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Vote of the week: Will SeaWorld ever stop using marine mammals in live shows?

February 28, 2010, 6:30 PM · Shamu's back at SeaWorld. But for how long?

Last week's tragedy at SeaWorld Orlando amplifies questions about the use of non-domesticated animals in shows at not only SeaWorld, but all other parks which use them. Can people, even highly skilled trainers, share the water with, or even get close to, orcas and other wild animals?

Tillikum at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld's safety record with animals is excellent. But excellent is not perfect, and when lack of perfection costs a life - human or animal - then folks are going to ask questions, and appropriately so.

Earlier this year, when investor Blackstone Group was making its bid to buy the SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment theme parks from Anheuser-Busch InBev, a Theme Park Insider reader pointed out that Blackstone's other theme park company - Merlin Entertainments - has a corporate policy that sharply restricts the use of marine mammals in performances.

Watching various SeaWorld shows over the years, I've also noticed a trend away from animal tricks and toward a more reverent treatment of the animals' "natural" behavior, turning instead toward human acrobatics and video or stage effects to juice up the theatrics of the show. (Just take a look at the current Believe and Blue Horizons shows and compare them with past orca and dolphin shows at the parks.)

So where does this trend lead? Do the SeaWorld parks, and other theme parks, eventually get to a point where they don't employ animals as performers in their shows at all? That doesn't mean that the animals would disappear from the parks - a show or attraction could be built around an animal's display habitat, much like SeaWorld's done with Wild Arctic.

(Yes, one also could ask whether certain species should be in captivity at all, but that's another question and I'm not going there today.)

Here's the question of the week: Will SeaWorld ever stop using marine mammals in live performances?

Notice that I'm not asking whether you think SeaWorld should stop using marine mammals in shows. I'm asking whether or not you think it will, and if so, whether that change will happen sooner, or later.

In the comments, let's take up that "should they" question, and also talk about the impact of this decision - not just on animals and the company, but also on your decisions about whether or not to visit SeaWorld.

Replies (23)

February 28, 2010 at 6:44 PM · Christopher Elliott just posted an essay with his thoughts on the return of the Believe show.
February 28, 2010 at 7:15 PM · I think it would be tough to get rid of the flagship show. As far as I can gather, the show had nothing to do with the accident.

While a terrible thing happened, I doubt it really will have a big impact. I mean the monorails went back up after the accident there too!

RIP Dawn, Her death notice mentioned she "passed away doing something she loved"

February 28, 2010 at 7:51 PM · I doubt it will happen, but i definately think it should happen. The captivity of animals has become so common, that we as humans do not realize the severity of the situation. Zoos are extremely commonplace, hardly recreating an animal's true habitat. Animal Kingdom, although not a zoo, has animals as well. I believe the shows that exploit any animals need to be abolished, but the exhibits, which do a fairly good job to recreate a natural habitat, can remain. There is a very confusing line that has been enweaved in the human brain concerning the use of animals in theme parks and zoos. Most importantly, using animals in this way is harmful to them in a way most humans cannot understand. Most people are not forcefully taken away from their natural habitats or born into captivity. It almost seems like another form of slavery, but for animals. Wild animals being trained to do tricks is nothing to be excited over. It is wrong and disregards the dignity of the animal. As being animals ourselves, the unfair captivity of animals and use for our entertainment should be prohibited.
March 1, 2010 at 1:40 AM · I was lucky enough to visit sea world a few years ago just days after the birth of a killer whale calf. The calf and it's mother were in the main tank and unwilling to leave for the back tank or to allow other whales into the main tank with them (even the father who could be seen looking on.

I was an amazing and fascinating sight. Obviously the show couldn't go on so the trainer showed video's of the birth and talked out the whales and what was happening. After being repeatly rebuked by the mother the father was finally allowed to get close to the pop and it was great to see this up close.

I thought this "show" was infinitly better than the "believe show which i found horrendously cheesey and tacky.

Unforutnately most of the audience didn't agree. There was grumbling and moaning and even a few boo's and about half of the audience walked out after being told that we weren't going to get to see the normal show.

A large number of people go to sea world just to see big sea mammals jumping out the water and splashing people. the would probably not make the journey to see a big aquarium.

