Ingrid Newkirk's Blog
February 26, 2010
Until SeaWorld Shuts Down, the Toll of Victims Will Mount
Eyebrows are shooting up in the animal protection world, as SeaWorld has hired professional animal entertainer Jack Hanna to sing its praises in public. Given his own record of responsibility for numerous animal attacks (including an incident in which a chimpanzee he was using in a public display bit off a 5-year-old girl's finger) and his history of using underage animals who should be with their mothers instead of in noisy crowds and under bright lights, Hannah seems a good fit for SeaWorld. Despite its heavy public relations efforts, the marine park has a long history of getting away with murder while turning a fast buck. For example, the statements from SeaWorld about what a surprise, shock, and accident it was that the orca Tilly had drowned and pounded a seasoned trainer to death in Orlando deserve careful scrutiny. It was the third time that that particular orca, named Tilly, had killed a human being (Tilly's son also killed a trainer last year in Spain), both other deaths having also been dismissed by the amusement park as "accidental" when they were likely anything but. The marine amusement park environment is rife with deaths, close calls, and injuries.
As Jason Hribal writes in his soon-to-be-released book, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, Tilly and two of the other orcas, who have also attacked, came from Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, a facility that closed after the death of a trainer there caused by an orca. That attack, "carried out by Nootka, Haida, and Tilikum left the park in a public relations freefall. Administrators promised changes. New safety procedures would be initiated. Physical contact between the trainers and whales will no longer be allowed. Guardrails will be installed along the poolside to prevent slips or bites." All the same things that SeaWorld is saying as it hopes for the story of the trainer's death to go away. But in Canada, back then, public pressure did not let up. As Hribal writes, "Between the daily protests at the park's front gates, national demands that the orcas be released back to the ocean, and the city council's entrance into the debate, Sealand's will crumbled. In August of 1991, the park reached a startling decision. 'After a lot of thought and discussion,' the director clarified, 'it was decided killer whales should be phased out.' "The twenty-nine year old institution had closed permanently."
SeaWorld bought the three whales who had attacked, including Haida's newborn calf, for $5 million. The decision was made in secret, and the export permits were granted behind closed doors. The public at large was not allowed into the conversation. Hribal reports that Nootka died in 1994 at the age of 13 and that Haida and her calf, Ky, went to San Antonio. "Three years after the death of his mother in 2001, Ky made news of his own," writes Hribal. "That July, during a performance in front [of] a thousand people, the orca jumped on top of his trainer and repeatedly pushed the man underwater." The man escaped with his life but just barely. SeaWorld's statement had the same familiar ring. They tried to pass the incident off as a silly misunderstanding, roughhousing, and dismissed any idea that the trainer was in danger. Here's Hribal: "Witnesses did not buy it. As one of them explained, 'the whale was staying between the [exit] ramp and the trainer and finally the trainer jumped on top of the whale's back and leaped over him and another trainer caught him.'" What belies SeaWorld's statement that the orca was in a playful mood is that the orca then turned around and slammed his body down hard on the ramp.
There are so many victims in this saga--the trainers, the captive marine mammals, the children who watched people die--but truth has been the longest-running victim of the lot.
If the only thing that SeaWorld understands is money--and it has made millions off the backs of orcas like Tilly--then one hopes that if public protestation doesn't do the trick in shutting it down, the lawsuits that are sure to arise will.
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