When you’re a child, public zoos and aquariums are magical places. They give you access to incredible wild animals from all around the world, from big cats, primates and marine mammals, to exotic birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects. And they offer once–in–a–lifetime encounters and interactions too.
However, once you become an adult, you start to see some of these facilities for what they really are. Conservation is often an excuse for confinement, and cruelty is too easily confused for discipline. Animals are mistreated, employees are misleading and the general public is misinformed.
An organisation that has been the epitome of controversy for the last 10 years, is Sea World Resort. From the fallout of the explosive 2013 documentary Blackfish, to reports of animal abductions and unnatural breeding programs, they have endured a raft of harmful headlines.
They may have stopped or phased out some of these unethical practices, but there’s still not a lot to like. Read on to find out why the ongoing campaign to boycott Sea World is not such a bad idea…
Lives cut short in captivity
A single Sea World Resort contains hundreds of marine animals. They’ve got dolphins and whales, sharks and stingrays, penguins and polar bears, seabirds and seals, turtles and tropical fish and jellyfish.
As amazing as it is to see these creatures up close and personal, their lives are no picnic in captivity, and their lifespans are significantly reduced. Whilst the average dolphin or orca can live for up to 50 years in the ocean, in aquariums they’re lucky to reach 20. Reef sharks and rays usually live for 20 years in the wild, but in captivity, it’s only half that.
This is because they are kept in shallow, man–made tanks, pools and lagoons that are around 34 feet deep—not even twice the size of an average orca! With not enough room to swim or exercise, their mental and physical health declines. They can develop depression and diseases like pneumonia, as well as collapsed dorsal fins and infections from scraping their skin on the sides of the tank.
Unable to dive far down, they are also at the mercy of the sun’s scorching UV rays. Sea World workers were known to cover up sunburned and blistered orcas with black zinc oxide, so the public were none the wiser.
Forced separations & integrations
To get them used to captivity, Sea World Resort staff often stalked and snatched animals from their mothers and pods when they were very young. Despite the fact that in their natural environment they’d be reliant on mum for 3–5 years, some were taken when they were just 12 months old!
In 2011, Sea World stole 10 baby penguins from Antarctica for “research purposes”, and in 2015, they FedEx’d 20 others on a 13–hour journey across America in tiny plastic crates with nothing but ice blocks to stand on.
Due to the stress of separation, many animals don’t survive the trip. In 2017, two polar bears who’d spent 20 years together – Szenja & Snowflake – were separated, and Szenja died 2 months later from a broken heart.
Sea World also has a habit of keeping animals confined with incompatible tankmates. This often led to tension and fights (some fatal). When the animals are agitated like this, they turn to self–harm too, to try and ease or end their suffering. Orcas and dolphins often broke their teeth chewing on the metal bars and concrete walls of their enclosures, so employees started drugging them to make them more manageable and docile.
Sexual abuse & interference
Consent has long been a grey area at Sea World Resorts. Touch tanks are still features, and although kids love them, it teaches them the wrong message. In reality, animals should initiate contact, not humans.
Sea World also came under fire for their dolphin and orca breeding programs (which ceased in 2016). Males were masturbated by their trainers for sperm, and females were forcibly impregnated. One orca, Tilikum, fathered 21 calves, but it was reported that only half had survived.
Many of their artificial insemination operations were questionable, including the case of a dolphin named Ringer. She was impregnated by her own father and had several babies, but all of them died (the mammal mortality rate is high for those born out of incest).
Trained to do tricks for treats
Most people associate Sea World with their crowd-pulling presentations of animals doing tricks and interacting with trainers and visitors. They’re always popular, but there’s a darker side to the ooh and aah inducing choreographed routines.
Although all animals have a set amount of food they should be given each day, many were deliberately put into performances on an empty stomach. Deprived of food, they were more motivated to follow instructions and put on a good show, and were then rewarded with snacks.
Dolphins and orcas, for example, would never let anyone ride them under normal circumstances, but in a Sea World Resort, they had no choice but to obey in exchange for fresh fish.
Entertaining the paying public is a big part of the company’s business model, so having their animals on their best behaviour is key.
Many employee & animal deaths
You expect the odd nip when wild animals and humans interact, but unlike many other marine parks and zoos, Sea World has an abnormally high number of deaths. With animals bored and frustrated, and trainers ill-prepared, it's no surprise really that these fatal incidents occurred.
Hundreds of examples of orca attacks and acts of aggression have been recorded to date. Male orca Tilikum, killed a Sealand of the Pacific trainer in 1991. Despite knowing this, Sea World Orlando bought him, and he went on to kill two more people – including a member of the public who snuck into his tank, and his trainer in the middle of a live show. Another orca, Keto, killed a trainer in 2009 during a practice session in the Canary Islands.
Animals have been on the receiving end of attacks too. Orca Kasatka, who lived in a tank for almost 40 years, was euthanised with lesions all over her body, whilst her mate Kotar, died when a pool gate was shut on his head and fractured his skull.
A beluga whale, Nanuq, died after an encounter with another animal left him with a broken jaw, and a blind walrus named Obie, died at Sea World San Diego after spending 18 years confined and showing signs of serious health issues and psychological distress.
So far, approx. 300 dolphins and whales, and 400 walruses and seals have died on Sea World’s watch.