Shamu and other orca whales have been a pillar of childhood entertainment for decades. Many families, mine included, made the trip to the Orlando, San Antonio, or San Diego SeaWorld amusement parks to watch the whales launch themselves out of the water in spectacular fashion.

For us, it was simply incredible. The show seemed so beautiful, the trainers seemed so gentle, and the whales seemed so happy. Or were they?

The Truth Behind Captive Breeding

All good things must come to an end. My childhood naïveté about killer whales also came to a screeching halt after the 2013 release of Blackfish.

Killer whales are highly sentient beings with a capacity for self-recognition. Their cognitive abilities are nearly unrivaled in the animal kingdom, catapulting the inhumanity of their captivity even farther.

These whales can swim up to 100 miles per day in the open ocean—it’s no wonder that confining them to a fish tank is literally driving them insane. All of their whales display various signs of illness, including a collapsed dorsal fin, damaged teeth, and psychotic behavior. SeaWorld is the moral equivalent of Abu Ghraib.

However, SeaWorld is now infamous for denying anything and everything related to this controversy (maybe the whales aren’t the only psychotic ones over there).

The death of Dawn Brancheau by the whale Tilikum in 2010 is widely viewed as a reflection of the egregious captivity conditions for the whales, yet SeaWorld claims that Brancheau’s ponytail enticed him. The parks literally blamed Dawn for her own death. 

SeaWorld’s Resistance To Change

The horror exposed by Blackfish was, and still is, a nightmare for the amusement park chain. In 2014, SeaWorld began building “newer and larger” tanks for the whales (although they denied this was in response to the documentary). The ignorance of SeaWorld executives was not lost on the public. By 2015, tank expansions were halted when a California judge refused to grant building permits without a suspension of the captive breeding program. This was seen as an absolute non-negotiable for SeaWorld (at the time).

Later in 2015, SeaWorld announced that it would phase out its killer whale shows in exchange for more “natural” habitats. Again, this attempt to assuage an angry populace was less than stellar. Captivity is still captivity, even if you change the wallpaper at the exhibit.

Finally, SeaWorld swallowed its pride in early 2016 when it ended its captive breeding program. In theory, this means that the current set of whales will be the last generation subjected to these heinous practices. However, SeaWorld is still allowed to obtain whales as “rescues”—a dangerous loophole that they’ll be sure to exploit.

Some argue that the government should step in and close SeaWorld permanently. As a champion of limited government, I would consider this a massive overstep of governmental authority. Of course, this is both unlikely and unnecessary, given President Trump’s budget cuts and the public’s general disgust towards marine mammal captivity as a whole.

Many lives, both human and whale, have been cut short for no reason as a result of these inhumane practices. If the currently trajectory holds, SeaWorld will get a taste of its own medicine when its life is cut short, too.