SeaWorld Full of Excuses and Contradictions at PMA Extension Hearing

Does this look like 3 foot distance to you?

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SeaWorld claims that they have a current 3 foot protocol for kneeling with whales, however this photo was taken on April 16.  Clearly this is not a 3 foot distance.

SeaWorld and OSHA went at it again yesterday to decide if the Petition for Modification of Abatement Date (PMA) should be extended for a 6 month request.

OSHA insists that SeaWorld must prove that factors were beyond their control in order to extend the PMA.  They said the PMA was denied because the employees are not protected.  Bottom line!

SeaWorld claimed that it took time to consult with outside experts, which is the reason they needed more time.  They said that in the interim they set up a 3 ft rule, but trainers said it was too difficult to feed the whales at 3 ft so it was changed to 18 inches.  The 3 foot rule remained in place if the trainer was kneeling.

SeaWorld claims that they finalized these protocols in December and met with outside consultants in January.

So, who are these experts?

Terri Corbett – VP of Atlantis in the Bahamas (Atlantis does not have killer whales)

Bill Hurley – General Curator at Georgia Aquarium (Also no killer whales)

SeaWorld claims that it took so long to put the current protocols  into place because they listened to trainer and expert feedback to make ongoing modifications.  They feel that the interim measures safeguarded employees because the trainers “felt and remained safe”.  SeaWorld did not approach experts until September after the petition to Abate in July.

SeaWorld devised a list of 26 safety measures that became a “living document” which was in place at the time of the PMA.  They are not willing to make this document public which leads me to wonder if it is being followed.  The judge agreed to only a temporarily seal, but asked SeaWorld to draft a Limited Protective Order within 2 weeks.

Since then, SeaWorld has put a 6 page document into place where they claim they only added more specific and enforceable language.   According to SeaWorld, this document was NOT put into place because of OSHA but only to keep the trainers safe.  This sounds to me like a child saying they are sorry only after being caught doing something wrong.  If they were “sorry” or felt they were acting safely at the time of the citations, SeaWorld obviously would not have undergone such an extensive review.

OSHA questioned SeaWorld about trainer safety specifically when whales turn 360 degrees on the slideout in a break move.  SeaWorld stated that they have never seen a whale perform that behavior without being asked.  They state that it takes a lot of effort for whales to do that behavior, including the whale moving it’s tail fluke up and down.  So, if a whale is angry they wouldn’t put forth additional effort to react?

SeaWorld showed a video of a small part of One Ocean show from October while maintaining their “safe distance” which clearly shows a dance sequence on the slideout with a whale moving its fluke up and down.  SeaWorld stated that the video was only showing interim measures. The video conveniently did not show any touching or kneeling that is happening today.

I’ve gotta call another BS on this one.  This video was also taken on April 16.  Tail fluke moving up and down as, according to SeaWorld, would need to happen in order for a whale to do a 360 Break move.  Who is to say it wouldn’t happen?

SeaWorld maintains the stance that the current protocols of distance prevent the whales from grabbing or hitting the trainers allowing trainers time to move away if a whale moves.  They claim that a whale does not move as quickly out of the water.  (Perhaps they have never seen video of whales hunting on a beach.)  They say trainers don’t have to approach a whale if they don’t want to “unless conditions are optimal”.  Optimal is defined by the whale’s compliance during a line-up.

OSHA does not approve the abatement.  They expected that in the interim, while waiting for external sources, SeaWorld would apply the same separate protocols for Tilikum to all whales.  The current burden on trainers to make decisions is too great.   Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean something won’t.  With exposure to the whales, there is still potential for additional injury.

SeaWorld stated that it would not be possible to do a show if the procedures for Tilikum were in place for all whales.  Yes, and???  Sounds perfect to me!

Overall, there have been no distinct changes to protocols in the past 6 months, and current protocols are still not enough to keep trainers safe.  Trainers will never be guaranteed 100% safe until there is no contact.   Will we ever get to that point?

For now, SeaWorld was given two weeks to write the Limited Protective Order on the 26 protocols, then the post-hearing briefs will be due 30 days later.  Although Judge Welsch requested that the case be handled expeditiously, SeaWorld, of course, didn’t feel the need.  Go figure!

