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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Guest Editorial: A Former SeaWorld Employee's Response to Blackfish, by Julie Toma

I've been asked often and recently about my opinions towards this "amazing documentary" that "just came out" on Netflix called "Blackfish". Having worked for SeaWorld for a few years, people are always curious as to what my opinion is.

"Julie, have you seen it? What do you think?"

Yes. I have seen it, multiple times. My opinion of it is this: I completely respect and agree with the underlining message- whales do not belong in captivity... but neither does any other animal (more on that later). I do, however, find the movie's portrayal of SeaWorld to be horribly offensive and misleading. SeaWorld is not a monster.

"But Julie, SeaWorld uses animals for entertainment purposes, isn't this wrong?"

Thank you, PETA. Yes, SeaWorld is an entertainent based industry. People all over the world come to see these marvelous animals up close, eat a churro, and then ride the latest roller coaster.

But before you go all animal activist on me, think about what you're saying. Have you ever been to a zoo? Aquarium? Pet store? All of these animals were placed there to entertain, excuse me, educate you. And they don't quite do it to SeaWorld's standards (Ill get to this later).

"But Julie, SeaWorld took these whales out of their natural environment".

False. The majority of the whales at SeaWorld were born in the park. Yes, a few were captured more than 35 years ago, but that is how animals were acquired those days.

And frankly, where do you think the animals at your favorite zoo came from? Contrary to popular belief, these animals are not usually "rescues".

And to be even more frank, how many of you have a home aquarium??? Where do you think these fish came from? That's right. They're captured from their native environment, oftentimes shocked, meanstwhile depleting coral reefs in hopes that these stressed fish might make it to your aquarium, where, lets face it, they usually die.

"But Julie, the tanks the whales are in are like bathtubs"

Ugh. This one gets to me the most. At least use your own wording! Yes, the exhibits the whales are in are no where close to being the size of the ocean. But they are VASTLY larger than the size of most animal enclosures. True, these animals can swim hundreds of miles a day.... but think about other enclosures. Elephants can walk up to 40 miles a day and yet I rarely see an enclosure larger than 2000 ft.

And bird cages? Fish tanks? Why is it that no one is offended by any of this?! It's okay to put a goldfish in a bowl but not okay to have whales in a 60 million gallon environment? An enclosure that SeaWorld has spent over 70 million dollars to improve?

"But Julie, these animals are forced to perform shows. They're slaves."

Inaccurate. The whales at SeaWorld are never forced to do shows. They get an alloted amount of restaurant quality food based off of their fitness level, size, and metabolism. And they are fed regardless of if they do a show.

"But Julie, it's cruel to force these animals to do "tricks".

These "tricks" are actually positively reinforced behaviors that the whales have learned through positive interactions and operant conditioning. Studies have shown that learned behaviors like this actually increase an animals mental health prolonging their fitness and increasing quality of life.

"But whales don't do flips in the wild"

....and your dog doesn't naturally give you his paw when he wants a treat, but he is capable. Training behaviors like this, once again, encourages mental and physical growth. If the whales were incapable, they wouldn't do it.

"Can't they just stop making the whales do shows?"

Sure, but there is no positive reprocussion to that. Without enrichment, whales would resort to common boredom behaviors seen in zoos and institutions around the world. Plus, the interations the whales have with the trainers is a form of bonding for the whales. If they suddenly discontinued, the whales would display depression behaviors. I don't know about you, but I am highly against intentional depression.

"Can't you release them? They'll be happier"

Look up the story of Keiko, the whale from "Free Willy." That's what happens when you release a captive killer whale. They are not equipped to live in the open ocean environment anymore.

"Okay, what about a seapen then? It's bigger and the whales would be interacting with their natural environment"

These whales currently thrive in multi-sourced continually filtered water environment. These means they are never exposed to pathogens, parasites, or heavily contaminated water. Putting them in a sea pen would expose them to a variety of potentially killer organisms. Not only that but they would be exposed to countless amounts of new sights, sounds, and vibrantions, causing an immense amount of stress.

