Whales and Dolphins Aren’t the Only Victims of Marine Park Captivity

A sea lion death at SeaWorld reveals that the parks’ smaller creatures face unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Marine park life is no place for pinnipeds, which include sea lions, seals and walruses.
Marine park life is no place for pinnipeds, which include sea lions, seals and walruses. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Over the past year, a great deal of media attention has been focused on living conditions for captive whales and dolphins who entertain tourists at parks like Marineland Ontario, Miami Seaquarium, Spain’s Loro Parque and of course, SeaWorld. Far less attention, however, has been paid to another class of captive marine mammals: the pinnipeds— fin-footed animals like seals, sea lions and walruses. But in light of a series of unfortunate events, that is starting to change.

Last week the Canadian media reported that the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has ordered nearby Marineland to improve its water quality and immediately address serious animal health problems, including ophthalmology issues among seals, walruses and sea lions, and to provide “increased veterinary care for a particular pinniped.”

Now news has surfaced in Texas that SeaWorld San Antonio violated U..S animal welfare regulations by allowing a sea lion to become trapped and killed in an uncovered drain. A staff member found a female juvenile named Singer drowned in a holding pool on Oct. 26, 2010. The incident was only recently reported by newspapers in San Antonio and Houston.

Captive marine mammals fall under the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the U..S Department of Agriculture. Last January, USDA officials closed their investigation into the sea lion drowning incident and issued an official warning to SeaWorld.

Investigators had visited the San Antonio amusement park on July 22, 2009 and May 4, 2010 before concluding that employees failed to properly fasten the drain cover “to minimize the potential risk of animal entrapment resulting in the death of a sea lion.”

SeaWorld said it repaired the drain immediately, and completed inspections of all other drain covers where sea lions are kept.

“Our staff was saddened by the loss of this sea lion, which was a one-time unprecedented accidental death, for which we took immediate action to ensure that such an occurrence would not be repeated," SeaWorld said in a statement on Friday, January 25. “Any time we are cited by USDA, we initiate quick corrective action, as we always strive to maintain high standards and make improvements whenever necessary. We remain dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of our animals.”

The USDA issued four other violations unrelated to the sea lion's death, including the presence of paint chips in animals' drinking water and a concrete chunk that had fallen off in the area of the killer whale pool. Several whales and dolphins have injured themselves at SeaWorld facilities, including the horrible gash in the lower jaw of the orca Nakai in San Diego, and a San Antonio dolphin with a similar, though smaller wound, reported last month by PETA, which charged that any unsafe edges or protrusions in the dolphin tank would place SeaWorld “in direct violation” of the Animal Welfare Act.

Now some pinnipeds are getting their due. When I researched my book Death at SeaWorld, Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, I was truly shocked by the descriptions provided by former trainers of the unsanitary and frankly depressing conditions that seals, sea lions and walruses must endure in the name of “family” entertainment and quarterly earnings.

John Jett, a PhD biologist and researcher at Stetson University, previously worked at Sea World Orlando. “It’s gross and depressing," he says of the park's "Sea Lion and Otter Stadium." "You see sea lions, walruses and otters eating, sleeping and pacing in their own excrement and urine. Water in the small pools was black with feces, and there were feces smeared on the animals, walls and gates.”

Jett grew to hate working the pinniped show. He had been transferred from Shamu Stadium to Sea Lion and Otter Stadium. As I wrote in Death at SeaWorld:

Working with these smaller animals sometimes seemed more dangerous that working with the killer whales. John was bitten by an otter— a painful laceration on his leg— and often became uneasy around the other animals. Sea lions are smart, cunning and surprisingly mobile on land. If they get mad, they can dash across the stage and bite somebody. Walruses are more dangerous— almost as quick on land as sea lions, they can easily push people against a wall and crush them with their heft and power. John did not especially like working with pinnipeds, but at least it was less painful for him than going to Shamu Stadium every day had been.

Jeffrey Ventre, who appeared in the book and was a coworker of Jett's, told me that some of the holding pools backstage, where three or four sea lions would be crammed together in one tank, were “literally the size of a Jacuzzi.” The pools had “input and output drains," he said, "and I could easily see a curious sea lion getting its head stuck in a hole, or tube or between bars.”

Bridgette Pirtle, a trainer in San Antonio who quit her job and began speaking out against conditions for animals at SeaWorld, told me that Jett’s recollections of Orlando were “spot on” and confirms that conditions at the San Antonio stadium “are just atrocious."

It’s sad that it took the death of a young sea lion to bring more attention to the lives of pinnipeds held in captivity. Hopefully, Singer will not have perished in vain.

“While we have concentrated our efforts on the orcas,” Jett told me, “the critters at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium have it worse, in many ways.” 

What would you like to see the USDA do to hold marine park officials responsible for the animals they mistreat? Let us know in the Comments.

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