Protestors Swarm SeaWorld, Demand Release of Captive Animals

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Corky looks through the glass at SeaWorld San Diego

Credit: Martin Wippel via Flickr

Protestors swarmed SeaWorld on Monday (September 4) to demand the freedom of its captive creatures.

Keeping animals in captivity is always a controversial topic – especially when it comes to killer whales and SeaWorld. In 2013, the release of the documentary Blackfish turned huge numbers of past and prospective guests against the theme park thanks to its focus on the tragic life of one of its most infamous residents: Tilikum.

A few Orca Whales perform tricks and stunts during a show at SeaWorld as Guests look on from the stands.
Credit: SeaWorld

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Captured in Iceland at the age of two in 1983, Tilikum was a killer whale who spent his first few years of captivity at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1991, one of his trainers, Keltie Lee Byrne, slipped into the tank containing Tilikum and his two tank-mates, Nootka IV, and Haida II, who reportedly bullied Tilikum. When Byrne fell, he dragged her underwater by the foot and refused to let go, ultimately leading to her death.

When Sealand of the Pacific closed down a year later, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. There, he sired 21 calves and was involved in two more fatal accidents. The first came in 1999 when Daniel P. Dukes hid in the park overnight and climbed into Tilikum’s tank, where was found severely mutilated the next morning.

Tilikum performing
Credit: Milan Boers via Flickr

The third – and final – attack came in 2010 when Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Having just completed a Dine with Shamu show, Brancheau was rubbing Tilikum as part of the usual post-show routine when he grabbed her by her ponytail and dragged her into the water.

These deaths were all explored in Blackfish, which claimed that Tilikum’s aggression was the result of captivity-induced psychological damage. Since then, attendance at SeaWorld has dropped significantly, leading SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego, and SeaWorld San Antonio to ditch their orca breeding programs and abandon the concept of orca performances.

SeaWorld Orlando entrance sign
Credit: SeaWorld

One thing SeaWorld hasn’t done, however, is release their killer whales into the wild. This is a contentious topic, even for animal rights activists, with some citing the case of Keiko – the whale famous for portraying the lead character in Free Willy (1993) – as proof that captive orcas cannot acclimatize to life in the ocean.

However, one park vowed earlier this year to become the first to try again in over 20 years. In March, Miami Seaquarium announced plans to release its sole killer whale, Lolita – also known by her native name of Tokitae – into a sea pen in the Pacific Northwest.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

Sadly, these plans never came to fruition as Lolita passed away in her tank due to suspected sudden kidney problems in August. Since then, some have used the failed plans for her freedom as motivation to encourage other parks to follow suit – starting with SeaWorld San Diego.

On Monday, protestors gathered outside the Southern California park to call for the release of Corky.

The oldest killer whale in captivity, Corky was born in 1965 and has resided at SeaWorld San Diego since 1987. While multiple attempts were made to breed Corky, none of her seven calves survived beyond infancy, primarily due to their failure to nurse.

Corky jumps into the air from the water at SeaWorld San Diego
Credit: Mliu92 via Flickr

Protestors gathered along Sea World Drive and Sea World Way to push for the park to release its largest animals into sea pens similar to the one suggested for Lolita.

“Even though it’s Labor Day and most people have today off, there are no holidays for any of the animals at SeaWorld,” protestor Ellen Ericksen told local news outlet FOX 5. “The eight orcas that are held in captivity here never get a day off.”

The protestors claimed that over 40 orca whales and 500 dolphins have died at SeaWorld, with most of these animals allegedly failing to meet their natural life expectancy.

Corky looks through the glass at SeaWorld San Diego
Credit: Martin Wippel via Flickr

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Meanwhile, SeaWorld has previously argued that its killer whales live as long – if not longer – than orcas in the wild. It’s thought that male orcas live to an average of 30 years old – with a maximum age of 50 to 60 years – while females live to around 46 years old. Corky is currently 58 years old.

Activists want SeaWorld to relocate Corky to a 40-acre sanctuary near her birthplace in British Columbia. While her mother, Stripe, died in 2000, her pod – the “A5 pod” – still resides in the area.

SeaWorld has resisted these protests, stating that moving Corky would be risky for her health. Former trainers of Lolita said the same when Miami Seaquarium announced plans to release her back into the Salish Sea.

Do you want SeaWorld to release its orcas into the wild? Let us know in the comments!

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