5 min read

Blackfished Part 1: Does SeaWorld Starve Animals Into Performing?

<p> Photo Credit snewton.8066 on Flickr. Used with permission. </p>

Welcome to Blackfished, a series which will take a look at the claims made in the popular anti-captivity film Blackfish and by its supporters.

Today we'll investigate the claim that SeaWorld's orcas are starved in order to force them to perform.

"Food deprivation was a tool often used when I was a trainer. The concept is straightforward: Reduce the number of calories a whale gets over a period of time and that animal becomes increasingly food motivated. Animals are generally more likely to cooperate with trainers when they are hungry. Food deprivation is a normal component of the training environment, at least while I was a trainer." - John Jett, former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member The quote above came from an article on Voice of the Orcas, a blog run by four (anti-captivity) former SeaWorld trainers.

Another trainer at the same blog, John Hargrove, said trainers were not supposed to deprive animals of food, and that a trainer who starved animals into performing "was a poor trainer and [was] using techniques not taught [t]o us in the SeaWorld system".

Since reports from former trainers directly contradict each other, it makes more sense to look at other sources of information.

First, SeaWorld's orcas do not perform just to get fed. The video below, taken in July 2015 by a visitor to SeaWorld San Diego, shows an entire "Dine With Shamu" show where the orcas are never given a single fish (primary reinforcement), but are instead rewarded with ice, toys, rubdowns, and more (secondary reinforcement).

(The whales in the video above are Kasatka [38 years old], Orkid [26 years old], Nakai [14 years old], Kalia [10 years old], Makani [2 years old], and Amaya [<1 year old])

SeaWorld has described their own training methods in their Animal Training Infobook. Basically, if an animal at SeaWorld does not perform the correct behavior, they will be give a chance to try it again, but will not be rewarded for incorrect behavior. SeaWorld's animals receive a set amount of food each day (a "base"), which does not change based on their behavior.If an orca does not perform the desired behaviors, the food which they might not get during a showis always given to them by the end of the day.

It looks as though the claims that SeaWorld "forces" their animals to perform through food deprivation are false.

Stay tuned for Blackfished Part Two, where we'll take a look at mother and calf separations.