Does SeaWorld tranquilize its animals?

April 4, 2014 • 9:03 am

I’ve always been critical of places where large, captive animals are displayed to the public as entertainment, and aquaria that house large cetaceans (or mammals like sea otters) are a prime offender. For me, SeaWorld is the most egregious of these, and I’ve posted about it, and about the recent movie “Blackfish,” made about its orcas (killer whales) here.

As I wrote at the time:

Some aquaria will argue that keeping such animals in captivity helps us better understand their biology, enabling us to conserve them better. But orcas, seals, and belugas are not endangered, and at any rate real refereed scientific publications from large aquaria or sea-mammal emporia are thin on the ground.  Let’s admit it: places like SeaWorld are in business for one reason: to make money, no matter how much they claim to be educational organizations. And yes, I’ll admit that some of the keepers and employees do love and care about their charges, but it doesn’t matter. Those charges should be swimming free in the sea.

. . . There is no justification for keeping orcas, beluga whales, and other sea mammals in captivity.  They belong in the wild, where they would be if they had a choice, but are simply exploited as cash cows for institutions and corporations.  I urge the readers to stay away from places like SeaWorld, where the animals are even asked to do tricks before a paying audience. It’s ineffably sad, and demeaning to these magnificent creatures.  We are the only species that enslaves other species to entertain and enrich ourselves. [Last sentence modified from earlier post]

These captive animals often appear stressed to me, engaging in repetitive, neurotic behaviors that bespeak some type of mental distress. You’ve all seen this in zoos, with bears or tigers neurotically pacing back and forth in their cages. And it always breaks my heart. I no longer go to zoos or aquaria.

It turns out that aquaria recognize this distress, but apparently have chosen, in at least one case, to relieve it with—wait for it—tranquilizers. And that place is SeaWorld

According to a story in ZME Science and an article in BuzzFeed, this information emerged during a dispute between SeaWorld and Marineland (the latter a theme park and aquarium in Niagara Falls, Canada) over the transfer of an orca.  During a deposition that took place during the dispute, a veterinarian found out that an aggressive orca at SeaWorld had been given benzodiazepine, a sedative and tranquilizer (Valium is one form) to prevent it from hurting other whales. The testimony, which is at the BuzzFeed site, includes the statement below:

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 8.05.57 AM
Now this is only a single animal, and we shouldn’t go off half-cocked about every orca or animal being tranquilized, but one wonders how many have been. The response of SeaWorld does not reassure me that this is a one-off occurrence:

A spokesperson for SeaWorld Fred Jacobs defended the medication in an emailed statement.

“Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting,” Jacobs said. “These medications can be used for sedation for medical procedures, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures. The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.”

This doesn’t answer the question. It would behoove SeaWorld to come clean about whether this tranquilizing of orcas is unique, or has happened more often.  If it’s a regular practice when orcas get antsy, it’s all the more reason to question the existence of using large, free-roaming sea mammals as entertainment.
BuzzFeed adds this:
The questions about the drugs given to the whales, which also include a range of antibiotics, come as SeaWorld is reeling from a critical documentary. Blackfish tells the story of a killer whale named Tilikum, who’s been accused of killing three people but is still retained by SeaWorld. Tilikum’s genes are found in 54% of the whales in SeaWorld’s current whale collection, and has fathered at least 21 whales from artificial insemination.
I haven’t seen “Blackfish,” by the way, but it’s gotten tremendously high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (98% critics approval, 91% public) and approbation in other place.  If you’ve seen it, weigh in below.
Animal welfare groups have chimed in against this kind of drugging. The statement below seems eminently reasonable to me:

The founder of the Orca Research Trust, Ingrid Visser, said the drugs are likely treating a condition caused by captivity, and that their violence is the result of stress, not native aggression.

“They do not cope with being kept in these tanks. They survive to some degree, but they don’t thrive to any degree,” Visser said. “They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank, and there isn’t a single orca living in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors, and in many of them you see multiple examples of these behaviors.”

Yes, I’ve seen those behaviors, and I’ve seen them here in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium. When I described the incident to aquarium officials (I believe it was a seal, but it could have been an otter, swimming stereotypically and repetitively in a very narrow tank), my complaint was ignored.