"But Julie, there is absolutely no benefit to having these poor creatures at SeaWorld."

SeaWorld has impacted the lives of over 400 million visitors over the timespan they've been in business. That is 400 million people that have been affected by the beauty of not only the killer whales, but of over 6000 species of animals they would not come in contact with on a normal basis.

"SeaWorld is not educational".

Excuse me? The top leading research done on both killer whales and other cetaceans comes from SeaWorld sponsored research. Most of what we know today about these animals has been learned from animals in captivity.

"Can't we learn simply by observing them in the wild?"

Theoretically, sure. But any scientist (or grad student) will tell you how difficult it is to study animals in the wild. You can sit and observe 24 hours a day and only witness about 15 minutes of usable data.

And good luck funding that research. It's an unfortunate fact that people do not support things that do not benefit them directly. SeaWorld contributes millions upon millions of dollars to variety of conservation programs in the wild, including the Marine Mammal protecion act and Sea Turtle conservation. Finding funding from a private, independent source is unlikely and unreliable.

"Okay... well... umm... what about the dorsal fin thing?"

Dorsal fins are made out of cartilage, a flexible structure that makes up your nose and ears. The size of the dorsal fin is cause by a multitude of things, including genetics. Many of our whales come from a similar bloodline (not crossbred) and therefore have larger dorsal fins.

Although not common in the wild, a whale's dorsal fin, especially larger ones, may bend. This may be an effect from more surface exposure combined by genetics. There have been no indications that this affects the animals well-being in any way. It's a fact of life. Sometimes we get droopy body parts too....

"Why can't SeaWorld just go to be all educational? Obviously people would respect it more."

Nature Centers and educational facilities are amazing ideas and do many great things. Unfortunately, not many people go out of their way to visit them and they can go out of business (Chula Vista Nature Center...anyone?). People, unfortunately, are selfish beings. They want to be entertained, not lectured. So although the conservation message is taught at many of these amazing facilities, they are not affecting as many people as you would think.

SeaWorld's message is this: to celebrate, connect, and care for the natural world we share through the power of entertainment. People come into the parks with an expectation and leave with an appreciation of marine life they've never had before. I cannot begin to tell you how many kids Ive heard say that Shamu changed their life. That they want to stop polluting the ocean. That they want to save the sea turtles. SeaWorld is a memory that they will have forever and oftentimes changes their entire outlook on life.

So, before you boycott SeaWorld, realize that you're not boycotting the evil corporation "Blackfish" makes it out to be. You're boycotting Bruce, the 80 year old sea turtle who was rescued not only once, but twice after being shot in the head and left for dead by people who didn't care. You're boycotting Iris, the rescued seal who was found stranded and blind and then rereleased, able to see again. You're boycotting the 650 juvenille sea lions rehabilitated and taught to eat after they were stranded on the Pacific Coast. You're boycotting the baby emperor pengiuns, just hatched, ensuring the future families of penguins to come. You're boycotting the hundreds of dogs adopted from shelters thanks to Pets Rule. You're boycotting the group of high schoolers collecting trash off the shoreline after talking to the veterinary department behind the scenes and seeing the effects of trash in our ocean.

If you need a summary of what SeaWorld is today, I ask you to look at me as a reflection. To look at the 1500 zoological team members that provide the upmost care to these animals. SeaWorld is one of the worlds most respected zoological facilities, setting the bar for husbandry standards today. We are SeaWorld. We are the people who can't drive by a lost dog on the street. We're the people who stay awake overnight, waist deep in frigid water carrying a stranded dolphin that wasn't strong enough to swim. We're the ones that cry the moment a sea turtle swims off into the ocean water after being hit by a boat. We are the ones whose heart rate accelerates the moment a mother gives birth to a beautiful calf. We're the ones whose muscles ache after scrubbing oil off of birds trapped after a spill. We're the ones hand feeding that abandonded baby otter in the wee hours of the night.

