Nyar, a killer whale born in 1993 at SeaWorld Orlando, was rejected and bullied so badly by her mother that she had to be separated in her own pool — and her condition went downhill from there.
The “super-friendly” young orca became weaker while taking medication several times a day for a fungal infection, said John Jett, who worked with her while he was a trainer at the park. She eventually had to be force-fed with a bottle and a stomach tube when she became too feeble to lift her head on the side of the tank for meals, he said. Finally, Nyar died at age two from the infection in her brain.
“It was a really pitiful case,” said Jett, who left his job as a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando shortly after Nyar died in April 1996. “When she died, I had had enough.”
Nyar’s illness is common at SeaWorld’s parks in San Antonio, Orlando and San Diego, where almost 150 sea lions, beluga whales, orcas and other dolphins have died from infections since 1986, out of a total of 816 listed under the parks’ care, according to information reported by SeaWorld to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and analyzed by the San Antonio Express-News.
In San Antonio, five dolphins, whales and sea lions have died from infections since May 2014 and another three from inflammatory diseases, including Stella the beluga whale before Thanksgiving from inflammation of the brain and Unna the killer whale around Christmas from a bacterial infection. Dart, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, died in February from a fungal infection in her brain.
Whale, dolphin and sea lion deaths at SeaWorld
The database below shows the causes of death for SeaWorld’s marine mammals, as reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Click here to search the entire database in a full screen. Compiled by Richard Webner and created by Rachael Gleason | San Antonio Express-News
“Infectious disease is the number one cause of death in animals both in the wild as well as animals that live in managed care,” said Chris Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services. “The number of animals that come in and die of infectious disease in our rescue and rehabilitation programs greatly outnumbers the number of animals that die within our parks.”
Infections have caused more than 35 percent of marine mammal deaths at the parks, while another 11 percent were due to disorders often caused by infections, such as inflammation of the brain and intestines, records show.
They have been especially deadly for orcas and other dolphins, contributing to 60 percent of the deaths of orcas at the three parks and 55 percent for bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins, according to the data, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The rates are lower for harbor seals, with 37 percent; beluga whales, with 30 percent; and California sea lions, with 25 percent, the data show.
No one is certain whether animals at SeaWorld parks die from infections more often than they would in nature, because experts say it’s difficult to collect data on wild marine mammals. There have been instances in the wild in which bacterial and viral infections killed masses of dolphins and whales. A viral outbreak killed hundreds of bottlenose dolphins that washed up along the East Coast between 2013 and 2015.
“I’m not sure that anyone” can say for sure whether infections are more common in captivity or the wild, said Kevin Willis, vice president for biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo, who served as president of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums in 2014.
Dr. Martin Haulena, the staff veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, said SeaWorld’s rates of infection deaths “seem reasonable,” adding, “I don’t think there’s any evidence at all” that infections are more common in captivity.
SeaWorld executives say captivity isn’t harmful to their animals. Orcas and other dolphins have high infection rates because their respiratory systems are vulnerable to diseases, they say. Unlike other species, the dolphins don’t have noses to filter harmful particles.
But many veterinarians, biologists and activists say captivity makes marine mammals more vulnerable to infection by creating a stressful environment that impairs their immune systems. Infection rates are higher for orcas and other dolphins, SeaWorld’s critics say, because the animals are large and intelligent and thus ill-suited to captivity. The Merck Veterinary Manual, a reference used by veterinarians, says captive marine mammals “seem particularly prone to fungal infections.”
The stress of captivity, along with a lack of stimulation, leads orcas at SeaWorld to break open their teeth on concrete and metal in their tanks, the critics say — a habit that is documented in government reports — opening a door for bacteria. Former SeaWorld trainers say they drilled holes into orcas’ fractured teeth and flushed them out daily with disinfectant.
For decades, animal rights groups have criticized SeaWorld’s practice of keeping orcas and other marine mammals in captivity. After an orca named Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, the public increasingly began to feel the same. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which examined Brancheau’s death and questioned whether orcas become aggressive when held in captivity, triggered a decline in the company’s attendance and profits.
Trained orca shows have fallen out of favor with the nation’s 83 million millennials, the biggest adult spending group since the baby-boomers, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said in an interview. Manby, a former automotive executive, was hired after former CEO Jim Atchison resigned amid bad publicity following the release of “Blackfish.”
Attendance dropped at SeaWorld’s parks in San Antonio and San Diego for at least part of last year. The company’s net income dropped to a loss of $84 million in the first quarter of this year from a loss of $40.4 million during that time in 2013, and its stock price declined by half over that time. Then the California Coastal Commission moved last fall to ban orca breeding at the company’s San Diego park.