PETA has made a characteristically over-the-top criticism, but really, read it. The animals are indeed kept to do what I see as stupid tricks, though I have no idea whether they are, as PETA maintains, “full of psychotropic drugs”:

PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, accused SeaWorld of “pump[ing] these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks.”

Once again I reiterate my plea—which will be ignored—to stop confining large, free-roaming mammals in small aquaria, especially for public entertainment. The educational benefits are minimal, especially when compared to the distress of the animals. Some people defend this practice, saying that, “Well, the animals seem healthy and content,” but a Martian, observing human prisoners in a jail, would say the same thing. Like the human prisoners, the animals, if given a choice, wouldn’t be there.  (And, of course, there are those abnormal behaviors. . )

I want them set free, but that won’t happen so long as there is money to be made. In my view, these animals are confined against their will to entertain the public and enrich the owners. It’s a bad business all around.

49 thoughts on “Does SeaWorld tranquilize its animals?

  1. I wonder how well these animals would do if reintroduced into the wild — especially the ones born into captivity. Would they need some sort of rehabilitation first? Or have their lives simply been irreparably ruined?


    1. I do not think animals that have been kept in captivity can be released into the wild. They have been habituated to a life where they do not have to hunt for food, they have no survival instinct. It is such a shame that humans feel the need to captivate such a beautiful animal in such tiny quarters- which look large enough to us, but does not compare to the actual sea- where they should be living. I am trying to replace animals in research by coming up with alternative techniques, captive animals is too a passion of mine.

      1. Well, they probably still have instincts. What they lack is something else most mammals (and birds) use to survive – practice during the pre-adult phase of their life. But even if you agree with sheltering unreleasable animals, it’s a very slippery slope from

        Keeping ‘unreleasable’ animals in a safe, caring environment…

        …through letting people see the animals in order to help you collect donations to keep those environments running

        …through making the animals perform in order to help you collect donations to keep those envirnoments running

        …through makiing the animals perform as part of a for-profit business

        …to turning a blind eye to releasability, and to whether the sources you’re getting them from might be causing the ‘unreleasability’ in the first place.

        Every step you take on that path is ethically less defensible. I’ve seen some places that stop at #3 (nonprofit shelters with some performances) and seem pretty ethical. But the vast majority of zoos and seaworlds are in the #4-#5 range.

        I think one “rule of thumb” a consumer can use to judge such places is whether they actively look for/recruit animals or whether they ‘take what comes in.’ The latter sort of places are likely to be more legitimate. And let’s face it, while there may be quite a few eagles or wolves that get shot by farmers and could never hunt again, there aren’t a lot of giraffes or orcas wandering the US getting injured in farm or fishing accidents.

      2. They have been habituated to a life where they do not have to hunt for food, they have no survival instinct.

        I suspect that you mean that they have no survival training (from their parents / siblings / family pod / whatever) rather than instinct. By definition, instinctive behaviour is inate, inborn, and does not require training by the parent(s).
        Compare the instinctive way in which humans breathe, compared to the equally essential (for evolution) but learned strategies of the date, courting etc.

  2. “These captive animals often appear stressed to me, engaging in repetitive, neurotic behaviors that bespeak some type of mental distress. You’ve all seen this in zoos, with bears or tigers neurotically pacing back and forth in their cages.”

    I recall the story of a bear which spent all its life until it was freed chained to a stake. Thus, it could walk only in a circle. When freed, it continued to walk only in a circle.

    1. Yes, I once saw a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo pacing and a father telling his daughter that the bear was “dancing”. It’s a shame the parent did not recognize stress for what it is. My father told me it was stressed.

  3. I do not think animals that have been kept in captivity can be released into the wild. They have been habituated to a life where they do not have to hunt for food, they have no survival instinct. It is such a shame that humans feel the need to captivate such a beautiful animal in such tiny quarters- which look large enough to us, but does not compare to the actual sea- where they should be living. I am trying to replace animals in research by coming up with alternative techniques, captive animals is too a passion of mine.

  4. I have had some wonderful experiences with dolphins, whales and sea lions in the wild. They seem to express emotions much like my own. It takes hundreds of days at sea between these special inter species events.

