Just keep swimming — just not with the orcas: SeaWorld policies changed by a federal lawsuit

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Public protests and angry media outcries abounded in wake of the documentary “Blackfish,” directed by Occidental alumna Gabriela Cowperthwaite ’93. Exposing the dark practices that SeaWorld utilizes to create its famous shows involving trainers interacting with “tamed” orcas led, unsurprisingly, to a lawsuit, and SeaWorld lost.

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The majestic orca breaching in the wild (Source: CC)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with making sure workers are operating in safe conditions. OSHA filed a suit against SeaWorld after the public, tragic drowning of an orca trainer in February 2010, who was grabbed by the ponytail by resident orca Tilikum to her death at the bottom of a pool. The lawsuit centered around whether the danger of interacting with orcas was justified by the wonder and majesty of humans and animals performing in tandem. The court ruled that the justification didn’t cut it.

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No longer will trainers be balancing on the noses of these wild animals. (Source: CC)

Following this decision, SeaWorld is required to have a barrier between animals and trainers at all times. This will completely end the famed shows involving wetsuit-clad trainers riding on the fins of whales, performing acrobatics, and even being present in a close proximity on stage with one another.

The decision made by the court certainly has the potential to further damage the appeal of the water-based theme park, whose visiting numbers have plummeted since the release of “Blackfish.” SeaWorld has argued that they contribute to educating the public on issues related to the animals that live in our nation’s oceans, which is true to the extent that, without a visit to the park, some individuals would not be exposed to marine life and its wonder. However, by making the park into a carnival-like experience depicting marine life as subservient and respondent to human instruction, SeaWorld is completely missing the educational opportunity of demonstrating the interaction between human and whale. Training wild animals to act as an example for an entire species allows humans to think of animals as their property or entertainment, rather than as part of the ecosystem that should be respected and, for its health, largely left alone.

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Educational tour vessel observes an orca in the wild (Source: CC)

The experience of SeaWorld is sharply contrasted with other opportunities to see orcas outside of a tiny pool. On an orca tour boat in the Puget Sound, naturalists work with boat captains to track orca pods, but leave a safe space to make sure that the boat and its passengers don’t intrude on the natural activities of the whales. SeaWorld does the complete opposite — it forces animals to act completely adverse to their biological intuition, which results in miseducation and danger for those charged with training and interacting with the orcas. The decision of the court is the right one. SeaWorld needs to take responsibility for the damage they are causing on both orcas and humans, both inside and outside the gates of the theme park.

Jill Goatcher is a senior politics major and marine biology minor. She can be reached at goatcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJGoatcher.