SeaWorld attracts fewer visitors after film about trainer’s death shows mental anguish of killer whales taken from the oceans

The acclaimed documentary 'Blackfish' focuses on the death of Dawn Brancheau who was killed by a bull orca involved in the deaths of two other people during his time in captivity

Los Angeles

The number of visitors to the SeaWorld marine park chain have dropped dramatically in the wake of a damaging documentary about its treatment of orcas.

Attendance at the group’s 11 US parks between January and March was down from 3.5 million in 2013 to 3.05 million this year – a total of 13 per cent. Between 2012 and 2013, annual attendance dropped by 4.1 per cent.

The Orlando-based firm, which has SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California, insists the figures are unrelated to the acclaimed documentary Blackfish, by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which claimed that keeping killer whales in captivity is detrimental to the animals and to the trainers who interact with them.

The film, released in January 2013, focused on the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer killed by Tilikum, a bull orca at SeaWorld’s Florida park, who has also been involved in the deaths of two other people during his time in captivity.

However, SeaWorld officials say the drop in attendance is due to a rise in ticket prices, and the fact that the Easter holiday fell in the first quarter of 2013, boosting visitor numbers for that period. Meanwhile, the Orlando park’s daily killer whale shows have gone dark since January due to renovation works on the park’s Shamu Stadium. The shows will resume later this month.

This week, critics of SeaWorld have also seized on court documents revealing that the park administers a psychoactive drug to its whales. In a legal battle between SeaWorld and its rival group Marineland, it emerged that orcas had been given Benzodiazepine, which contains valium, and is designed to dampen anxiety and moderate aggressive behaviour.

The animal rights group Peta said in a statement: “SeaWorld is in… hot water since Blackfish showed the mental anguish of orcas taken from the great oceans and trapped for eternity in SeaWorld’s swimming pools – and now court documents have revealed that SeaWorld also pumps these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks.”

Yet a SeaWorld spokesman defended the park’s activities, saying the use of Benzodiazepine, “for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.”

Next week, members of the California state assembly are scheduled to vote on a Bill calling for a ban on killer whale shows at the SeaWorld park in San Diego. The legislation was proposed by assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Democrat whose district includes Hollywood, and who was moved to act after seeing Blackfish. The Bill would prohibit both the captive breeding of orcas, and their use for “entertainment or performance purposes”.

When Mr Bloom announced the Bill last month, a SeaWorld spokesman decried it as the work of “extreme animal rights activists”. Making his case to California lawmakers on Wednesday, John Reilly, the president of SeaWorld’s San Diego park, described Blackfish as “a piece of propaganda and an attempt to exploit a tragic incident”.

Mr Reilly said his company pours funds into conservation efforts and marine biological research. The Bill’s fate will also be a matter of economics: San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer said recently that banning the orca shows would “hurt San Diego jobs”. During the summer, the city’s SeaWorld park employs about 4,500 people, and attracts about 4.4 million visitors per year. SeaWorld expects to post revenue of approximately $1.5bn (£904m).

Even if Blackfish fails to lead to a ban on killer whale shows, it has already had a quantifiable effect on other filmmakers. The finale of Pixar’s Finding Dory, a forthcoming sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, originally took place in a marine park similar to SeaWorld. But after seeing Blackfish, Pixar filmmakers reportedly altered the story so that the fish at the park are permitted to leave it.

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