    I have much experience with cats, none of in in the wild. My cat Nova chooses to interact for fun. She invents games and sometimes I participate. She likes to learn tricks, I use a clicker and food treats. She is proud of her performance jumping through hoops, climbing a ladder or going into the cat carrier. She is less thrilled by the command stay, but obeys and will sit for several minutes.

    It could be that these captive aquatic mammals get some relief by performing tricks. This performance may be the only way many people are aware of these animals. A chance to see a bit of their feelings.

    1. OK, performing tricks for rewards could be a relief during their captivity, but lets not forget the sole reason, really, for their captivity is to do tricks. And oh yes, makes tons of money, employ a lot of people, and be a basis for sale of merchandise.

  5. Zoos, aquaria, and especially a circus. Bears in zoos seem at times anxious or depressed, maybe I’m projecting what I think the bears are feeling. Bears I’ve encountered in the wild have always ignored me, they just go about whatever business bears do.
    Don’t get me started on the mistreatment of circus animals………..

  6. I personally struggle with zoos/aquariums for the very reasons Dr. Coyne mentions above. It is not a good life for the animals, and I understand that, but being a selfish human I WANT to see big, magnificent animals that would be almost impossible to see safely in the wild (ie tigers). I have always loved zoos because I have always loved seeing animals, but it wasn’t until reading this site daily that I began to rethink my contribution to this problem. Having young children myself now, who also love animals, I struggle with wanting to take them to zoos.

    1. Zoos are one thing, especially the large ‘animal park’ kind where the more active and spectacular species are kept in larger enclosures, and are given things to do (forage for food, play, etc.). The more modern zoos also do a valuable service of protecting endangered species, and they are a major asset for handling the occasional ‘pet’ lion or tiger that some idiot needs to give up.
      But an Orca doing tricks in an aquarium is about as inspiring and useful as a dancing bear.

    2. Sadly, there is probably no way to see a wide variety of exotic animals which doesn’t involve either their stress or a large cash flow on your part.

      But if their stress bothers you more than your cash flow, you can start by going on a (photo) safari in Africa. Many of the parks are open borders and what you are seeing is the animals going about their natural lives. And let me tell you, compared to a zoo, you will be frankly blown away with the amount you will see. You won’t see “a” giraffe, you’ll see hundreds or thousands. You won’t see ‘a few’ zebra, you’ll see herds. Thousand or tens of thousands of gazelle at a time. And so on.

        1. Poaching is still a major, major problem. All the game parks we went through forbid tourist travel through them after nightfall. That’s when the rangers go out to hunt the poachers, and the poachers are so heavily armed and trigger happy that when the rangers see someone, they shoot on sight.

        2. but stands to reason that this makes poaching unnecessary.

          If only this were so.
          In theory it works. The families of the rangers can afford to buy food rather than having to be farmers or pastoralists. In practice, that doesn’t mean that the siblings, parents and more distant relatives of the rangers can stop farming or herding. And that frequently brings them into conflict with the conservation needs/ desires of the game parks.
          The economics simply don’t work very well for most of the “natives”. Which is why, in several years of working in Tanzania, we were dependent on differing numbers of Masai men as security staff – and they were dependent on us (or some other employer) for cash employment.
          There is a separate argument – from some of those same Masai – that they don’t necessarily wish to be involved in the Western cash economy. But that will often get them a club round the head from the team chief (also a hereditary chief) if he heard such seditious (literally) talk. Tanzania may be a democracy, but his tribe most definitely was a one-man, one-vote democracy : he’s the Man, and he’s the one with the vote.
          (There are other social complexities in the way the Masai do their security business. For example, when you’re under fire, they really do act like a band of brothers. Because they are. Brothers, cousins, etc. There are issues of rites of passage too. And how the different tribes decide who gets which contract is probably something they don’t want outsiders to know about.)

  7. While I agree that places like Sea World are not in the business of conservation, their use of tranquilizers doesn’t phase me.

    I had a dog who needed to go on phenobarbital to prevent her from viciously attacking our other dog. She went out of her little mind with rage over nothing at all with no provocation.