“Society was changing, and we felt we needed to change with it,” Manby said. “Orcas have inspired a lot of people, (but) it also was clear that it was becoming a really big reason — in fact, the number one reason — for a lot of people not to visit SeaWorld, because of the perception of these orcas under human care.”
While animal rights groups cheered SeaWorld’s changes, the parks will still likely keep orcas in captivity for decades. The company still has 29 orcas — including a handful at the Loro Parque zoo in Spain — ranging from toddler age to elder ones like 35-year-old Tilikum. One of its orcas at the San Antonio park is pregnant. And the company is investing in its displays for other animals; SeaWorld San Antonio is opening a dolphin habitat this month called Discovery Point, where visitors will be able to pay extra to swim with the dolphins and take photographs.
SeaWorld points out on its website that it has rescued almost 500 dolphins and whales, more than 7,000 sea lions and seals and thousands of other animals during its 50-year history. While taking care of captive dolphins and whales, the company has collected precious knowledge that is used in rescue efforts, executives say.
“If we don’t exist, there’s no place for stranded dolphins to go,” Manby said. “It’s easy for someone to say, ‘You shouldn’t breed ever.’ Well, you’ve got to have the facilities and the knowledge. And we use that knowledge so we can rescue them.”
Effect on immune systems
The infection deaths at SeaWorld aren’t necessarily caused by SeaWorld’s animal care, some critics say. Naomi Rose, a biologist who studies marine mammals for the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, called the company “state of the art” and “the best there is.”
Still, no amount of veterinary attention and medical technology is enough to overcome the damage wrought by captivity on the immune system, Rose and other critics say.
“I don’t think SeaWorld is cutting any corners,” she said. “But they’re working with what they can. They have only so many tools, and it’s not enough.”
SeaWorld San Antonio has two full-time veterinarians and another on contract, executives said. It gives its orcas a physical every month — every four months for beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins, every six months for bottlenose dolphins — including blood tests looking for signs of infection. It tests water in the animals’ tanks for bacteria once a week.
“They’re world-class,” said Willis, who said veterinarians at the Minnesota Zoo contact SeaWorld for advice on dolphin care.
It’s difficult to compare rates of infection at SeaWorld with other marine mammal parks because some parks use less detail when reporting an animal’s death. Parks such as Gulf World Marine Park in Florida, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Sea Life Park Hawaii have often written “unknown” and other vague terms as causes of death.
Comparing infection rates for orcas is especially challenging since SeaWorld is the only company that has held a large number of them. SeaWorld’s death rate attributable to infections for bottlenose dolphins — 55 percent — is below the 67 percent rate for Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida and 63 percent for Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Mississippi. But it’s above the 48 percent rate at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
A major health problem faced by SeaWorld’s orcas is fractured teeth caused by chewing on the concrete walls and metal gates in their tanks. When the teeth break open, trainers drill holes into them to remove crevices where debris could get stuck.
Some orcas in the wild wear down their teeth, especially groups that feed on sharks that are tough to chew on. But SeaWorld’s critics say the level of breakage in the company’s orcas is unusual and caused by the animals’ stress and boredom.
“That, in my opinion, is the number one health concern for killer whales in captivity,” said Jeffrey Ventre, a former trainer who worked at SeaWorld Orlando from 1987 to 1995. The orcas’ dental problem “answers the questions of why they’re chronically medicated a lot with antibiotics, and why they get infections.”
SeaWorld says that fractured teeth among captive and wild orcas is a natural result of the orcas “exploring and manipulating things in their environment.”
“The important difference is, of course, that we have a team of veterinarians there to intervene,” the company says on its website. “If that were to develop into a problem and on the rare occasion that it does, we can step in and provide the comprehensive care that’s needed.”
Last summer, inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that inspects parks with marine mammals — researched a complaint by PETA about the fractured teeth, according to documents obtained by the Express-News.
An inspector at APHIS, Dr. R. Brandes, wrote in a report that based on his visits to SeaWorld Orlando, “orcas do have long-standing dental issues and wearing of their teeth. These problems have been observed by me for many years.”
After consulting with a human dentist and a veterinary dentist, SeaWorld is now trying “to get away from cutting the teeth and drilling into the pulp cavity,” Brandes writes in the report. The company now lets the orcas’ body tissue grow over the broken teeth, he writes.
“SeaWorld is actively increasing the amount of enrichment and trainer interactions in an effort to prevent dental issues,” Brandes writes in the report.
Manby, the CEO of SeaWorld, said the company is looking at ways of enriching the orca tanks, including by adding waves and a whirlpool. The improvements aren’t a response to the issue of fractured teeth, he said.