March 1, 2010 at 6:35 AM · It will never happen because the show attracts people and generates income. If people stop going, then the show will end, however there would be other shows that may be less harmful to animals that would end too and Sea World in general would have some serious re-tooling to do or may be in jeapardy of closing as it is built around Shamu.

I think the habitat created for the Killer Whales is too small. The Dolphin habitat on the other hand may be more spacious and suitable for them and the dolphins seem to enjoy interaction with humans.

I am just on the fence on this one. Creatures such as killer whales, elephants and tigers may not be such a good idea. We wont even go into acts involving gators as that is insane and you will note when you go to Gatorland they stay a good distance away from them with the exception of very small ones.

Some animals take to this and some will forever be preditors and you cannot change that DNA. It is not the animal's fault.

I will be interested to see how this plays out, but I think status quo is your answer.

March 1, 2010 at 6:40 AM · Ok lets see..Will Seaworld stop the live shows? More then likly not. Most of the Killer Whales have been breed in captivity. And would not make it on their own in the wild..Lets stop and look at the whole thing. Most of the Whales in the Belive show are 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation. And now heres the tricky part. As chaves they learn from the Moms that its ok to interact with their human trainners. Much like your house pets you teach to do things, they understand that if they do a command they get rewarded same concept here not a stretch really. And Seaworld makes sure they are well feed and their health is above any of their wild counter parts. And most dont know that Tillys care and feeding costs were around $500,000 a mth. (reported on Good Morning America this morning}. And they also reported that in the case of Willy the killer whale who was released he eventually made his way to I belive Finland were he entered a harbor and seeked out human contact. Allowing humans to pet and ride him in the bay. So should Sea World release them back? No way! If they do decide to stop using them do have them spaded and nutured, And allow them to live out the rest of their lives in SeaWorlds care. Im more then sure Tilly is looking for Dawn and is wondering were his human trainner is . And why theres no interaction . Its Sad really.
March 1, 2010 at 6:53 AM · I think that it is important that some sort of show goes on. This isn't just about entertainment, it's about education. The woman that was killed had to know the risks involved in what they're doing and she was willing to take those risk. Anyone that suggests that the orca involved should be euthanized is wrong. He is just doing what comes naturally. I'm sure that Sea World will be taking steps to try to avoid any such tragedy in the future, but it is not the orca's fault at all.
March 1, 2010 at 7:06 AM · While the argument of “slavery” and “forced captivity” have some validity (though very little IMHO), where else would you see such wonderful creatures up close and personal? Zoos and aquariums are constantly improving their exhibits to do the best to “recreate” their natural habitats, while those “natural” habitats are constantly changing due to human effects and nature. Zoos and aquariums have undergone one of the most dramatic changes in the last 40 years of any business. Not only has their care dramatically increased, but so has the science of breeding and understanding all of the planets creatures. The amounts of support (monetary and political) for endangered animals have seen such a dramatic increase due to the education of the public that these facilities provide. Zoos and aquariums are one of the most visited “entertainment” venue collectively in America. Where else would a 3 year old inter-city child get to see a giraffe? Where would an elderly couple get to see lions and their cubs grow up with them? Would you care what happens to the elephants if you didn’t get a chance to see what they can actually do with your own 2 eyes? If people are so against these places and do not want to see them, then they need to stop going and stop paying admission. They are a business just like the rest of America and if they do not make a profit, then they will stop operating. Though the implications to everyone hired full-time, part-time and seasonally will suffer. These animals are loved and care for better than most people treat their own pets. For some of the care staff, these animals are all they have in their life. To take away the bond created between them would be cruel. To deny the millions of people the chance to see any of these animals and be educated about them would be equally as cruel. -Kyle
March 1, 2010 at 7:14 AM · To Tim W and many others; who think it should be? In my opinion, these animals, and I remind everyone that they are animals, get treated better than some humans! They are cared for and loved like the children of the trainers, which was the case in SeaWorld last week. Quite frankly, I would rather see the elimination of certain breeds of dogs because of death to or attacks on humans! Breeds such as the Pit Bull. If we as a society are going to allow the continued breeding of DANGEROUS animals, then don't even talk about training of wild animals being stopped. Let’s get our priorities right people.