Stay tuned…

A Plea For Justice Against Marineland Ontario

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Philip Demers, a twelve year veteran trainer of Marineland Ontario, was a national celebrity for his unusually close relationship to Smooshi the Walrus in 2008, undoubtedly bringing tourists and money swarming to the park to see the spectacle of the two, dubbed “The Odd Couple”.  Smooshi had imprinted on Demers when she came to the park in 2004 from a Russian facility.  She was only 18 months old.

Four years later, after speaking out against the horrible water conditions at Marineland, he was hit with a $1.5 million civil lawsuit by the park.   The lawsuit accuses Demers of plotting to steal Smooshi and claims that he joined other activists and stormed the park during a live show on closing day.  Although there were over 800 people at the season-ending demonstration, Demers remained outside the park.  He also lives in a small second-story apartment with no possible way to house an 880lb. walrus.  The claims are absolutely absurd.

Demers left the park in May 2012 claiming that Marineland severely mistreated and neglected its animals.  He stated that the sea lions and harbor seals were blinded by the poor water quality, one actually losing the lense of his eye after crying out in pain.  Dolphins’ skin was flaking off in chunks and floating in the water.

Christine Santos, Demers’ girlfriend and Marineland whale trainer, was later fired followed by a $1.25 million defamation complaint last October.  She spoke out regarding Kiska, the lone killer whale at Marineland, bleeding from her tail since July.  Santos, who also had twelve years experience, has countersued for $750,000 claiming wrongful dismissal because the park didn’t give her a reasonable termination notice or termination pay.  She claims that Marineland supervisors asked her to sign a statement that she had never seen animal abuse at the park.  When she did not sign right away, she was fired on the spot.

The lawsuits by Marineland are thought to be an attempt to force their silence, known as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) complaint, but Demers and Santos are not going down without a fight.

John Holer, Marineland owner, has historically shown that animals are not his top priority.  In the early 90s, Marineland housed a young orca named “Junior” in a concrete facility called the “Barn”.  He had no companionship, no natural sunlight and very little attention.  After 4 years, Junior died.  The Barn continues to be used today, unnaturally housing several sea lions, seals and walruses.

In Santos’ counterclaim, she states that Holer uses animals in his park “as a means of generating profit…with little or no concern given for the actual welfare of the animals.”  She says he made it clear that “his primary goal was to run a successful business venture and…he was not concerned about the welfare of the animals”.  How can you run a successful business if your product (animals) are suffering?

In March, Animal Justice Canada called on Chief Firearms Office to investigate Holer for discharging a firearm in a residential neighborhood, while unlawfully KILLING two dogs.  It’s demoralizing to believe that a person responsible for so many vulnerable and intelligent animals at Marineland is a coldblooded animal killer.  That speaks volume for the character of the park owner.

In April, Marineland began construction on a fence surrounding the property.  Although it is claimed to be “for the safety of families visiting the park”, others feel that it is yet another way to silence activists and keep them from seeing the injustices done at the park, dubbing it the “Great Wall of Holer”.

It is unfathomable to be me how childish John Holer has been in the response to Demers, Santos and other whistleblowers.  The right thing to do is most often the easiest thing to do.  In this case, the money that will be spent by Holer on legal fees and the expense of the new fence would be better, and easier, served by improving the conditions at the park.

In the meantime, legal fees are mounting for Demers.  He has no way of seeing Smooshi or even checking on her well-being since the other trainers are not able to contact him.  He says that Smooshi is kept out of the public eye because trainers have a difficult time keeping her attention on stage, as historically she searches for him.  Health issues or lack of experienced staff also prevent her from being incorporated since other experienced trainers have also left the park since his departure.

Demers’ best hope for Smooshi and the future of Marineland is to await legislative changes and regulations regarding animal protection laws and animal care standards.  He is hopeful for a wild animal importation ban so that the current “stock” of animals cannot be replaced in the future.  Demers is also hoping that arrangements can be made for his continued presence in Smooshi’s life, as her wellbeing is being compromised in his absence.

He continues to press on in the right fight against current lawsuit, but he needs our help.  Funds from an initial campaign have evaporated quickly at $325/hr in legal fees.  Without the raising of necessary funds, the plight of Marineland animals will go silent.  A second campaign is currently underway through the end of the month.