    Medications, including tranquilizers, are tools which, when used appropriately, can improve the quality of life of the animal in question and those animals that interact with it (including, of course, human animals).

    1. I would bet that in its doggie brain it had a reason to be aggressive; it’s just that humans can’t step into the minds of their pets and don’t understand what their mental worlds are like. Not that you would necessarily agree with its motivation if you could understand it – surely some dogs have unpleasant personalities just as some humans do – but I doubt it was really “nothing at all”.

  8. yes – it’s ALL animal exploitation, whether orcas in captivity, puppy mills, horse soring, premarin mares, trapping, hunting, rodeos, circus (circusi??), cock fighting, cats in research, canine ear cropping,caged pigs …and so much more. I don’t always agree with PETA’s priorities but it has accomplished a lot re consciousness raising.
    As for the Sea World and its ilk claim that it exposes the young to appreciation of animals, it merely teaches that captive animals in very small “cages” are OK. Thanks for your continuing of the expose.
    (Sure, tranquilizers are a useful tool at times but not to cover up your sins of….exploitation).

  9. We just need to breed them for captivity and other likable traits, like we did with cats and dogs – and then convince ourselves they are perfectly content and much happier than out in the wild. Then mass imprisonment will become widely acceptable.

    I want a micro-orca that I can keep in my water bottle! I would call her ‘Squirt’, and she would be trained to use her blowhole on command. We would be best friends.

    1. You’ve convinced me. 🙂 We really need to step up our cetacean capture and breeding programs so we can have mini-dolphins as pets!

  10. I saw Blackfish, not too long ago, on CNN, and I think I saw it later pass by there as well. It was a very good documentary. Others have said it ruined their Seaworld memories for them …

    There’s some footage in the documentary as well of one of the attacks (I think it was one). Very scary.

  11. It is good to try to turn public opinion against the big sea parks, but it is also very daunting. I have been to Sea World many times (I am guilty), and they are a behemoth. Talk about a huge, high tech mega-business. Each park must employ hundreds of people, including very skilled people. And lets not forget the merchandise merchandise merchandise. They will not voluntarily stop using their main draw for huge crowds of repeat visitors. There is too much money in it.

    1. I like going to the aquaria that are mostly ginormous fish tanks! I saw a great amazon river one at the Vancouver Aquarium. I think I have a fantasy to be rich enough to have such a thing!

      1. I see no problem with those aspects of public aquariums. They do focus on spectacular displays, public education, and the fish probably do not care that much. But of course more are keeping the big sea mammals to draw the public. The Shedd aquarium in Chicago is an example.
        Great place to see the fish (and the architecture is awesome), but I feel sorry for the mammals.

        1. Yeah, they can do without the mammals. I think the Monteray aquarium is more a release operation so if it’s to help the animals and release I’m okay with that.

          1. Even better was Pier 39 in San Francisco. All the sea lions you could ever want to see, almost close enough to touch, and no enclosed or regulated habitat at all. However, I believe they all spontaneously left the docks a few years back. 🙁

          2. That is great to hear! Maybe they leave and come back every couple of years now or something.

          3. There is a funny gif out there that shows a ton of sea lions on a floating dock, and one more crawls out of the water onto the dock. The dock tips over, dumping them into the water.

          4. Yeah I saw them all over there and at the aquarium. I took a picture and called it rolly p pollies

  12. The ‘forced captivity’ aspect of aquaria is of course Double-Plus Ungood. But in addition to the forced captivity, aquaria are also a source of food that won’t fight back; shelter from inclement weather & etc; and a few other good things. And cetaceans are pretty smart—certainly smart enough to recognize a good thing, and act on it if they so choose. So: What if an aquarium decided to treat their cetacean performers as employees, rather than slaves?

    There would still be the public-view tank, the ‘stage’ within which the cetaceans perform. But when they’re not performing, the aquarium could provide direct access to open water via a canal or pipeline. This access channel could have doors/gates which the cetaceans themselves could operate at will, and said doors/gates would keep predators & other irritants out of the ‘stage’ where the cetaceans perform. Since the cetaceans would have the ability to take off at any time, they wouldn’t stick around unless they actually did like the deal which the aquarium is providing.

