3 Massive SeaWorld Fails at the San Diego Debate

It been almost a year since the documentary Blackfish sent ripples through SeaWorld when it was first released. Originally the theme park refused to make a statement about the movie and it’s claims that captivity is detrimental to the mental health of orcas. But as the ‘Blackfish effect‘ took hold on social media, inspired protests outside the parks and a 13% drop was recorded in attendance during the first quarter of 2014, SeaWorld decided it was time to attend its first live debate.

Voice of San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt and CEO Scott Lewis had the job of mediating the debate between Seaworld (killer whale trainer Kristi Burtis and Todd Robeck, head of the company’s breeding program) and their opposition (Marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose from the Animal Welfare Institute and Susan Gray Davis, who wrote a book on the park’s business model. 

There were many moments in the two hour long debate that stood out. SeaWorld responding to hecklers, the discussion of calves being separated from mothers at just over two years old and the giggles over SeaWorld many show-and-tell style props just to name a few. But for the sake of simplicity I have compiled my personal top three favourite quotes.

1.) Seaworld admitted they misled the public into thinking dorsal fin collapse is normal

100% of captive male orcas suffer from Dorsal Fin Collapse
100% of captive male orcas suffer from Dorsal Fin Collapse

In an attempt to retaliate against Blackfish, in which former SeaWorld trainer Jeffrey Ventre stated “Dorsal collapse happens in less than 1 percent of wild killer whales.” claimed that they had “scientific evidence that nearly one-quarter of adult male southern resident killer whales in the wild have collapsing, collapsed or bent dorsal fins.” When questioned about this, Todd Robeck then admitted that SeaWorld had in fact misled the public:

“the actual quote wasn’t inaccurate, it was ‘23% had bent, collapsing or collapsed’. That was the quote. Now that quote is exactly from a paper and I can read it to you. It was misleading, I will give you that. You are right, it’s less than 1% of adult males in the wild that have collapsed dorsal fins.”

2. Kristi brags that people wish they had her job and states it as the reason why riding orcas is important

SeaWorld says riding orcas is important because it inspires the public to want to be orca trainers.
SeaWorld says riding orcas is important because it inspires the public to want to be orca trainers.

Almost an hour into the debate, Scott asked Kristi why it’s so important for trainers to ride on top of a killer whale and she responded with the following:

“People come up to me every single day and they ask, you know, ‘how do I get your job?’ Well people are asking this because they are inspired. They see something that’s happening, they see that connection in the show. So, I don’t know too many jobs out there where people are asking ‘hey, how do you get a job writing for you know, the Voice of San Diego?”

At that point the CEO of Voice of San Diego, Scott, pipes up with “Oh, all the time!” as the crowd laughs and Lisa beside him adds an “OH SNAP!”

Once the audience settled down, Naomi replied with the sobering reality that SeaWorld has put business before animal welfare yet again.

“In response to what Christie said, I would hope that after a show, if it was really doing what SeaWorld claims it’s doing and what we all hope it’s doing which is inspiring people to care more about the oceans, more about the animals in the oceans that they would come up to her and say ‘how can I do more for the oceans? How can I do more for these animals out in the wild?’ The fact that they come up to her and say ‘how do I get your job?’ means that they [SeaWorld] are in fact selling a product and that product is the bond.”

3. A lot of animals have died that should not have died

Over 37 orcas have died in captivity at Seaworld's parks in the past 50 years, despite evidence they can survive to over 100 years old in the wild.
Over 37 orcas have died in captivity at SeaWorld’s parks in the past 50 years, despite evidence they can live to over 100 years old.

Arguably the most memorial and spine-chilling moment of the debate was when Dr Rose confronted Todd Robeck on his homemade chart portraying the fact that SeaWorld orcas are surviving longer than ever before in the park’s history. And here’s was she said:

“This is an experiment and those are your experiment results and they are improving and that’s to be lauded but the fact is, is that curve represents a lot of animals that died that should not have died.”

Scott then asked Dr Rose if she’d change her mind about SeaWorld if it were to improve upon their premature orca death rates. She didn’t even hesitate before answering:

“This has been 50 years worth of work. I would argue that if they haven’t yet surpassed the longevity or the annual survivorship rates of a well-studied wild population – in all this ‘rough and tough’ natural environment that SeaWorld often describes […] If they can’t, after fifty years – to that level at least, let alone beyond it? I’ve given them fifty years. I don’t think I should give them any more. I don’t think anybody should give them any more.”


Watch the whole debate here in its full glory.

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