While controversy has long surrounded human-orca interaction, the recent release of the documentary “Blackfish” has sparked considerable outrage amongst its viewers. The film captures the history of killer whales in captivity with its spotlight on Tilikum, an orca who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 and transported to SeaWorld. “Blackfish” also portrays the tragic 2010 incident of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau who ultimately lost her life after being dragged underwater by Tilikum, the events of which were witnessed by a live audience.
In response to the trainer’s untimely death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed a $12,000 penalty (reduced from an original $75,000 fine) on SeaWorld. The pending litigation involves the general duty clause of the OSHA which requires employers to provide “a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The issue is whether SeaWorld has in fact violated this duty. SeaWorld filed an appeal contending that it should not be required to eliminate all risk associated with an activity that is essential to the company’s work. Labor officials have responded with safety requirements in which SeaWorld trainers would be ordered to work behind barriers or maintain safe distances between themselves and the whales, which according to SeaWorld, would undermine their shows.
PETA has since filed a formal complaint calling for Florida State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton to investigate SeaWorld and press felony animal cruelty charges. In a recent press release, PETA states, “Florida law prohibits intentionally causing excessive or repeated, unnecessary suffering, and SeaWorld knowingly subjects Tilikum to the constant stress, agitation, conflict, and injury inherent in keeping a far-ranging, highly social mammal in captivity.” PETA notes the harmful effect that captivity has on orcas, who swim up to 100 miles a day in the ocean and work together with their pods to hunt for food. While in captivity, orcas often exhibit stress behaviors and die long before their average lifespan in the wild. According to PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal and Law Enforcement Delcianna Winders, Tilikum’s story is quite telling of what can happen when such sensitive and intelligent marine mammals are locked up in concrete tanks. She further comments that “the state attorney has a duty to enforce Florida’s laws, and that includes the anti-cruelty statute that PETA believes SeaWorld flagrantly disregards.”
Oral arguments commenced on November 12, 2013. Notably, SeaWorld is being represented by Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. While the monetary penalty involved is relatively small, the implications at stake for SeaWorld are certainly great, especially the long-term effect that a requirement of separation of humans and killer whales could have on future shows, an interaction which SeaWorld admits to being “integral to its mission.”
To view “Blackfish” in iTunes, click here.
To read SeaWorld’s responses to CNN’s questions about “Blackfish,” click here.