SAN DIEGO (CN) — Almost 40 nearly naked protestors painted black and white to resemble orcas descended on San Diego’s historic Balboa Park Thursday to protest what the group calls the premature deaths of SeaWorld’s killer whales.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, organized for 38 animal rights activists to be painted like orcas to represent the 38 killer whales the group says have died from captivity complications while in the care of SeaWorld’s three amusement parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando.
Following SeaWorld’s announcement in March it would abandon its orca-breeding program, signaling the last generation of captive orcas at the company’s parks, PETA and other animal rights activists doubled down on calling for the parks to retire orcas and other marine mammals currently in their care to seaside sanctuaries to live out the remainder of their lives.
Marine scientists joined PETA in San Diego in April to ask SeaWorld to fund sea sanctuaries, after the park announced it was scrapping its $100 million Blue World tank expansion project at its San Diego park. The activists called sea sanctuaries the best option for killer whales that have lived in captivity, as the whales would be moved back to their natural habitat and could communicate with killer whale pods, hunt, dive and engage in other natural behaviors.
At Thursday’s silent protest, a group of 15 activists and children dressed in all black held up signs that read “Boycott SeaWorld” and “SeaWorld Hurts Orcas” for about 30 minutes while waiting for the “painted orca” activists to arrive.
The 38 activists, who were mostly women, were covered in black and white body paint and wore nothing but underwear. Forming a triangle, the PETA activists held up signs stating the name and age of orcas they claim died prematurely and from unnatural causes while under SeaWorld’s watch. Notably, SeaWorld’s most famous whale Shamu, who died at age 10, was represented amongst 37 others. The activists read aloud the names of every orca that has died at a SeaWorld park, then all at once fell to the ground to symbolize the death of the animals.
The activists spent 30 minutes on the ground.
Misty Suposs, a San Diegan and former employee of SeaWorld, watched the protest. She acknowledged she doesn’t really like PETA and said she thinks SeaWorld goes to great lengths to take care of orcas, possibly to the extent of spending more on orca care than on its own employees.
Suposs worked at the San Diego park for five years in operations and accounting and said while she’s happy the park is returning to a focus on education rather than entertainment, she doesn’t “think it will ever quite be the same again.”
She said she has many friends who’ve lost their jobs at SeaWorld the past couple years and she believes SeaWorld is being singled out among zoos and animal parks because it is a for-profit company.
PETA campaign specialist Matt Bruce said the organization wanted to “reach as many people as possible” and hold the “memorial” in a beautiful location like Balboa Park rather than at SeaWorld. He said some of SeaWorld’s orcas have died from mosquito-related diseases, and some have sustained skull fractures and died from ramming their heads against their tanks due to boredom.
From 1986 to 2005, 25 orcas died at SeaWorld — at least one a year, Bruce said. The campaign specialist said PETA and animal-rights activists are putting “constant pressure” on SeaWorld to do the “right thing” and retire orcas to sea sanctuaries.
SeaWorld San Diego released this statement regarding PETA’s “die-in” protest:
“SeaWorld made historic decisions to make this the last generation of orca whales, end theatrical performances with the whales and partner with the Humane Society of the United States. Society has changed and we’ve changed with it. Unfortunately, it appears PETA hasn’t. Placing any of the orcas we care for into sea cages would expose them to disease, pollution and other manmade and natural disasters.
“PETA’s ideas are simplistic and don’t take into account that the majority of the whales at SeaWorld were born in human care or have spent almost their entire lives at our facilities. We’re focusing our resources on real issues that help far more animals, like working with the Humane Society to fight commercial whaling, shark finning, and continuing our efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured and sick animals to the wild.”
SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2015 found no difference in the life expectancy of killer whales born at SeaWorld and a well-studied population of wild orcas.
The study found the average life expectancy for SeaWorld’s killer whales is 41.6 years, while that of two groups of whales studied in the Pacific Northwest was 29 and 42.3 years respectively.
The oldest orca at SeaWorld San Diego is 52-year-old Corky. The park is also home to two 40-year-old killer whales, according to Koontz.
SeaWorld San Diego orca Nakai turned 15 on Thursday, Koontz said.
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