So once again, don't believe everything you see and don't assume you know everything because a "documentary" tells you so. Educate yourself. SeaWorld is not the enemy, there are bigger evils in the world. We do not go out of our way to torture and "enslave" animals. We love and know more about those animals than "Blackfish" would ever care to let you know. It is because of SeaWorld, and places like them, thst you even care about these animals in the first place. I am very proud to be a part of the SeaWorld family and always will be.


  1. I feel like one of the main points of Blackfish though is addressing the aggression of some of the whales that Sea World tries so hard to cover up. Obviously there are at least two sides to every story and we should take both the documentary and Sea World's "facts" into account, but I would have liked them to address this point

  2. I respect your point of view, though I find it troubling that you fail to address some of the real issues with Sea World and captive orcas here. What are your thoughts on the fact that Sea World orcas are being badly inbred (a point not touched on by Blackfish, sadly), or the issues with the untrained staff and relatively unpredictable young whales at Loro Parque?

    This post seems mostly to present strawman arguments without addressing the true problems. I mean, I'm not inherently against animal performances, but there's no doubt that Sea World's irresponsible breeding program is due in part to the fact that they need a ready supply of whales to continue their entertainment business. I wish I could see a real response to this from you, a former employee who must have cared about the animals at the parks.

  3. Courtney and Kish - the author of this piece wanted to post a reply herself, but was having some trouble with Blogger, which prevented her replies for showing. What follows below is her reply to both of your questions - ZR

    "Hi Kish! While I do appreciate your enthusiasm, what you have said has a very strong "Blackfish" aftertaste. I wanted to personally address a few things you said....

    First, SeaWorld does not "force breed young females". They are advocates of artificial insemination, but females are only participants after they already, naturally, demonstrate maternal behaviors. This whole concept is a catch 22. If the whales were "allowed" to breed naturally, it would be highly irresponsible and they'd become overpopulated, not to mention that bloodlines may be crossed. If they are responsibly bred, SeaWorld is doing it "strictly for profit".

    On that note, yes, these whales do posses a similar (not crossbred) bloodline. This is because there are only a limited amount of whales in our parks. Tilikum was the focus of the movie, yes, but if you asked someone on the inside, you'd know that this practice is done with other qualified whales. Mind you, this pracitice is also done by highly qualified, marine mammal specific, veterinarians and the whales are specifically trained for this practice to diminish any stress associated.

    And to Courtney, yes, Blackfish does focus on the aggression of one particular whale... but what it fails to acknowledge are the thousand of positive interactions the whales have with their trainers EVERY SINGLE DAY. These animals are wild and anyone working in the zoological worls know thats a risk you take.

    The argument I hear the most is "there are no documented cases of human aggression with orcas in the wild." While this may be true, you also have to take into account how often humans come in contact with whales in the wild in the water. Thats like comparing how often students in Canada get snow days and how little students in Arizona do."

  4. Bravo bravo I have been telling people the same exact thing since this movie came out. I worked at Seaworld San Antonio for 4 years at Shame stadium and was personal friends with some of the trainers so I was educated thru them. I was there when a calf was born and I may not work directly with the whales but it was the most beautiful thing ever and I cried. I just remembered that they shut that place down for weeks so the mom and calf had bonding time together. It's amazing I miss working there. But I was told everything you just stated and I saw it in action so I can validate.

    I do believe Seaworld does wonders for families. I had a family from India tell me they are so glad they spent the money to fly to the US and see these amazing creatures up close and personal that it will change their lives forever.

    Oh and the dorsal fin thing. Funny thing I always tell kids and PETE when they decided to protest, imagine your ear 6 feet tall if not taller. Now would you think it would stay up? No it would droop over. And yes in the wild some orcas fins do that, just comes with age.

