Blackfish Director Challenges SeaWorld to Debate
By Gabriela Cowperthwaite
SeaWorld has recently released a statement called "The Truth about Blackfish." As we have always maintained, we welcome an open and honest discussion with SeaWorld.
There are millions of families across the globe who have choices about where to spend their vacation dollars. Parents want clear answers about how all aspects of the captivity industry work, including animal welfare and employee safety.
We also understand SeaWorld is a multi-billion dollar corporation with shareholders and banks to answer to. They have amassed a great deal of debt after going public this past year, so are justifiably concerned about anything which may affect profits and their ability to service their debts.
Unfortunately, SeaWorld’s business model is built on an antiquated form of animal entertainment which is dwindling in popularity and is no longer seen as humane by many people. It is also a form of entertainment that puts SeaWorld trainers at risk, and has caused the deaths of four people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.
It is ironic that SeaWorld launched its latest assault on Blackfish, a film that has brought the question of marine mammal welfare to the center of public debate, at a time when approximately 250 bottlenose dolphins were trapped, killed or sold to aquariums in Taiji, Japan, the town featured in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. While the global community is outraged and condemns this horrific dolphin hunt, SeaWorld has watched from the sidelines. Had SeaWorld added its powerful voice to the efforts to stop this drive hunt of dolphins for use by the captive industry—perhaps many dolphins would have been spared.
SeaWorld can call Blackfish propaganda. This does not make the assertion true. We stand by the film and the truths it tells. We also stand by the brave whistleblowers featured in it. SeaWorld’s disparaging comments about those associated with Blackfish, its efforts to dissect arguments and make specious claims about film sequences, are an attempt to deflect from the real issues the informed public cares about.
For the record, we believe our audience is intelligent and in control of their own emotions. We urge them to conduct additional research on topics such as SeaWorld’s separation of mothers and calves, the increased mortality rate of orcas in captivity, the impact of captivity on orca health and the frequency of killer whales injuring one another and trainers. They will reach the same conclusion we did.
We ask SeaWorld again to address these concerns:
1. SeaWorld claims it does not capture killer whales in the wild.
It has other people capture animals for them. It is important to note that SeaWorld does not have to directly capture whales from the wild in order to “obtain” whales from the wild. They are involved with captures of cetaceans orchestrated by other facilities and other countries. In fact, SeaWorld is currently part of a consortium trying to import wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.
Due to the “genetic bottleneck” that years of inbreeding has created, SeaWorld will have to continue considering different ways to obtain animals from the wild. “Rescues” are often veiled attempts to secure wild animals. A whale called Morgan, rescued in the Netherlands in 2010, was not released as local law required but was instead transported to a park in Spain. When SeaWorld published documents listing its “assets,” Morgan appeared as a part of its “collection.” She is now being bred and performs tricks alongside other SeaWorld whales in Spain.
2. SeaWorld stays relatively quiet on wild captures and killings
Currently, there is building international outrage over the capture and killing of wild cetaceans. Captures include dolphins in Japan, and orcas and beluga whales in Russia. Yet industry leader SeaWorld, which frequently speaks of its conservation efforts, is not actively working to stop these inhumane captures. With its immense resources, lobbying dollars and powerful contacts, being a strong voice to end this cruel practice would be the ultimate animal rescue.
Why so quiet?
In 2010, SeaWorld obtained a pilot whale purportedly from a drive hunt. In the case of the Russian beluga whales, why won't SeaWorld release video of how they were captured? Providing this type of independent evidence is a reasonable request, in the interest of transparency.
As we have seen time and again when an industry finds dwindling acceptance in the U.S. and Europe, powerful corporations seek to expand demand for their product in countries and regions such as China and the Middle East. SeaWorld has spoken frequently of the potential to increase its profits and revenues through international expansion.
3. SeaWorld claims it does not separate killer whale mothers and calves
In the wild, orcas stay with their families for life. Although splitting up families in captivity is profoundly traumatic, separating calves from their mothers is the most traumatic separation possible. SeaWorld’s claim that it does not separate them is patently false (See addendum for complete list of mother-calf separations).
Despite orcas having life-long family ties, SeaWorld airlifts animals from park to park to accommodate the demands of its business. This is standard procedure for other animals in its collection as well. The primary reasons for separating offspring from mothers are breeding and entertainment priorities. Using artificial insemination techniques it pioneered, SeaWorld routinely breeds female orcas at much younger ages and shorter intervals than in the wild. Some refer to this as “babies having babies.”
When a mother is ready to breed again, SeaWorld may ship an existing calf to another park. If a mother’s ability to perform in shows is being compromised by the demands of a calf, SeaWorld’s solution is to move the calf. And, as the industry recognizes, a financially struggling park benefits greatly from displaying a “baby Shamu.”
Separations are always a grueling process and there are many more incidents of this trauma than were depicted in Blackfish. For example, during the course of our investigation we learned the story of a killer whale mother named Kalina who became distraught when her daughter Skyla was shipped to another park. Kalina “broke open her face,” suffering lacerations from banging into the gate separating her from her baby, who was only two years of age at the time. At the same moment, Skyla was being harnessed and craned out of the pool. According to our sources, Kalina and other whales can stop eating and “shut down” due to the trauma of these unnatural separations, and may even be put on diazepam (valium) in an attempt to ease the stress.
Ironically, even the image SeaWorld uses to declare its dedication to keeping mothers and offspring together, shows a mother and daughter who were separated. Takara, the mother, is kept at SeaWorld San Antonio. Kohana, the calf, was moved to Loro Parque for breeding when she was not even four. Since then Kohana has been bred twice, delivering two calves before most wild killer whales give birth for the first time (she rejected both, and one has since died).