Animal trainers are well aware of the risks and they make the choice to be in that profession, knowing very well what can happen. Similar to a Police Officer. But a Dog attack is neither expected or a risk that anyone was willing to take. All these animal lovers (PETA) want to release the Orca into the wild, so instead of farm raised fish that it gets fed, it can eat a couple of hundred sea lions.

And speaking of sea lions, they love to act and would be very upset f they didn’t get to!

Finally, I will end with a another point few have made; maybe the whale only wanted to play with his trainer. He had to intention of killing her, but wanted to hug and play with her, the way she did with him and now he is sad that she is gone!

March 1, 2010 at 8:28 AM · Sad all the way around. I , at first felt the whale should be taken back to the sea and let go, but for Tilly being protected from sure death in the sea(from man) is one thing, but being kept up from humans that it knows and trusts is everyone loses.........people killing or people making money , hard choice isn't it???
March 1, 2010 at 9:55 AM · This accident is so unfortunate, and my deepest regrets go out to Dawn's family. I feel confident though that she would not what this incident to put an end to the thing she loved so dearly, and worked so hard at to achieve.

While I understand some people's moral objection to keeping animals in a zoological park, I do not understand the idea of 'this animal is ok in a zoo, while this one is not'. That thought pattern shows more of a lack of respect and understanding for animals as whole. It qualifies life- implying that one species is superior, or better than others.

If you understand animal behavior (including human behavior), you know that every species has certain needs in life. These include habitat, available food, and social needs. If a zoological facility can produce and meet any animal's needs, then rationally and morally we should be able to care for that animal in a controlled setting. If those needs can not be maintained in a zoological setting, then the animals should not be displayed. I would also like to point out that an overly large amount of living space is rarely a highly important need for any animal.

Killer whales needs (besides a salt water habitat) in order of importance are food, socialization, mental exercise, and physical exercise. A habitat should be large enough so that the animals can appropriately socialize with each other and exercise. In the case of SeaWorld, the stadiums more than meet those requirements- as evident in the fact that over 20 whales have successfully giving birth there, and that the whales can perform average behaviors with ease. Training the whales and doing shows also takes care of the mental and physical needs of the animals.

Therefore SeaWorld needs to keep on training those whales on doing the shows! I in turn will keep on watching, and continually be amazed!

March 1, 2010 at 9:59 AM · Here is a new thing to think about. After a guest died on Big Thunder Mountain a few years ago, how many people asked if we should stop building and riding roller coasters?

No one seems to call for a ban on owning dogs after some is attacked or killed by a house pet. The statistics show that in 2007 33 people were killed by dogs, and over 4.7 million reported serious dog bites. By the way anti-captivty people, owning a dog or any other pet IS also a form of captivity.

March 1, 2010 at 10:40 AM · This is an almost impossible question to answer because of the differences between marine mammals. Orcas and otters are both MM but very different in abilities, behaviors and necessary care; similar for pinnipeds, and dolphins, and polar bears. While ending or modifying the cetecea shows would result in a very different park experience, it would still allow for cetecea environments and opportunities for guest education. But closing ALL MM shows could be the end of the company.

What I haven't seen addressed is the changes that have happened to cetecea shows over the decades. In the first 'oceanariums' built in the 1940's and 50's, trainers NEVER went into the water or were even close to the water. They recognized wild, or even 'trained', animals are dangerous, and the only 'tricks' they performed were natural behaviors - breaching, tail hopping, etc. with the only difference the behaviors were performed on cue and for reward. Slowly, the 'show' demanded more and more extreme performances, so more risks were taken by trainers and behaviors were taught BASED on natural actions, so rather than an animal simply jumping from the water, now it had to jump from the water with a trainer perched on the animals nose! Very exciting, big crowd reaction, more people buying tickets and souvenirs, so that encourages greater and more extreme behaviors until we have multiple animals with multiple trainers in the water simultaneously and it becomes 'familiar' to the animals and comfortable for the trainers. While all the time, we are still working with the same type of DANGEROUS ANIMALS that just a few years ago trainers would refuse to swim with.

