Not only are SeaWorld's orca shows safe for human trainers, they also help ensure the highly intelligent killer whales are healthy and happy.
That was the message SeaWorld San Diego delegates relayed during a visit to the Capitol on Wednesday. A bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would prohibit the orca performances that are a major selling point for a prominent San Diego tourist attraction, and SeaWorld's informational hearing previewed the arguments they will likely level against the bill.
Bloom's bill follows a widely discussed documentary, Blackfish, that suggests SeaWorld's system of raising whales in captivity and enlisting them to perform is detrimental to the orcas compared to their wild counterparts. It also argues the shows put trainers in danger, linking the park's practices to the deaths of trainers like Dawn Brancheau.
In a hearing room packed with staff and a scattering of San Diego lawmakers, (including Assembly members Lorena Gonzalez, Shirley Weber and Brian Maienschein) representatives of SeaWorld sought to refute those points. They called Blackfish a piece of propaganda that ignored SeaWorld's robust system of caring for orcas and undertaking broader marine conservation projects.
"Veterinarians work closely with animal trainers, with animal care staff to provide our comprehensive health and wellness programs for every animal that comes through the park," said Dr. Chris Dold, SeaWorld San Diego's vice president of veterinary services, saying the extent of SeaWorld's attentiveness to the whales "really speaks to the level of compassion that we bring to the care of these animals."
In fact, Dold and others said, the orca shows benefit the whales by keeping them intellectually and physically stimulated and by forging close bonds between the orcas and the trainers and other professionals who work with the creatures.
"They'd rather be in the show than out of the show," said Lindy Donahue, the park's supervisor of animal training. "They are so stimulated every day," she added, "they want to interact with us, and the level of care is so high it's almost hard to describe."
Ultimately, Dold argued, the orca shows benefit both whales and humans.
"They're a net benefit to the animals," Dold said, "and we believe to our guests, because our mission is to inspire people to do something about the ocean, to see these animals, to be awed by them, to be excited about them, and to learn more about them and hopefully that will extend to their stewardship of the ocean."
When asked about any potential hazards for human trainers, park president John Reilly stressed the park's investments in safety features, saying that "safety is a top priority in everything we do." He also emphasized the importance of the performances to the park's overall offerings.
"The killer whale shows and the killer whale exhibit at SeaWorld, particularly the shows, are a big part of our guests' visit," Reilly said. "It's a large part of our guests' day," he added, and the shows are also "a significant part of our overall behavioral health program."
On Blackfish's critique that SeaWorld systematically separates mother whales from their calves to the detriment of both, Dold said the park carefully weighs complex social dynamics and the need for genetic diversity in splitting up whales.
"The whales that we move away from their matrilineal groups are adolescent animals that have already separated from our mothers, are no longer pair-bonded to their mothers, are no longer reliant on them for nutrition and are socially interacting with other animals within that group," he said.
PHOTO: SeaWorld Adventure Park trainer Ken Peters, left, looks to a killer whale during a performance Nov. 26, 2006 at Shamu Stadium inside the park in San Diego. Peters was injured Wednesday Nov. 29, 2006, suffering a broken foot after a whale grabbed him and twice held him underwater during a show. Associated Press/ Bizuayehu Tesfaye.