How I Lost My Love For SeaWorld

Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
Alexandra Owens shaking "hands" with a resident sea lion during the "trainer for a day" program.
Alexandra Owens is a freelance writer and also volunteers with animal rescues. The views expressed here are her own.

Animal-obsessed, a bit of a nerd, and an hour's drive from Orlando, it wasn’t unusual for me to head to SeaWorld as I was growing up in Florida. It’s impossible to say exactly how many weekends I spent with my nose pressed against the fish tanks — suffice to say that my family had an annual pass.

When I was seven, my parents signed me up for an overnight stay in the park. Throughout the day, my friends and I enjoyed a behind the scenes tour of the man-made marine kingdom, complete with educational talks and lots of whale-shaped ice cream. By night, we parked our sleeping bags alongside the underwater viewing section of the dolphin tank and listened to their whistles as we drifted to sleep.

I vividly recall thinking how magnificent and compelling these creatures were. In my eyes, there was no question that they should be respected and loved. They deserved admiration. We owed them protection. And SeaWorld seemed to provide that.

I performed tricks with sea lions. I swam with dolphins. I learned training signals for orca whales. The experience was unforgettable.

As I grew older, the trips to SeaWorld were less frequent, but my interest never relented. When I turned 14, I participated in the “trainer for a day” program. Much more intimate and hands-on than any visit I’d had before, I spent surreal hours with a SeaWorld trainer floating between the “habitats” of the most popular animals. I performed tricks with sea lions. I swam with dolphins. I learned training signals for orca whales. I gave and received kisses from the walrus (even though his breath smelled like sardines). The experience was unforgettable.

Then came another day I’ll never forget: when I first watched Blackfish. The 2013 documentary, made largely in reaction to the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, is nothing short of eye-opening. I had already began to personally question the ethics of keeping orcas (and really all animals) in captivity — let alone in a theme park environment where they are forced to perform.
Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
The author feeding a dolphin at the "trainer for a day" program.
I had started to feel the pangs of doubt that it might not be moral or humane that such intelligent, social, creatures should be held captive for entertainment purposes. Nothing — not conservation, not public education — could justify this fact. Blackfish laid out SeaWorld’s deception in plain terms.

The film showed 40-year-old footage of baby orcas being stolen from their distraught families by SeaWorld paid captors, the mother orcas screeching and shaking because their children were taken from them to other parks, and the incredible lifespan and complex social lives of orcas in the wild.

argues that orcas are unsuited for captivity and that their containment leads to an unhealthy, and often dangerous, environment for both the whales and trainers.

In a statement to Refinery 29, spokesperson Suzanne Pelisson-Beasley said "SeaWorld is highly regulated by the United States government, regularly inspected by federal veterinarians and other officials, and we pass strict federal licensing requirements every year. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, SeaWorld is 'meeting or exceeding the highest standard of animal care and welfare of any zoological organization in the world.'"

Like many who are concerned with animal rights, I’m taking SeaWorld’s promise for what it is: not enough.

On March 17, when SeaWorld announced that they would be ending their orca breeding program, as well as its "theatrical killer whale experience," because "society is changing," I couldn’t help but laugh at the disingenuousness of the statement. Society isn’t changing; society, largely, didn’t know.

For decades, since I fell in love with it as a child, SeaWorld has postured as a conservation-centric organization. Now, thanks to the efforts of activists, scientists, and a whole slew of people who truly care, the hypocritical nature of SeaWorld's practices have been exposed. And society won’t accept it.

Like many who are concerned with animal rights, I’m taking SeaWorld’s promise for what it is: not enough. Yes, ending captive orca breeding is a wonderful first step and it should be celebrated. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that just last year, California, the site of a main SeaWorld park, already banned captive orca breeding.

We also shouldn’t forget that in November 2015, a California congressman filed a federal bill to prohibit the captive breeding and wild capture of orcas, or that Tilikum, the orca who has been the park’s primary source of whale sperm for decades, is reportedly dying. Taken in context, SeaWorld’s “change of heart” is hardly generous. It’s a last minute act of desperation to change their image and to reframe circumstances they can’t control — a barely disguised PR stunt.
Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
The author meeting a walrus backstage at the "trainer for a day" program.
SeaWorld still has 29 orcas in captivity. With one of those whales pregnant and others mere calves, many could easily have long, full lives free of concrete tanks if SeaWorld would allow it. While CEO Joel Manby claims that these human-raised orcas "could not survive in oceans to compete for food, be exposed to unfamiliar diseases or to have to deal with environmental concerns — including pollution and other man-made threats," independent experts say the open ocean is not the only answer.

Sea sanctuaries, often referred to as sea pens, are the proposed solution. Though not total freedom, they would offer orcas a much more natural environment, with an exponential increase of space and autonomy.

"While there are some captive dolphins and whales that can’t be released in the wild, there are none that can’t be successfully moved to a sea sanctuary," David Phillips, the executive director of California-based nonprofit the Earth Island Institute, explains. "It would have major and instantaneous benefits to their health and well-being."

Building and maintaining a sea pen of this magnitude for the first time would be a great challenge, but it is feasible — especially for a company with as much money and resources as SeaWorld. Currently, teams of advocates including marine mammal specialists, veterinarians, engineers, and conservationists are striving to find solutions. SeaWorld, instead of resisting change, needs to join the conversation.

All cetaceans — a group of marine mammals that includes whales and dolphins — share a keen intelligence, self-awareness, and deep sense of emotion.

But if SeaWorld wants to promote true, lasting change it needs to go further. The orcas are simply the biggest problem — and the hardest to ignore. All cetaceans — a group of marine mammals that includes whales and dolphins — share a keen intelligence, self-awareness, and deep sense of emotion. For many of the same reasons as orcas, most marine scientists agree that cetaceans can never thrive in captivity, where their environment, stimuli, and social bonds are gravely limited.

There's a line between exposing the public to animals for the sake of education and collecting animals to make a buck. Somewhere along the way, SeaWorld crossed that line — and then started charging more expensive tickets.
Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
One of Owens' earliest visits to SeaWorld Orlando.
I don’t believe that SeaWorld is totally without merit — and that is what makes me angriest. Deep down, I know they have the opportunity to contribute so much good. Looking at these photos, I think back to what I believed about SeaWorld then. That it represented conservation and teaching. That it provided a second chance for injured manatees and abandoned sea lion pups. That it funded important sustainability and environmental research. The world needs more of that — and less tap-dancing sea lions.

SeaWorld has a huge platform available to them, and I hope that they will use this momentum to reclaim their reputation and to rethink the type of organization they want to be. Between barbaric whale hunts, the Taiji dolphin slaughter, and disappearing reefs — marine wildlife needs them more than ever.

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