Please consider donating to the cause.  There are several ways to do so…

At the donation link:  http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-marineland-whistleblowers?show_todos=true

-With a gift of C$25 a photo of Smooshi and Phil will be sent to you with a personalized message of your choice.

-With a gift of C$35 a silver-plated Dolphin Freedom pendant will be sent

You can also purchase an “Occupy Marineland” T-shirt at:  http://skreened.com/occupymarineland/om-orca with proceeds going to the cause

So what are you waiting for?  Donate today to make a stand for Smooshi, Kiska and all the animals at Marineland.  Let’s show them that these animals are priority!

For more information, check out the Occupy Marineland facebook page for links to more stories  http://www.facebook.com/occupymarineland

Former SeaWorld Educator Was Given Misinformation, Exclusion and Manipulation of Facts

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I’m thrilled to introduce you to Cody Angeles today.  Cody worked as an Educator/Narrator with additional assignments as a Camp/Sleep-over Counselor and Lifeguard at SeaWorld San Diego from March/April 2008 through January 2009.  As a surfer, he had a passion for educating others about marine animals and wanted to give back to the ocean and make a difference.  He, as with so many, was under the impression that the benefits of conservation and education that SeaWorld advertised were for the greater good of marine animals and our oceans.

Cody describes his training as daily lectures which provided information regarding various animal facts such as physical descriptions, height/weight, swimming speeds, eating habits, etc.  I wonder how these facts were obtained since swimming speeds in a tank are hardly comparable to those in the open ocean and eating habits vary depending on where pods live in the ocean.  He also says that Educators were required to include a section of the presentation regarding conservation and what role SeaWorld plays.  Can you imagine standing at the orca tank talking about conservation as orcas behind you were snatched from their families in the wild?

“Educators were given additional information to use in response to specific questions guests might ask regarding animal captivity, bent fins, animal treatment/nutrition, and animal well-being.  We were also taught to avoid certain key words while presenting over the microphone; anything with a negative connotation regarding SeaWorld or related to animal captivity was taboo”, Cody stated.  At the time, he never questioned any of the information given to him.  He viewed SeaWorld as a huge entity that cared for the environment, and he was told that the animals in captivity were living better than most people.  Cody felt that any park guest who questioned animal captivity were weird, “hippie” or misinformed, but he has now come to realize that he was the misinformed one.  He now regrets not validating those questions, brushing them off, because of what he was instructed to say.

He personally remembers that bent dorsal fin dilemma while he was employed, stating that seeing the orcas daily with their fins bent didn’t sit well with him.  Even then, Cody said that due to mis-information, exclusion, and the manipulation of facts, the educators set responses made sense.  His feelings towards captivity were neutral at the time, because he was under the impression that animals at SeaWorld were either rescued or could not be released in the wild due to illness.  In the meantime, SeaWorld was continually breeding orcas using those who had been captured from their families as young calves.

Cody states that his turning point regarding animal captivity was after watching “The Cove”.  After watching the movie, he began to question and research where SeaWorld receives their animals since they seem to be so fully stocked all the time with no shortages.  Now he is a proud supporter of Sea Shepherd and Earth Island Institute.

He states, “I personally believe that the biggest conflict to overcome would have to be the misinformation that the public has been given.  If the truth is made more readily available, then the public can make a more educated decision behind what they, as consumers, want to continue to support.”

Cody Angeles has a B.A. in Medical Anthropology from California State University, San Marcos.  He currently works as a surf instructor where he is able to educate and show people the animals in their true setting.  “Being able to see dolphins and seals out free has a much better impression than swimming in circles in a tank.”

Huge thanks again to Cody for speaking out.  To contact Cody, comment directly on this post.

Orca Dorsal Fin Controvery – Experts vs. SeaWorld

It’s obvious that something is wrong, or at least different, when you see an orca with a 6ft. dorsal fin bent all the way over.  It’s also pretty well known, or so I thought, that this happens mainly with whales in captivity.  However, SeaWorld is still trying to pass this on as a “Genetic” issue, and not a captivity issue.

The video below is an in-depth explanation, or list of excuses, for the dorsal fin collapse according to SeaWorld’s Education Department.