As someone who has worked with the catecea I have to bow to the trainers who take these risks. The power and strength of any large animal is awe-inspiring and a bit frightening. But is it wise for any 'mere' human to enter an environment that is dominated by an animal that is twenty, fifty, a hundred times or more your strength, just to put on a show? For decades the mission of SeaWorld was education through entertainment. Over the years it has evolved into that catchy, but meaningless word 'edutainment'. Recently it has been moving toward emphasis on entertainment, with-some-education-if-we-can-fit-it-in. By returning to their original education mission, SeaWorld and similar parks have the ability, knowledge and experience to maintain mega fauna MM habitats without most of the show elements, yet still be a viable business. This could ultimately be beneficial for the animals, trainers and staff, and the guests.

March 1, 2010 at 1:38 PM · So many anonymous posters with... proper grammar and well thought-out ideas? Discussing a sensitive topic without reverting to all-caps posts? What is this strange place?
March 1, 2010 at 1:43 PM · SeaWorld is a park that is based on shows,and their star is shamu.That would be like taking Mickey Mouse and Cinderella away from Disney.My question is,what type of park would SeaWorld be without their live animal shows?
March 1, 2010 at 2:04 PM · I don't want to get too deeply into this, because I'll be writing for hours. It is truly a tragedy that Dawn Brancheau lost her life in this situation.

The fact is that orcas are on the U.S. endangered species list, and breeding them in captivity is a good thing. People like to talk about how cruel it is it keep animals in zoos, but zoos have helped repopulate several endangered or protected species. Sea World has done an excellent job of exposing its visitors to the beauty of many aquatic animals, and educating them on the importance of these animals to our environment.

It would be a shame to see these performances disappear. There have been countless killer whale shows at the many Sea World parks. These shows promote the conservation of the species and its environment. For all that good to be undone by one anomalous, though tragic, incident would be a tragedy of its own.

March 1, 2010 at 2:37 PM · I wouldn't be surprised if the shows changed to an even more "natural" approach, showcasing animal's normal behaviors rather than tricks, especially with the larger mammals.

As far as conservation, zoos and animal-based theme parks play a critical *emotional* role. People who are fascinated by the orca or fell in love with the penguin at one of these parks are so much more likely to support conservation practices and to fund projects to save them. It takes a very large emotional leap, especially in hard economic times, to spend money to support an animal that may live thousands of miles away from your home, rather than some other very worthy cause.

And let's face it, as romantic as it may seem to say that all animals deserve to "roam free" - animals don't die of old age in the wild.

March 1, 2010 at 3:01 PM · I am acquaintances with most trainers since I go on a WEEKLY basis. I knew dawn, and have seen her perform many times. It was really hard to hear and my thoughts and prayers go out to her, her family, and the Seaworld staff but here are the facts:

1. here is the biggest fact that everyone overlooks: the other two incidents cannot be blamed solely on telly or on him in the first place: the other two incidents, as reports have stated, are as follows: in 1991 there were two other whales involved besides telly, two females, so you cant pin the blame on telly alone if in fact he even caused any of it, he MIGHT have even been trying to help the trainer. Orcas are very smart second only to humans. Reports from the incident with the homeless man state clearly that Cause of death was HYPOTHERMIA and DROWNING. It is not a stretch to propose that Telly's bite mark may have been because he took the man in his mouth to save him. There was no blunt force trauma that would happen if a whale was intentionally biting because like dogs they shake their prey, like sea lions, to kill them. No one can officially declare that he has "attacked" at all. It would not be a stretch to say he was actually being the good guy in any occasion.

2. It is rumored that telly might have realized what had happened and instead of him "thrashing her around", could have been trying to help her and get her out of the water. This is not a stretch because Dawn has been like his mother since she has worked with him the most. Think of it this way: He is a very smart animal, if you were him would you want to kill the person that fed you and played with you and made your life worth living the most? Saying he attacked her makes no sense to me. I watch those whales and you can tell they love their trainers because you can tell the bond when the trainers get in the water with them.

3. There is a video posted online ( showing minutes before the incident, but not the incident itself, and you can clearly see Dawn and Telly were in a very playful mood, never did he "lash out" or "Attack" her, he was playing and he got overstimulated and since he is an animal he does not understand his strength and the fact he is over 60 times her size

4. Contrary to what everyone is saying the name "Killer whales" is not referring to the whales with people, "Killer Whales" is actually referring to predatorial instincts in the wild Killer whales are not considered a threat to humans.

