Animal Rights Groups Sue Feds Over Necropsy Reports of SeaWorld Orcas

Suit challenges fisheries agency claim that it can't make the company hand over reports for three captive orcas, including Tilikum, who died last year

Last year, three captive orcas — Tilikum, Kasatka, and Kyara — died at three different SeaWorld facilities across the US. Now a coalition of animal rights groups are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to have SeaWorld release the necropsy reports of these orcas, which they say could provide information supporting the argument that captivity is harmful to the health of orcas, dolphins, and other marine mammals.

photo of deforestation
Tilikum during a performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Tilikum died last year and animal rights groups are suing to obtain his necropsy report, along with those of two other captive orcas who died last year as well. Photo by David R. Tribble.

Tilikum of SeaWorld Orlando, the most famous of the three orcas, died in January 2017 from a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia. Acquired by SeaWorld in 1992, Tilikum helped the company expand its captive orca population by fathering 21 calves, of which about 10 are still alive. The 36-year-old orca, who killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and at least two other people prior to that, became a household name after the 2013 release of Blackfish, a documentary criticizing the theme park’s treatment of orcas and highlighting the dangers of keeping orcas in captive facilities.

Kyara, Tilikum's three-month-old granddaughter who was born in SeaWorld San Antonio in April 2017, died of pneumonia in July 2017. And Kasatka, a matriarch orca who had been held at SeaWorld San Diego for 40 years, was euthanized in August 2017, apparently after years of struggling with lung infections. However, for weeks leading up to her death, animal advocates had circulating images of Kasatka that should large lesions on her lower jaw. It is not clear if that infection also played a part in her prolonged illness.

The lawsuit, filed by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), whale expert Lori Marino, and others on Tuesday, challenges the NMFS’ claim that it doesn’t have the legal authority to make SeaWorld turn over necropsy reports and veterinary records for the deceased orcas.

“Under the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these orcas belong to the people of the United States, not SeaWorld, and we have every right to access information about their health and welfare,” IMMP executive director Dave Phillips said in a statement.

SeaWorld has been arguing that it doesn’t need to release these reports because it is only required by law to reveal the cause of the animal’s death. The NMFS has so far agreed with SeaWorld on this matter, saying that amendments made to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994 dropped the requirement that zoos, aquariums, and theme parks submit marine mammal veterinary and necropsy reports to the federal agency. (This amendment was pushed by the captive animal industry.)

But in their suit, the animal rights advocates claim that the original permits given to SeaWorld to import Tilikum and Kasatka in 1992 and 1978, which clearly specified that the company had to turn in these records to NMFS, predate the 1994 amendments and therefore still apply legally. They are arguing that the original stipulation in Tilikum's case also applies to his progeny, including Kyara.  

IMMP and the other plaintiffs assert that the information contained in the records is vital not only because it would help activists and researchers understand the impact of captivity on orcas' welfare but because it would help inform the rescue and treatment of injured or ill marine mammals in the wild as well.

“The captive display industry is the first to claim that the marine mammals it holds are valuable to scientific research and conservation,” says Dr. Rose, AWI's marine mammal scientist. “Withholding necropsy reports and veterinary records from the public, including outside scientists, suggests otherwise.”

Earlier in 2016, when SeaWorld first announced that Tilikum was ill, at least two of the plaintiffs, PETA and AWI, privately and publicly tried to persuade the company to voluntarily release Tilikum’s necropsy report and veterinary records upon his death. Both groups, as well as the rest of the plaintiffs, say they are taking this legal action as a last resort.

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