She goes into great lengths to explain that the dorsal fin does not have any bone or muscle, and the whales have no control over the bend.  She goes on to explain that it is genetic, and Tili’s offspring also have collapsed dorsal fins.  (They are all in captivity too)  Other explanations she gave were that Tilikum’s dorsal fin has a smaller base, and that is a reason for the slump.  She also says that it could be due to injury from play, stating that if it happens when the whales are young the dorsal fin continues to grow that way.

My personal favorite tidbit was that each whale’s fin is different, like people’s hair.  Some are curly, some are straight.  The misconception is that it happens because of where they live.  That’s a stretch!

In the background, you can see a bored Tilikum floating at the surface with a bent dorsal fin.

I prefer to believe the opinion of the experts.  In an interview by David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, and filmed by Jeff Ventre, former whale trainer, Dr. Astrid van Ginneken gives her take on dorsal fin collapse.  Dr. Ginneken has studied wild orcas as a part of Orca Survey since 1987 and has been co-principal investigator since 1994.

She says that less than 1% of wild orcas have dorsal fin collapse.  Her 5 reasons for captive fin collapse are:

1.  Pattern swimming – swimming mainly in one direction going in circles

2.  Resting at the surface – gravity takes over

3.  Warmer water temperatures

4.  Lower hydration

5.  Genetics with lack of exercise

In another report by Wende Alexandra Evans on Flaccid Fin Syndrome, or FFS, found here:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/119426027/Flaccid-Fin-Sydrome-by-Wende-Alexandra-Evans, out of 26 expert responses, 20 of them list captivity as the main reason for the flop.  Other theories given were the fitness of the whales, injury, water pressure and temperature (both due to the lack of diving deep in captivity and heat breaking down collagen)

Here are a couple pictures by Jeff Ventre of other examples and explanations:

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So, which description makes sense to you?

SeaWorld’s Blatant Disregard for Safety Continues

Almost a week after US District Judge Roy Dalton upheld the order for OSHA inspectors to interview SeaWorld trainers about federally mandated safety measures, SeaWorld trainers are closer to the whales than ever.

The mandates include a ban on trainers getting near the whales during shows without a protective barrier or maintaining a minimal distance.  Although minimal distance was not defined by OSHA, SeaWorld has come up with it’s own protocols.  They have also taken the liberty to change those protocols in the years following the initial OSHA citations.

Perhaps they have been modified again, but I will be very interested in hearing the results of the interviews as they explain the pictures below.

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These photos were taken on April 13, 2013 – 5 days after the ruling for trainer interviews to proceed.  Does this look like minimal distance to you?

With so many documented cases of incidents happening in these very situations, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

What’s Killing Manatees, Pelicans and now Dolphins in Florida?

Florida manatees are already at risk, but with 80 reported deaths in Brevard County since July, there is major concern.  There have also been 230 pelican deaths in the past several weeks and 23 dolphin deaths since January.

In an article in Florida Today, Kevin Baxter of Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reports twenty five of these manatees have died between March 10 and March 21 alone.  They are drowning with signs of shock and intestinal problems.  Digestive tracts are filled with macroalgae and show little sign of their usual seagrass diet.

Seagrass has almost vanished after a phytoplankton “superbloom” in 2011 followed by a brown algae bloom.  Excess algae grows when too many nutrients from fertilizer runoff or septic tanks enter the estuary.

Tests run in February by US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI for botulism in pelicans came back negative.

Biologists have not been able to identify any pathogen, algae toxin or other substance killing the manatees and pelicans.  At this point they are not even sure if the deaths are related.  The lab is culturing samples to test for bacteria and viruses, which should take a few weeks.

NOAA is examining whether the manatee and dolphin deaths are linked.  Blair Mase, NOAA’s southeast regional marine mammal stranding coordinator, stated, “Right now, we have a correlation in location, but we’re not seeing much else.  We’re monitoring the area very close”.   The dolphins are reported to by very skinny and were mainly adult females.  A few had shark bites, but it is not clear whether the bites came before or after death.  Tissue samples have been sent to veterinary pathologist for testing to look for heavy metals, contaminants and toxins.

Typically 600-700 dolphins live in Indian River Lagoon.