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The Orca in the Room

Orcas during the shows at SeaWorld.
Orcas during the shows at SeaWorld.

In May 2014, a letter was written by a group of 38 motivated US Congress members. With Virgin founder Richard Branson’s call for more humane treatment of orcas held in captivity at the notorious SeaWorld marine park chain, this may be the strategic commandment needed to free them.

The letter, the latest in a recent outflow of protests aimed at the chain, has resulted in a pair of Congressmen successfully passing an amendment. This will force the US Department of Agriculture to finally update protective measures for orcas after 20 years of inaction.

When a bill to end orca cruelty in San Diego was postponed until mid-2015 by a California court, hopes to free the cetaceans hit a low. Things are looking up, however, after John Hargrove, ex-orca trainer and contributor to the award-winning 2013 CNN documentary, Blackfish, spurred activism worldwide. He presented a testimony in a similar bill supporting New York state’s opposition to SeaWorld.

The SeaWorld chain, which has facilities in Florida, California, Texas and eight other countries around the world, has been under close media scrutiny ever since the release of Blackfish. The documentary highlights the horrors of keeping orcas in captivity. Tillikum, the father of nine-year-old Kalia’s orca in utero, has been involved in three human deaths.

SeaWorld trainers are now forced to wear inflatable safety vests to work with orcas, the latest court-prompted safety measure since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

However, the real orca in the room is that there is not a single report of a person being killed by a killer whale in the wild. Each group speaks in a unique dialect, swims up to 100 miles a day, and stays with family members for life, as was witnessed by the recent sighting of a 103-year-old ‘granny’ orca off the coast of Canada.

Still worrisome are the consequences of in-breeding. “Perhaps the most problematic facet is the matching of genetically close individuals like Nalani, a female orca at SeaWorld Orlando, who is the offspring of a 37-year-old female Katina and her own son, a male named Taku. So Taku is both father and half-brother to Nalani,” says environmental journalist Melissa Cronin, adding that aggressive tendencies could be passed on. According to the Daily Express, The company’s top breeder, Tillikum, has already sired a whopping 21 cubs, 54% of the orcas in SeaWorld’s collection.

In addition to the scientific proof that orcas in the wild only naturally conceive at an average of every 14.9 years, they are notoriously difficult breeders. Until 1985, all 10 whales born in captivity were stillborn, and in 2010, a 21-year-old mother died while giving birth. According to The Dodo, a total of 62 orcas have died of unnatural causes since 1968.

Animal rights activists are growing increasingly irate after the news that yet another under-age female orca has fallen pregnant through the aid of artificial insemination.

In confinement, orcas are sometimes separated from their family and are often prescribed medications to cope with chronic captivity-induced stress. Their tanks are tiny, facilities often unsafe for performance, expired medications have been found on the premises of SeaWorld Orlando, and reports have been deliberately fudged to hide the extent of dorsal fin collapse. Because orcas burn more in captivity from lack of shade and the shallow and clear water, attendants have been found painting their peeling skin black with zinc oxide.

Celebrities such as Matt Damon and Russell Brand are adding their voices to the fray, and major corporations like Taco Bell and Southwest Airlines have turned their backs from partnerships with the marine park.

For most people, the question on everyone’s mind is echoed by former orca trainer, Ric O’Barry: “How many more have to die before the government outlaws this failed experiment?”

For stalwarts like marine mammal scientist, Naomi Rose, who has been playing the long game for 20 years, the answer may be more positive than expected. Louie Psohoyos, executive director of Oceanic Preservation Society, adds that “When Congress acts quickly and unanimously on anything, you know we set about to see the apex of a tipping point. SeaWorld investors should be running like rats from a ship.”

You can take action by signing the petition here.

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