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Cover 08/07/2013

New documentary 'Blackfish' puts SeaWorld on the offense

SeaWorld says doc is nothing more than a fish tale

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

For instance, Hargrove says, SeaWorld boasts that it has a top-notch veterinary program for its whales – and it does – but that’s because it needs to. He says that captive whales routinely break their teeth banging on metal gates. They become ill frequently and die of infections. They peel paint off the walls of their holding pools. They injure one another and sometimes fight.

“There’s a lot of boredom,” he says. “It’s such a sterile environment. When you step down to those whales and interact with them, you can make it stimulating for them, but there’s only so much time you’re down there with them. Even the amount of time we’re not there at night – they’re just in these concrete pools and there’s no environmental enrichment for them for hours and hours and hours.”

Jacobs flatly denies this: “That claim is untrue, and it reflects the agenda that drives this film,” he says. “Our zoological staff provides enrichment for these animals continually. SeaWorld trainers have developed hundreds of toys and other enrichment devices that the animals play with when they’re not resting, exercising, undergoing husbandry and veterinary care or participating in the training process or shows.”

The film implies that as a result of extreme boredom, frustration and poor health, some of the whales act out – though 80 percent of the whales at SeaWorld facilities were captive-born, they say the needs of these apex predators cannot be met living in pools and doing shows for cheering audiences.

One could quickly draw the conclusion that Tilikum, the whale who killed Brancheau and one of the few wild-caught whales owned by SeaWorld, did so in part because of his environment – an insinuation that SeaWorld has a huge issue with. To this day, the park insists that Tilikum didn’t intend to hurt Brancheau at all: “Tilikum did not attack Dawn,” SeaWorld’s letter to film critics insists. “All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.”

Though neither Cowperthwaite nor Hargrove say they consider themselves activists (Hargrove says he considers himself an “advocate”), clearly there is an agenda that permeates Blackfish: “At this point, I do not believe that killer whales should be kept in captivity,” Hargrove says. “SeaWorld is the largest in the world, they definitely have the most money, but it’s still not enough. Especially since they don’t give that money back to the animals that are helping them to make a profit.”

But at this stage, it’s not likely that SeaWorld will give up its killer whales. As a publicly traded entity, the company is obligated to make money for its shareholders, and in its SEC filings, the killer whale shows are an integral part of the park’s business model – the filings boast that the parks own the largest captive killer-whale population in the world (29 whales), an innovative killer-whale breeding program and live whale shows featuring the “iconic” Shamu. To eliminate the whales would be to eliminate one of the things that makes SeaWorld a unique and attractive investment.

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