    I am so happy someone spoke up about this, I tried and tried and people would just get violent with me. I'm an educated person who knows what goes on behind closed doors and proud to say I am part of the Seaworld family forever! :)

    Happy 50th Anniversary by the way hahaha

  5. Comparing an Orca or dolphin to a goldfish is just more disingenuous spin from this SW script. These animals develop ulcers from the stress and anxiety of living in these small enclosures. They are injured by other whale on a regular basis. They are punished by withholding food. Fin droop is seen in fewer than 1% of wild Orca. These people think that the general public are stupid. Blackfish is food for thought, and encourages people to do some research into the truth behind the propoganda.

    1. Killer whales in the wild exhibit rake marks from other whales, in addition to wounds from boats, foraging, and the environment. Dorsal fins can also be damaged by boats, foraging, and environmental obstacles. 4.7% of dorsal fins are considered deformed in the British Colombia population of male killer whales. The New Zealand wild male adult population shows a higher prevalence of dorsal fin abnormalities (including bent dorsal fins) at 23% of adult males.
      Let us get past the dorsal fin controversy because it does not indicate if a whale is healthy or not. Changes in behavior such as refusing food, and lab work/testing are accurate indicators if a whale is in need of veterinary attention. With holding food from a killer whale is counter intuitive as the animal care and training teams need to ensure the animal is responding to food. Also, with holding food can lead to displacing other animals which in turn can lead to aggressive behavior.
      Blackfish is the propaganda in this blog, not SeaWorld. Most of the trainers interviewed in the movie (not documentary) were not present during the incidents of aggression; meaning they didn't work for SeaWorld, or they weren't at the corresponding park. Some had no direct contact with killer whales, nor worked with them. A number of these so called experts were also part of the lawsuit PETA brought against SeaWorld concerning 13th amendment rights. PETA, on behalf of the killer whales at SeaWorld, made the claim, in front of a constitutional judge, that the killer whales in question are essentially slaves. This lawsuit was thrown out immediately. Not only was it offensive for those who fought to abolish slavery, and for those who fought for civil rights, it is down right absurd. To give these animals rights would then mean the law would hold them accountable for their actions.
      So the many "experts" in Blackfish are biased indeed. The counter argument simply does not exist in their logic. And why should that surprise anyone? Simply by supporting this lawsuit, Killer whales v. PETA, it displays how the trainers/experts on PETA's board at this hearing thought things through: not very much.

  6. Here's an organization that's helped just about the same amount of animals as a not for profit. FYI.... What I'm confused on, why do pro cap people think SeaWorld's so great? There's a lot of good organizations and people doing great work, if not better than SeaWorld and aren't profiting on captive cetaceans. ----
    MMC's description - We rescue and humanely treat ill, injured, or orphaned marine mammals, and return healthy ones to the wild. Since 1975, our hospital facility has rescued and treated over 18,000 elephant seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, harbor seals, fur seals, dolphins, harbor porpoises and more – many from threatened and endangered species.
    We educate and communicate to help build a sense of responsibility and connection to the marine environment and marine mammals, and inspire action to protect the oceans. Each year, our education programs and events reach over 30,000 children and adults.
    We conduct scientific inquiry to increase knowledge of marine mammals, their health and their environment, and to help assure their long-term survival. Our science programs derive vital data from our sick and injured patients - what diseases they suffer, how their immune systems work, and how they're affected by changes in their environment.

  7. Seaworld workers are idiots. They act like circus trainers breeding for life in a cage. They only feed the animals when they do tricks. Then they make this commercail about how they "save" animals. The founder of Sea world is an idiot. The manager is an airhead. Anyone who works there is losing their mind. The animals are slaves.


  9. Ensuring the penguin family huh? Well guess what? Its not conservation if its in the wild.

  10. Hmmm... I knew that Big Cat Rescue was in the news lately for paying people to write positive comments about them online... I just didn't know they'd resorted to using such crazy people.

  11. What exactly is it that Julie did at Seaworld anyhow? Didn't SW sway a poll in their favor with employee votes?? How can they be trusted?