SeaWorld Faces Third Lawsuit in as Many Weeks Over Orca Captivity

Lawsuit says the marine entertainment company misleads the public about the health and wellbeing of captive orcas

SeaWorld has been treading water for the past few years as it faces ongoing criticism about its captive orca program. The marine entertainment behemoth may soon find itself sinking: Today, a new lawsuit was filed against SeaWorld claiming that the company makes false and misleading statements about the health and welfare of its captive whales.

SeaWorldPhoto by SeeBeeW, on Flickr An orca performs in SeaWorld’s Shamu “Believe” show. The latest lawsuit says SeaWorld misleads the public about the many negative impacts of captivity on orcas.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of two plaintiffs, includes a long list of allegations regarding how SeaWorld represents captive orcas in its advertising. Many of the claims concern the physical heath of captive whales. Take orca lifespan, for example: SeaWorld claims that captive orcas live just as long as orcas in the wild. Plaintiffs counter that SeaWorld orcas die at an early age, years earlier than their wild counterparts. Similarly, SeaWorld has said that all male orcas experience dorsal fin collapse. Plaintiffs say that isn’t true, that dorsal fins collapse results from unhealthy captivity in small tanks, and only occurs in a very small percentage of wild orcas.

The false claims alleged in the lawsuit also extend to psychological health. SeaWorld depicts captive orcas as happy in its advertising materials. According to plaintiffs, this is far from the truth, and captive SeaWorld whales are often treated for stress-related ulcers and depression. Also, captive orcas frequently chew on the metal bars separating their pools, an indication of boredom. This chewing can cause broken teeth, leading to cavities and infection. According to plaintiffs, the conditions of captivity — including small tanks and the practice of placing orcas from different pods together — also cause increased aggression and bullying between whales. 

Another allegation is that SeaWorld lies about keeping marine families together. According to the plaintiffs, SeaWorld, although it states otherwise,  separates young orcas from their mothers; in the wild, calves typically stay with their mothers for most of their lives.

Plaintiffs say they would not have purchased tickets to SeaWorld San Diego if they had known that captivity was so detrimental to orcas, and argue that SeaWorld’s statements violate consumer protection laws.

“SeaWorld is luring people to buy tickets based on a pack of false and misleading statements, instead of revealing the cruel and unhealthy conditions that captive orcas have to endure,” David Phillips, executive director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), an Earth Island Institute Project that works to protect dolphins and whales, says in a press release. IMMP is assisting lawyers at Covington & Burling LLP with the case.

“We want SeaWorld to tell the truth to the public about orcas,” says Mark Palmer, associate director of IMMP. Adds Josh Floum, who is on the Board of Directors for Earth Island Institute: “We aren’t looking for a lot of money damages…. We really want to stop the bad practices and save the animals.”

To that end, the complaint asks that SeaWorld stop making false or misleading statements about the health of captive orcas, and that the company tell the truth about the many harmful impacts of captivity. It also requests that SeaWorld refund the tickets plaintiffs purchased to the San Diego marine park, which cost $84 each.

This is not the only lawsuit SeaWorld currently faces regarding treatment of orcas. In just the past month, two federal cases have been filed alleging that SeaWorld engages in deceptive marketing and that plaintiffs purchased tickets based on a false understanding of the treatment and wellbeing of SeaWorld orcas. Attorneys in both cases are seeking class-action status, which would allow additional SeaWorld visitors to join the cases and seek a refund of their ticket price.

SeaWorld visitors aren’t the only ones who are unhappy. Last year, a SeaWorld shareholder filed suit, alleging that the company lied about the cause of declining park attendance. According to the lawsuit, attendance dropped due to negative publicity from the 2013 film Blackfish, a documentary that accuses SeaWorld of mistreating its whales. SeaWorld blamed the decline on bad weather and the timing of Easter in 2014. SeaWorld has also come under fire from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for workplace violations related to the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. SeaWorld lost an appeal of these OHSA fines and citations in 2014. And former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove just released a book, Beneath the Surface, that puts the company in less than flattering light.

SeaWorld has responded to this mounting criticism with an open letter to critics, as well as a new advertising campaign that seeks to counter what David D’Alessandro, chairman and interim chief executive officer of SeaWorld, has called the “misinformation and even lies” spread about the company. In one campaign video, SeaWorld trainers and employees describe captive orcas as “healthy” and “thriving.” If the latest lawsuit is successful, SeaWorld will likely be forced to take ads like that one off the airways, and visitors might think twice about attending the infamous captive whale shows.

“If SeaWorld told the truth about the whales’ shortened and stressful lives in concrete tanks, and severe depression and boredom from sterile living conditions, no one would ever go there,” says Phillips. “Would people bring their children to SeaWorld if they knew the cruelty behind the orca whale circus show? We think not.”   

To take action, sign a petition calling on SeaWorld to stop making false claims about captive orcas. 

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