    I’m not at all sure how feasible this scenario might be. But if if were ever implemented, it would go a long way towards eliminating the nastiest bits of commercial/entertainment aquaria.

  13. I’ve seen Blackfish and it was rather depressing. Orcas in captivity have flaccid dorsal fins, a sign of stress. They followed one that was semi-released and the fin didn’t recover. The orca was too attached to people to go back to the wild.

    Orcas do have social systems and specific communities with their own, unrelated languages. Tossing an orca into the ocean to fend for itself after years of captivity would be extremely cruel. They would die of starvation or loneliness or be killed by other orcas. Forcing them to live with others “of their kind” but not of their tribe is also cruel. For those mammals that have been forced into this situation the only humane way out is probably euthanasia. I would rather see them be medicated and have some kind of social life than be euthanized or set “free.” Medication isn’t cruel – it’s the opposite of cruel in this case. Apparently they do form a sort of attachment to their human keepers. It can’t mimic their natural lives but it may provide some comfort.

    1. I can’t bring myself to watch Blackfish even though I really should for my own education. I have to wait until I’m neither unhappy nor happy if I decide to watch it. That way, if I’m happy, it won’t spoil my mood & if I’m unhappy, it won’t make me feel worse. This was the same criteria I used when I went to see Schindler’s List & it worked out ok.

      1. I wasn’t going to see it, then I stumbled onto it when it was showing and I couldn’t turn it off 🙁

  14. more re: “Blackfish”

    The main portion of the show was about the orca that killed a keeper. They went into the biography of the whale, its capture, first captivity, and the bullying it endured from other orcas he was forced to share quarters with. You really get a sense of an animal with a complex social system, and an emotional life that’s more intense than ours. I had some sense of them being “higher” beings but the film makes it clear that they have been treated like fish rather than the sensitive souls they are. They are more sensitive than the land mammals that we see in zoos 🙁

  15. I think that, on balance, Blackfish is well worth seeing. I don’t know if scientists who study orcas would find it to be totally satisfactory, but I suspect that people who really know about these wonderful mammals would very much approve of the movie and of your posts on the subject.

  16. Aquariums, zoo, cages and lots of people around – it really changes the behaviour of wild animals. But they still have their instincts and sometimes it’s like a time bomb. Not only it’s unnatural for the animals but it can be really dangerous for those people who take care of them. I know this is something different but I remember that last year a tiger killed his tamer during the performance! This all must stop!

  17. Sea world has come out with a lot of criticisms of blackfish but I cabt see that any of them are accurate. (Except perhaps the complaint about the emotive music choices)

    Orcas are highly social, extremely long lived animals in the wild. In captivity they live an average of nine years, and they are not kept in family groups. Seaworld gets around this complaint by claiming they do not separate mothers and (nursing) calves- this is true, but also isn’t what they’re being accused of. It only takes a quick google search to find the history and current location of each orca in captivity in the US- and to find that calves and mothers are separated as soon as their weaned in most cases.

  18. I have a FB friend who is an animal trainer (mostly horses) who posts quite frequently about the attack on zoos and aquaria and various articles defending Sea World and criticizing Blackfish. In trying to get a better handle on the actual scientific consensus on the issue of Orca captivity, I found that the Society for Marine Mammalogy just had a conference in New Zealand in December 2013 with a panel devoted to this topic. So far there has been no report or summary released (the website says there will be.) Any idea how long the turn around usually is on these sorts of thing? I’d love to know what the experts say on the matter.

    1. December 2013 with a panel devoted to this topic. So far there has been no report or summary released (the website says there will be.) Any idea how long the turn around usually is on these sorts of thing?

      For the collected papers presented at a conference, typically 18 months to 3 years. You might be a bit luckier with the proceedings of a “panel” being published sooner – a few numbers of the host society’s journal, perhaps – if they publish those contributions at all.
      I’ve had to try doing the dictation work from such panels in the past – it would take me about an hour to transcribe ten minutes of speech, and a lot longer when voices got raised, fingers pointed and accusations made (which is when it’s essential to get the transcription correct). Wild horses and red-hot barbed-wire whips would not persuade me to do such work again (I’d just hire a shorthand secretary!). So, don’t hold your breath.

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