“We’re always looking to improve,” he said. “We’re always looking to get better.”
The use of antibiotics
Critics of SeaWorld have accused the company of overmedicating, using antibiotics so frequently that its animals are at risk of developing resistant strains of pathogens. SeaWorld pushes back against the accusation, saying it offers top-notch veterinary care unavailable to wild animals.
“We do not overmedicate our dolphins,” said Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services. “Our primary charge is the judicious use of medications to treat illnesses after we have gone through an entire diagnostic cascade… We take that oath very seriously.”
Former SeaWorld trainers say they regularly gave antibiotics to orcas and other marine mammals, stuffing the pills into the fish they ate. Some of the animals took them often, they said, including Nyar and Unna, who “never came off fungal medication,” according to John Hargrove, who was a trainer at SeaWorld’s parks in San Antonio and San Diego for a total of 12 years between 1993 and 2012.
“The one thing that immediately struck me as a trainer when I first started there was the bags of medications that all these animals were getting every day,” Jett said. “I didn’t really think a lot about it, although the longer I was there the more it was really concerning to me, because it just seemed like this was a never-ending treadmill of medications.”
Trainers who worked with Tilikum say he’s been on antibiotics for much of his life. Tilikum was taking an antibiotic and an antifungal medication when he killed Brancheau, according to investigative documents from APHIS. While Tilikum is currently on antibiotics, he has not been on them for a large portion of his time under SeaWorld’s care, the company said in an email.
“I cannot express to you enough how doped up on antibiotics these whales are,” said Hargrove, the former trainer at SeaWorld San Antonio and San Diego. “We had some whales that never came off of antibiotics. We had other whales that, they would be treated with antibiotics, they would come off, and within a month they were back on antibiotics.”
Another former trainer, Carol Ray, said in an email that “we stuffed a LOT of animals’ fish with meds and very often these were antibiotics and/or Tagamet,” a medication used to treat stomach ulcers. Ray worked with orcas at SeaWorld Orlando from 1987 to 1990.
The issue of stress
Another point of disagreement between SeaWorld and its critics is whether captive marine mammals experience an unusual amount of stress that impairs their immune system.
“The opposite is true, based on the literature,” Dold said. He pointed to a 1996 study in Marine Mammal Science, a research journal, showing that semi-domesticated bottlenose dolphins held in a sea pen had lower levels of stress hormones than wild dolphins that had been captured with nets shortly before having their blood tested.
The park’s critics, including biologists, veterinarians and other activists, say the animals feel stress and boredom because of a lack of stimulation and restriction of movement — especially for orcas, who relish a hunt and can travel up to 100 miles a day in the wild, they say.
“These animals have spent millions of years evolving to live in a complex environment and travel great distances and dive to great depths and have complex social lives and to have culture,” said Ingrid Visser, a biologist who studies wild orcas. “When you put them into capitivity … you remove all the stimuli in their lives, and it’s tantamount, basically, to torture.”
On top of that, the mammals are exposed to different temperatures and levels of light and noise than they would experience in the wild, critics say. Orcas, Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales at SeaWorld San Antonio perform under rainbows of stage lights while thumping music plays, including popular songs like “Walking on Sunshine.”
Dolphins and orcas — loquacious animals that form intricate social groups in the wild — also feel stress because they are confined with other members of their species they aren’t related to, the critics say.
“When you confine animals — many of them incompatible, many of them, in the case of orcas, not of the same sub-species — into the same tank where they can’t escape from each other, there’s going to be aggression,” said Dr. Heather Rally, a veterinarian who works for PETA.
The forced social contact leads to bullying, the critics say, including the animals’ practice of scraping their teeth on each others’ sides to create cuts referred to as “rake marks.” APHIS inspectors have noted that SeaWorld dolphins have rake marks but described them as “not clinically significant.”
For its part, SeaWorld says its marine mammals aren’t stressed out because of their social situations. The rake marks are a natural product of horseplay and are also common in the wild, the company says.
“The suggestion has been brought forward that this is somehow abnormal, that this is an indicator of a problem. The truth of the matter is that all toothed whales and dolphins rake each other,” Dold says in a video on SeaWorld’s website. “This is how these animals interact with each other.”
Regulations and record-keeping
On a Wednesday morning in fall 2010, a caretaker at SeaWorld San Antonio entered one of the park’s holding areas to find Singer, a five-month-old California sea lion, with the front two-thirds of her body stuck in a drain on the floor.
The park’s senior veterinarian rushed over to try to save Singer, but she wasn’t breathing, she didn’t have a heartbeat and she didn’t respond to CPR, documents from APHIS show. A necropsy determined Singer died from accidental drowning.
