SeaWorld has been in hot water ever since the documentary “Blackfish” came out last summer. And now, the marine park is being accused of drugging its killer whales.
An affidavit filed in Ontario Superior Court of Justice, and leaked to BuzzFeed, claims that SeaWorld routinely gives benzodiazepines—drugs found in Valium and Xanax—to orcas suffering from mental health issues as a direct result of being in captivity.
Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told BuzzFeed that the veterinary records show that “orcas at SeaWorld are given psychotropic drugs to stop them from acting aggressively towards each other in the stressful, frustrating conditions in which they’re confined instead of funding the development of coastal sanctuaries – the only humane solution. ”
According to BuzzFeed, SeaWorld spokesperson 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.”
But critics of SeaWorld say the drugs are only necessary because the highly intelligent animals aren’t able to deal with spending years—decades in some cases—in captivity. It’s the reason Tilikum, the orca at the center of the “Blackfish” documentary, has killed humans, his former trainers state in the film. Tilikum has spent more than 30 years in captivity and been linked to the deaths of three humans.
Orca Research Trust founder, Ingrid Visser, told BuzzFeed the drugs are likely treating a condition “caused by captivity,” and that their violence stems directly from stress as opposed to an inherent animal trait. “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.”
Activists and animal rights groups are calling on supporters to use the hashtag #EndSeaWorld on Twitter and Instagram to help bring awareness to the plight of captive marine mammals.
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Image: Stig Nygaard