5. The incident had NOTHING to do with the way the whales were contained nor treated. For all the whales knew, the tank was the ocean. All of them were bread in Captivity so that WAS their ocean. And interacting with the trainers was how they hunted in the sense that that is how they got food.

6. I read somewhere where someone said that the end of a training session is the most dangerous which is completely false. The whales understand there is no more fish and have NEVER lashed out at a trainer because of it. They know they have a certain diet. This is a completely bogus statement. Everyone is making it seem like these whales are barbarians, while they are still wild animals they are almost as smart as humans!

7. That being said, The "tricks" trained in the shows are nothing more than natural behaviors performed on command, and not only is this a way of stimulating the whales mentally AND physically but it helps the trainers take care of them for example: When the trainer asks the whale to put his fin up, that is a KEY command when veterinarians and the animal care staff examine him, it is called a "present" and it is one of the most basic commands not only Whales are given, but also given to all animals in zoological parks and aquariums that can be trained. The "Breach Maneuvers" or, when the whales jump out of the water is a natural behavior as well, and is done in the wild, especially when hunting so the whale can see above water. If the trainers did not teach these commands, the staff would have NO control of the animals, and having no control is dangerous for the staff, the animal, and the other animals around it, AND it is very hard to transport or take care of an animal if they do not have control of the situation. So the commands would be given regardless if they were in a show or not, the shows are just "Showcases" of what the animals are capable of learning and doing and they are just theatrically staged so they arent as boring as "now the whale will do this, now he will do this and now I will ask him to do this", it has a purpose! It in not just for entertainment!!!! Entertainment is a byproduct of this.

7. The education department in Seaworld is one of the largest fields of work second only to animal care & husbandry, this proves Seaworld is in it for the education not only the entertainment. You also have to realize how much the bill is to take care of these beautiful animals so a portion of admission profits pretty much go to the conservation of the resident animals if you want to think of it that way. The high admission is not to see how much money seaworld can get from you. They are pretty much charging you what they expect their bills are going to be. They don't want to raise prices anymore than you want them to because that deters people away. They want to be as accessible as they can to everyone they can so that they can teach everyone about "this beautiful world we all share"

8. In regards to the conservations aspect: The Sea World & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund conducts grant awards each year. Since 2003, the SWBGCF has granted $1.3 million to more than 100 projects in 25 countries on six continents. Selected projects must be science-based, solution-driven, and community-oriented - attributes needed to achieve effective and long-term conservation success. Groups working on animal conservation projects are invited to apply for a SWBGCF grant. Projects are carefully selected by a diverse mix of wildlife experts, scientists, business leaders, and educators. also check out this website: and specifically look at Questions # 5 & 7, and you will be able to see all of the conservation and rehabilitation efforts that no guests ever see. If this was just an entertainment and profit park why would it Rehabilitate a gray whale just to release it back into the wild since a gray whale would be a HUGE draw since no one else has ever held one in captivity? and why would they make any of these attempts to save these animals if the guests wont even be paying money to see them or even realizing it for that matter? and the fact that there was very little publicity on any of these occasions, I don't think they did it for their reputation. Also go to to see the organization founded my seaworld, that guests never see.

PLEASE, if you're going to point fingers at seaworld, and make false accusations, just read the facts first! Seaworld has done more good for the animals and world for that matter than any animal rights activists! What have animal rights activists done besides picket, rally and boycott? Have they gone out to an oil spill and rescued and rehabilitated 50% of the african pelican population? I think not. As they say, actions are ALOT louder than words and I think these Facts prove this. Seaworld is one of the best things that has happened to this world and if not for seaworld we would not know as much as we do about this beautiful world we share. Thanks to everyone that read this whole post and did not quit reading because they didn't want to face facts, and I sincerely urge you that if you are against seaworld, you look at the big picture and how vital it is to this earth!

March 1, 2010 at 3:52 PM · The orca who killed the trainer should not be used in shows or anywhere near the public. But he should not be killed. He was doing what came naturally to him. It is not his fault.