Blackfish's point is not just that separation of mothers and calves is a welfare issue for captive killer whales (though it is the most acute issue), but that any separation of mothers and offspring, can cause trauma or emotional distress for killer whales. It is beyond debate that mother-offspring separations are an intrinsic element of SeaWorld’s business model. SeaWorld does not maintain family units.
4. SeaWorld maligns individuals who draw less than favorable conclusions about their practices
SeaWorld continues to brand scientists, researchers, advocates, former trainers and even filmmakers who independently report less than flattering information about its parks as radical activists. SeaWorld’s personal attacks towards those associated with Blackfish and other films, books and scientific papers are an age-old tactic to deflect from real issues such as evolving societal norms and animal welfare.
For Blackfish, we relied on input from diverse individuals and we cover a 40-year span of time. Whether these individuals captured killer whales for SeaWorld decades ago, researched them in the wild or trained killer whales at SeaWorld as recently as two years ago, they have independently come to a conclusion that is not favorable to SeaWorld. Maligning them on this basis does not make for responsible criticism. Rather than shooting the messenger, we invite SeaWorld to be partners in an open discussion about a new business model, one that evolves away from animals for entertainment toward more dignified and sustainable models.
5. SeaWorld makes misleading statements about the four tragic human deaths associated with captive orcas
As part of SeaWorld’s recent marketing effort to combat negative publicity from Blackfish, the company has released a series of highly stylized, professionally produced videos. This is the kind of slick branding we have seen from SeaWorld for years. The problem with this PR spin is it often uses misleading statements, even when the subject is as serious as human deaths.
In addition to the loss of many animal lives, tragically four people have been killed by captive orcas. SeaWorld continues to maintain that no one determined whether SeaWorld’s bull whale Tilikum pulled Keltie Byrne into the water at SeaLand of the Pacific, an act that led to her death. SeaWorld purchased Tilikum after this incident, but admitted in court that it never conducted its own investigation. As filmmakers, we investigated the Byrne case further and found two eyewitnesses—never contacted by authorities at the time—who verified that Tilikum did in fact pull Keltie in. As expert witness Dr. David Duffus attests in his full length interview with the filmmakers, “He was the main player unquestionably. He had her in his mouth the whole time."
SeaWorld bought Tilikum as a breeding and performance whale after this tragic incident and therefore may have wanted to characterize him as an innocent bystander. The facts simply do not support this characterization.
In what appears to be a sustained effort to mislead the public about these deaths at its parks, SeaWorld continues to claim that park guest Daniel Dukes died of hypothermia although it is immediately clear from his autopsy report that this is false. Duke’s had numerous pre-mortem injuries consistent with Tilikum dragging him around the tank. Despite this forensic evidence, SeaWorld maintains that without witnesses it is impossible to determine if Tilikum was actively involved in Dukes’ death.
In another example, SeaWorld has “loaned” several valuable orcas to Loro Parque, a marine park in Spain. SeaWorld trained all of Loro Parque’s trainers, and a SeaWorld trainer was supervising the session in which Spanish trainer Alexis Martinez was killed. SeaWorld then outrageously claimed it had no association with Loro Parque and even tried to distance itself from this partner facility in a court of law.
Finally, those who have spoken on behalf of SeaWorld have repeatedly blamed Dawn Brancheau for her own death. Thad Lacinak, former VP of animal training at SeaWorld and a frequent media spokesperson in the days following the incident in Feb. 2010, claimed it was Dawn’s “mistake” that led to her death, SeaWorld’s own expert witness in the Occupational Safety and Health Association case, Jeff Andrews, claimed “the only thing that led to this event was a mistake made by Ms. Brancheau.” Jeff Andrews is now the Vice President of Zoological Operations at Busch Gardens Tampa.
The Orange County Sherriff’s office reported that Dawn slipped and fell based on information provided by SeaWorld employees. However, the nature of Tilikum’s attack on Dawn Brancheau was prolonged and violent, during which he removed her arm, scalped her and caused blunt force trauma to her entire body. It was not “curiosity” or “play” as described by SeaWorld.
6. SeaWorld is still not addressing the elephant in the room: is captivity suitable for orcas?
In the wild, orcas live in appropriate climates for their species and are subject to the boundless environmental stimuli that only the ocean can provide. Each group speaks in a unique dialect, swims up to 100 miles a day and stays with family members for life.
In the wild, there is not a single report of a person being killed by a killer whale.
In confinement, orcas are often prescribed daily medications to treat chronic symptoms brought on by captivity. Every year, they die at almost three times the rate they die in the wild, leading to shorter life spans, and are airlifted around the world as commodities. They have damaged teeth, collapsed dorsal fins, they show frustration, grief, and exhibit unnatural aggression toward one another and toward people. More orcas have died under SeaWorld’s care than are currently in its collection today.
We ask, is this the business model of the future or is there a better way?
We challenge SeaWorld to debate these issues with our teams in a public forum, which we will be happy to arrange. Throughout the production and theatrical release of Blackfish, SeaWorld has refused to directly engage with the film or its points in any public way, despite repeated invitations. Instead of releasing more PR spin, written statements and online critiques (which often allow no comments), we encourage SeaWorld’s leaders to step forward and address these issues openly and honestly in public debate. Let the public hear both sides of the argument (as we have always desired) and draw their own conclusions.
We look forward to it.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.