SeaWorld San Antonio reported three deaths of California sea lions to NOAA in 2010, including an 18-year-old from a bacterial infection in June and a four-year-old from hepatitis, or an inflammation of the liver, in December. Singer’s death isn’t in NOAA’s database of marine mammals, even though parks are required to inform the federal government of a marine mammal death.
NOAA’s database appears to contain other omissions. It doesn’t have records of a three-week-old beluga that died in July in San Antonio after being born prematurely. For dozens of deaths in the NOAA report — at SeaWorld parks and other facilities — the cause of death is described with vague terms such as “unknown,” “multifactorial,” “multiple gross findings” and “pending,” or the field is blank. The vague descriptions have become less common in the last 20 years.
When asked about the omissions, SeaWorld said it “follows all federal regulations and reports all deaths as required by law.”
The number of infection-related deaths at SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks is likely higher than records indicate, because many of the reported causes of death make it impossible to tell if an infection was involved.
When a captive marine mammal dies from euthanasia, for example, SeaWorld and other facilities aren’t required to explain why the animal was put down — they check a box indicating euthanasia. About three-dozen marine mammals have died from euthanasia at SeaWorld parks since the late 1970s, with no more detail given.
Reducing NOAA’s role
The public had greater access to the death records until 1994, when Congress overhauled the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was passed in 1972 to regulate marine mammals in captivity. Until 1994, parks had to submit necropsies for whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions to NOAA, and the necropsies were subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. NOAA had the option of investigating the deaths.
Much of NOAA’s oversight passed in 1994 to APHIS, which conducts unannounced inspections of SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks about once a year, stopping by more often if it has found violations or received complaints. Parks are required to keep necropsies and other veterinary records, and APHIS inspectors look at them when they visit, but the records are not open to the public.
Marine mammals aren’t monitored at the state level in Texas, California and Florida, where SeaWorld has parks, although the California state legislature is considering a law that would strengthen regulations.
“The regulation is terrible,” said Rose, the biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “What we need is for the states to pass stronger regulations.”
APHIS has inspected SeaWorld San Antonio 18 times in the last 10 years, including five in response to complaints made by PETA. Two of the inspections were conducted outside the park: one of them, in October 2014, at the Travel & Adventure Show at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas, and the other in February at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
A spokesperson for APHIS said an inspector “looks at all available paperwork during inspections” but was unable to provide more information about the inspections conducted outside the park.
Most of SeaWorld San Antonio’s inspections turned up no violations or minor ones like chipping paint.
In 2014, an inspector visited after receiving a complaint about a dolphin biting a girl on the hand in a public feeding area. She ordered the park to increase the number of employees in the area “to assure the safety of the animals and the public.”
SeaWorld’s attorneys appealed the report, saying APHIS only has jurisdiction over the safety of animals, not of the public. They also said the agency only has the power to require employees to be present when the public interacts with animals, not to mandate how many employees are there.
In the end, the report was edited to show SeaWorld in compliance.
The future for marine mammals
There’s one thing SeaWorld and its critics agree on: releasing the orcas into the wild isn’t an option. After spending so much time in captivity, the animals don’t have the skills necessary to hunt and socialize in the wild, they say.
“These are not normal whales and dolphins,” Rose, a biologist, said. “They don’t know where the hunting grounds are, they don’t know the migratory paths. They don’t even know how to behave with other whales normally. The etiquette of social behavior in whale pods would be completely foreign to them.”
Manby, SeaWorld’s CEO, compared it to “putting your dog in the middle of a forest.”
SeaWorld’s critics applauded its decision to end its orca breeding program and phase out its theatrical orca shows, but they aren’t satisfied with the company’s plan to keep the animals in captivity for the rest of their lives.
APHIS has proposed new regulations that would increase the amount of time that dolphins and other marine mammals are allowed to interact with the public from two to three hours. The changes are “based on recommendations from licensees with long-running in-water interactive programs,” the agency says on its website. Manby said SeaWorld hasn’t pressed for the change.
Many of the critics urge SeaWorld to release its beluga whales, orcas and other dolphins into “sea pens,” or large netted enclosures close to the shore where the animals could swim in natural waters while receiving food and veterinary care from humans. The sea pens would be a “less boring” environment than the animals’ current tanks, Rose said.
For his part, Manby said the sea pens would be bad for the animals because they would expose them to pollution, bad weather and pathogens that they weren’t accustomed to in captivity.
“We don’t see any better option” than keeping the orcas at SeaWorld parks, Manby said. “We think it’s the best place for them.”