I think most aquarium shows provide the public with an important opportunity to learn about these beautiful creatures and also to understand ways in which we can help to keep their numbers alive in the wild.

What would Sea World and hundreds of aquariums do if live animal shows were discontinued?

I am not in favor of going out into the wild and capturing species just to have them perform tricks for the public. But the creatures who are bred in captivity produce offspring who have not been in the wild and cannot properly fend for themselves, unless they are a species that thrives independently from birth. I am perfectly okay with these newborns who were created in captivity being kept in captivity if properly cared for.

March 1, 2010 at 4:10 PM · For the record, the SeaWorld parks do not capture marine mammals from the wild for the purpose of performing in shows or display in the parks. They do provide shelter and care for injured or distressed animals found in the wild, but those brought in that way who recover are released back into the wild.

Also, I believe that U.S. federal law prohibits the capture of orcas from the wild. So the only orcas SeaWorld can add are those which are born to its current whales, or ones that are transferred from other theme parks.

The federal government retains control over some of SeaWorld's animals, and at which parks they may be kept, as readers of this story will recall.

March 2, 2010 at 1:06 AM · This is easily one of the most fascinating and contentious threads I've ever read on this forum. ;-)

As for my vote -- It was "Yes, but not for many years." I'm glad that option was there because, despite only getting 16% of the vote to date, it underscores one of my own theories. I believe there will come a day (certainly not in my current lifetime, though) when we, as a species, will have grown up enough to actually respect the fact that this world is not truly ours.

It would be more accurate to say we are its custodians, responsible for keeping it in good shape. It goes without saying that such maintenance includes keeping wild habitats in the best shape possible. Hey, if we put too many breaks in the food chain, it could kill us as well!

When we reach that point, I believe we'll have collectively outgrown the very concept of zoos and oceanariums as we know them today. I don't doubt they'll still exist, but in radically different form than what they are now.

I doubt very much that aquatic circuses, like SeaWorld, will have any place in such an environment.

Like others, I suspect I could write a book (or at least a solid paper) on the question of "Should we?" where keeping orcas in captivity is concerned.

My personal take is: No, we shouldn't -- not unless we can (by some miracle) find a way to explain the benefits, and ask these critters whether they WANT to be in captivity for a while.

Got your attention with that one, didn't I? ;-)

Sounds crazy, I know. And it may very well be completely crazy! I cannot ignore the possibility there may be nothing more under that streamlined skull than Just Another Smart Animal.

HOWEVER -- Neither can I ignore the possibility that such communication could happen, somehow. We Just Don't Know!

Consider this, though: There have been quantum leaps in computing power and digital signal-processing technology since the 1960's, when Dr. John Lilly made his first crude attempts at decoding dolphin sounds. Criminys, you can build your own supercomputer these days for well under ten grand!

And look at Lou Herman's work, at the Kewalo Basin lab in Hawaii. He's already demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, that dolphins comprehend abstracts. Another researcher (the name escapes me at the moment) has provided convincing evidence that dolphins may even be self-aware, a quality once thought to be present only in humans.

If dolphins can do it, so can orcas.

Why, then, with all that technological advancement, has there been NO further effort, that I know of, to put all those whizzy tools to use to at least try and find out if anyone's listening in the cetacean world?

Hey, if I'm wrong... No harm done! The world goes on, SeaWorld goes on, etc.

But what if I'm right? Even half-right? The implications would certainly be explosive enough to level Mt. Everest, but it could also be the biggest breakthrough since that apple clobbered Sir Isaac Newton!

Isn't it worth trying to find out?

Happy travels.

March 2, 2010 at 3:47 PM · Yes, it certainly is a shame that these majestic creatures are in captivity, where they can't be hunted and slaughtered by the Japanese.
March 2, 2010 at 4:29 PM · Referring to Bruce's comment, In the little prince, it states "When you've finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care." while some of you may be asking how this is relevant, it is actually a poor translation from French in which the book was originally written. But it actually means that when you are done preparing yourself for your day, it is then time to prepare the planet for its day, with even more care. Meaning that we should treat our planet with respect, including all of the animals that inhabit our wonderful planet

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