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Op-Ed: Is SeaWorld running scared? You decide

By Elizabeth Batt     Aug 23, 2013 in Environment
San Diego - SeaWorld executives rarely respond to criticism beyond a sentence or two. But today, the vice president of zoological operations for SeaWorld San Diego, Mike Scarpuzzi, published an entire editorial in the U-T San Diego.
SeaWorld's reticence is notoriously well known. Whenever the corporation has been criticized in the past, its response has never progressed beyond two sentences. Their rebuttals inevitably include two standard phrases, "SeaWorld educates" and, "SeaWorld cares for its animals."
So it was rather a shock when SeaWorld initially broke its silence over the documentary Blackfish, a film that is making as many waves as SeaWorld's own killer whales. Recently, a former SeaWorld pass holder was so disturbed by the film that he cut up his season pass and declared that he would never visit the park again.
In its initial rebuttal to the movie, the corporation refused to address the issue publicly. It chose to target around 50 film critics instead, with an e-mail that described the movie as, "egregious and untrue."
Now for the first time, the vice president of zoological operations for SeaWorld San Diego, Mike Scarpuzzi, has published an open editorial in the U-T San Diego. Yet again, it focused more on the educational value of the facility for the public, and less about the welfare of its animals.
Scarpuzzi writes:
Dawn’s death has been the subject of thousands of articles, broadcast news stories, blogs, books, and now a feature film called Blackfish. Many of these accounts trade in the details of Dawn’s death in graphic detail. They do so not to inform but, rather, regrettably, because of the desire to sensationalize.
Writers did not attack Dawn, Tilikum, SeaWorld's prime bull orca did that. This was the fourth human death attributed to the park's killer whales, and the third for Tilikum. Wouldn't anybody with common sense be asking why? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certainly did, and a federal court held SeaWorld accountable for it.
Scarpuzzi also accuses writers of not choosing to honor to Brancheau's death and besmirching her memory. Yet on the anniversary of her death this year, the silence from SeaWorld was deafening. It was only her former colleagues from Voice of the Orcas who paid her tribute. SeaWorld's response? Less than six months after Brancheau was brutally killed (yes, brutally), SeaWorld simply scrubbed her from their advertising billboards.
"Our staff has interacted with killer whales — for veterinary care, training, shows, educational presentations, husbandry, exercise, play and enrichment — hundreds of times a day for nearly 50 years," Scarpuzzi continued.
Ironically, 50-60 years is the maximum longevity according to NOAA, for male killer whales in the wild. For female orcas it is 80-90 years and there is one orca, J2, also affectionately known as Granny, who is a Southern Resident Killer Whale known to be in her 100s.
In fifty years of operation, 48 orcas have died across all SeaWorld facilities. Their oldest killer whale currently in residence is Corky, she was captured in 1969 at an estimated age of three years. Corky has been in captivity longer than any other orca. Reportedly she is blind on one eye.
According to Orca Home, Corky has experienced seven unsuccessful pregnancies, with no calf surviving more than 46 days. With a gestation period of around 17 months, during her tenure at SeaWorld, Corky was pregnant for almost an entire decade.
Will you hear about Corky's history in SeaWorld's educational brochures? Of course not. What you can read about on their website are general statements such as, "no one knows for sure how long killer whales live," and, "killer whales in the North Atlantic may live at least 35 years."
SeaWorld's education is in direct contrast to NOAA's observations. The corporation determines that "a female's life expectancy is 50 years and a male's is 30 years."
So while SeaWorld does provide a form of education, it isn't accurate and it omits tremendous amounts of information. Furthermore, they cite no scientific sources or studies on orca longevity to support their observations.
Scarpuzzi then argues that SeaWorld has altered how they display and train their animals. "We have changed the facilities, equipment and procedures at our killer whale habitats," he said.
SeaWorld has changed its sets numerous times, spending millions of dollars on new scenery to create shows like 'Believe' and others. But if you compare their 1980s show to the 2013 show performed at SeaWorld San Diego, their killer whale habitats, the pools where these animals live 365 days a year, remain unchanged.
The marine mammal park in Orlando was even cited recently for the condition of one of its pools. Author of Death at SeaWorld, David Kirby, recently addressed the issue after SeaWorld was dinged by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
This is two federal agencies SeaWorld has ran afoul of.
Among the complaints:
Flooring and concrete mesh chipping away at Shamu Stadium ... eroded paint, and rust and cement chips.
So in calling Blackfish, "inaccurate and shamefully misleading," is Mr. Scarpuzzi the pot calling the kettle black? You decide, but considering SeaWorld's attendance belly flopped and it posted a second quarter loss recently, this insightful quote from Plato speaks volumes:
"Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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