A Vet Visited SeaWorld, and This Is What She Saw

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Posted January 1, 2016 by Whitney Calk

Dr. Heather Rally, a veterinarian who has experience working with marine mammals, visited SeaWorld San Diego in September 2014. Her observations reveal that orcas aren’t the only ones who suffer at SeaWorld—dolphins, walruses, and pilot and beluga whales do, too. Here are her (not so) shocking findings:

1. Dolphins with skin conditions and likely depressed immune systems interacted with the public.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Comparative Medicine found that “[s]tress, environmental conditions and general health appear to play a major role in the clinical manifestation of dolphin pox.” Despite the stressful conditions of confinement, dolphins are still expected to perform and interact with the public. SeaWorld dolphin “The dolphins involved in human interaction activities had obvious skin lesions,” says Dr. Rally. These pox-like lesions could be seen on many of the dolphins at SeaWorld San Diego. SeaWorld dolphin injury Visitors were still allowed in the water and often sat unsupervised by the side of the pool, putting their hands in the water and touching the dolphins. The only SeaWorld staff member in the area was sitting with her back toward the guests. SeaWorld Dolphin Tank

2. Bullying and aggressive fights among members of various species were apparently commonplace.

When whales and dolphins are held in captivity, the stress of being confined to tiny tanks results in aggression. SeaWorld dolphin flip gif The most common injuries are rake marks that form when the teeth of dominant whales and dolphins scrape the skin of the less aggressive animals. These attacks can result in painful and serious injuries. “I observed dolphins ramming, chasing, and flipping, and attempting to slap each other with their flukes,” says Dr. Rally. Dr. Rally observed dolphins with rake marks in various stages of healing. SeaWorld dolphin healing injury Rake marks result in scarring that usually disappears within six months of the initial injury. This “means that aggression between cetaceans at SeaWorld is not only commonplace, it is also happening currently.” says Dr. Rally. The severity of the scars usually indicates which animals are more frequently bullied. SeaWorld dolphin Aggression between cetaceans in the wild happens less frequently than in captivity. According to Dr. Rally, “When dolphins and orcas are held in captivity, aggressive dominance hierarchies are a common occurrence.” At SeaWorld, the animals cannot simply separate themselves to diffuse a situation, and when an aggressive attack breaks out, there is nowhere for the animals to escape to. At least one orca who reportedly tried to flee ended up with a gruesome and painful injury.

Orca SeaWorld Injury© Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D.

Nakai was injured on a sharp metal edge in his tank at SeaWorld San Diego in September 2012 while reportedly fleeing from an aggressive altercation with two other orcas.

3. Orcas Exhibit Psychological Stress

Orcas in the wild create strong family bonds and swim up to 100 miles a day. At SeaWorld, they are forced to perform unnatural tricks and swim in endless circles. Captive orcas at SeaWorld would need to swim 1,900 laps around the tiny tanks they are confined to in order to swim the same distance that orcas in the wild typically do each day. The stress of confinement was apparent at SeaWorld San Diego. After observing the orca show, Dr. Rally noted that one of the orcas, Ikaika, “swam to the center of the pool and proceeded to lie motionless at the surface, occasionally lifting the head and opening the mouth as if swallowing air.” She added, “This behavior lasted at least 15 minutes as the public was cleared out of the stadium.”

SeaWorld orca tank

No trainers were present to interact with Ikaika in the barren tank, and he showed no interest in the guests as they were leaving the stadium.

Wild orcas are almost constantly in motion and spend up to 95 percent of their time under water. At a young age, Ikaika was separated from his family and shipped to MarineLand in Ontario, Canada, on a breeding loan for many years. While still at SeaWorld, he was given drugs to “mellow” him and suffered from various physical ailments, including broken teeth and chronic infections.

Another orca, who had a severely collapsed dorsal fin, was floating motionless in the corner near the exit of the pool.

SeaWorld orca

Notes Dr. Rally, “Floating listlessly in a lateral position is extremely abnormal behavior for an orca and is a manifestation of the psychological distress and boredom of captivity.” When Dr. Rally asked an “educational” guide why this orca’s fin was collapsed, the guide responded that “the bent fin is a genetic trait similar to people with curly vs. straight hair.” SeaWorld orca collapsed dorsal fin This statement is entirely false. “There is no scientific basis for the statement that orcas are genetically programmed to have collapsed dorsal fins. However, there is evidence to suggest that the conditions of captivity are responsible for the high incidence of dorsal fin collapse in this population, including activities such as spending abnormally long periods of time at the surface in direct sunlight and constantly swimming in tight circles,” says Dr. Rally.

4. Unhealthy Animals

Captive animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them and often experience captivity-related health problems as a result. A walrus named Obie was confined to a tiny tank that was covered with a thin layer of green algae. SeaWorld walrus Obie Obie suffered from psychological distress and boredom and displayed this by pressing his mouth against the glass and repeatedly regurgitating and swallowing his food. This is a common neurotic behavior in captive wild animals, and it could cause serious health problems. SeaWorld walrus Obie tank Obie suffers from blindness and most likely has experienced chronic irritation of the mucous membranes of his eyes. He held both eyelids closed 90 percent of the time. SeaWorld walrus Obie blind

5. Separated From Their Mothers

Dolphins, belugas, and other whales are highly social animals who live alongside their families for many years, if not their entire lives. At SeaWorld, they are often forced to breed and are torn away from their families at a young age. This affects their physical, social, and psychological development and well-being. Two juvenile female belugas were separated from the three adult animals seen on display. It is unclear whether these two are being housed together or in isolation. Beluga Whale at SeaWorld

Marine animals aren’t ours to use for entertainment, and they aren’t meant to be confined to cramped, barren, chemical-filled tanks. They are meant to live in their natural environments and swim freely with their families.

Based on Dr. Rally’s observations and expert opinion, PETA has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding numerous apparent violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. PETA urged the agency to inspect SeaWorld and hold the company accountable for any violations found.

SeaWorld is HELL for animals—SPREAD THE WORD.

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  • 299 days ago

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]


    what the hell is this place? i can’t believe it! are they ever going to stop this madness?

  • 532 days ago

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]


    So sad. I have been to Sea world and not seen this so the current administration should step it up and get on track. I think they just like to make money. But obviously those animals are not well!

  • 743 days ago

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]


    It would be nice if it would be as easy. Those animals are born in captivity and not just used to it but functionally dependent on it. It would take years of training and millions of dollars to teach them what is supposed to be their natural instinct. But unfortunately even after years of investment they could not readapt into the wild anymore. Orcas, Dolphins etc spend a long time after they were born with their families and learn just about everything from their pod members. Animals in captivity get taken away from their families far too early to be put in the next breeding program… Shouldn’t our emphasis be on pressuring the organization to phase out its captive breeding programs?! So no more newborn would have to face a life like this…

  • Profile photo of AnitaVenturi1

    765 days ago

    VN:F [1.9.22_1171]


    Shut Down SeaWorld

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