Tuesday, March 29, 2016

SeaWorld Still Lying About Its Orcas

Another SeaWorld Orca With Drilled-out teeth
While many regard SeaWorld's recent decision to end breeding in its captive orca program as a huge step forward, many remain concerned that SeaWorld is still lying about its orcas' health.

SeaWorld also recently announced that its most famous orca, Tilikum, was ailing due to a supposed bacterial infection (the sad story of Tilikum was featured in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary "Blackfish").   SeaWorld is now blaming the marine park from which it purchased Tilikum for his famously damaged teeth, which have broken off into tiny stubs.  But several former orca trainers say that SeaWorld is lying and is solely responsible for Tilikum's chronic teeth issues.

"It's preposterous that SeaWorld would say that Tilikum's teeth were in much the same condition when he arrived in Orlando," said former orca trainer Steve Huxter, who worked with Tilikum at Sealand of the Pacific before the park closed down in the early 1990s.  "Tilikum's teeth were in perfect condition when he was transferred [to SeaWorld] in 1992."  Huxter also said that SeaWorld's trainers should know this, as they spent four to six weeks working with Huxter at Sealand prior to the transfer.

Former SeaWorld trainers have also spoken out against the park's claim. Dean Gommersall, a marine mammal trainer who worked at SeaWorld Orlando when Tilikum arrived at the park in 1992, shared two photos on Facebook purportedly showing Tilikum after his arrival at SeaWorld, and then in recent years. Tilikum, who can be identified in the earlier image (taken at SeaWorld) by the unique markings over his eye, appears to have had healthy, pointed teeth when he arrived at SeaWorld.

It's long been known that SeaWorld's captive program can wreak havoc on orcas' teeth. Stressed from captivity and boredom, the orcas will often gnaw on the edges of their tanks, fracturing their long, sharp teeth.

The damage isn't just cosmetic. The fractures expose the tooth pulp, which can become a portal for bacteria to enter the bloodstream and lead to heart problems and infections in other parts of the body (such as the lungs) and even death. SeaWorld workers now routinely perform a "root canal" of sorts to clean out the tissue exposed by the broken-off teeth. For the rest of their lives, the injured orcas, (like Tilikum) must undergo daily cleanings to flush out the exposed tooth stubs.

This isn't the first time SeaWorld has lied about its orcas' teeth. The park has tried to deflect blame for the poor health of its animals by saying that poor dentition is normal in wild orcas-- but the vast majority of wild orcas are rarely found with teeth like Tilikum's.  The one exception is a small subpopulation of wild orcas that feeds on hard-skinned rays and skates--  and even then the damage after a lifetime of feeding isn't nearly as severe as what is seen on SeaWorld orcas.

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