I am now vegan and will never ever contribute to the pain and suffering that is inflicted upon animals by humans. As l watched Blackfish l cried and so wanted to save him. Hopefully as time goes on people will realise that we have to stop the abuse.

  9. Debra Zavala says:

    I believe that these Orca are kept in deplorable conditions and are attacked by other orca in their pool and raped and not fed enough. They are not given their own specific food, salmon or seals and are given tiny herring but only if they perform highly athletic tricks to perfection. The 2 whales who killed the last two trainers had performed tricks but not perfectly enough to get food and then out of frustration or starvation rammed and killed their trainers.The time for release is now. all captive Orca should be released to sea pens for rehabilitation and return to the ocean or kept in sea pens if the animals are too sick or unable to swim free in the ocean.

  10. Rhonda says:

    What people are forgetting is that these animals are first and formost wild. No wild animal can be “predicted” you see it in horses and even in zoo’s. An animal’s wild instinct is never gone.
    I’m sorry to say that most of these whales could not survive in the wild. All entertainment parks should be shut down with the animal side and the animals either moved to zoo’s, santuaries or even as much as I hate to say, humanily put to sleep. If they can’t survive in the wild, it would be abuse to the animal to put them there.
    I went to sea world once as a teen and I was held captive by the large brown eyes of one of the killer whales in florida and you know what? After ten minutes of staring into it’s eyes, I decided never again. I could understand if we were breeding them to release back into nature but we aren’t and so as sad as I am to say, they should be put to sleep and allowed to go to the great sea in the sky. They are made to swim not be confined to small areas.
    While I am also sad about the death of the trainers, it is their faults for getting into the water with an animal that could kill them. It’s not the whales fault.

  11. Kat says:

    Wow. Amazed by some of the comments. I will say up front that I have not done any research to know how they obtain their animals/mammals. I just recently went to sea world for the first time and was amazed at what the dolphins and orcas could do. With the ‘shamus’ no one was in the water with them. But the idea that we can communicate with them and they can understand what we want them to do. I agree the orcas need more space. But how different is it than training cats, digs, monkeys, birds, etc.

    1. Belle says:

      Kat, I urge you to watch the documentary blackfish, if you haven’t already. It gives you compete in formation on how orcas come to be in captivity. It will break your heart. While the babies are being captured, the pod watches and cries out and won’t leave the scene.

  12. Shellie says:

    It’s despicable that animals are used, abused and murdered for the soul purpose of human entertainment,monetary gain,ego trophies,etc…sadly,the list goes on…:-(
    Animals are living,breathing,thinking, feeling beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity!!!

  13. Sea World has gotten away with their cruel treatment of orcas for way too long! We must educate those who don’t know about the suffering that these animals endure 24/7! If we can make a huge dent in their pockets, they will be forced to release these orcas to sanctuaries where they can relearn life in the wild! Can you imagine the thrill for them to swim miles in their natural habitat and reunitie with their pods? We can make that happen! Boycott Sea World and any other venue that imprisons animals!

  14. Suzanne-Zoologist says:

    These Orcas are too large, too intelligent and cover too many miles to be kept in captivity.
    It’s cruel mentally and physically.
    They have great memories, so if they have been in the wild, they will remember the wild and this creates frustration which is turned into aggression.The floppy fin signifies depression.They have not been domesticated for enough generations to be as tame as they are needed to be and therefore they can be reintroduced to the wild, just as a tamed lion can be. Even domesticated dogs have formed wild packs again.These Orcas need their lives back, as their lives are as important to them as ours are to us.
    Sea world is just another cruel circus.

  15. Kelly Brannigan says:

    Their sterile mundane life in captivity is plainly no life at all. It is comparable to torture. It is truly obvious that by the outcome of their recent behaviors that speaks volumes of why this life of confinement is inhumane.

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