Blackfish is Propaganda: If You Care About Animals, You Should Support SeaWorld

by McGuire | June 25, 2015 12:10 am

(Editor’s Note: After talking to the people at SeaWorld[1] and expressing interest in finding out more about how the animals are treated, they offered to bring a writer from Right Wing News to the park for a look behind-the-scenes. Last week, Katie McGuire flew out. What follows is her report on the conditions at SeaWorld. — John Hawkins)

Just a few days ago, I was able to go to beautiful SeaWorld[1] San Diego. I was treated to a behind-the scenes look at the park and I learned all about the animals, the medical facilities, the rescue team, and about the training of animals. The reason for my visit? SeaWorld is interested in debunking the propaganda-filled film “Blackfish” and they want writers to see what REALLY goes on there.

From the moment I arrived on property, I was amazed. Everyone there was warm and welcoming. It felt almost as if I had accidentally walked into a large family gathering instead of a workplace. I soon found that this was not limited to the humans that worked at SeaWorld – the animals are also a family member as well. My heart was moved when I saw the bond that the trainers had with ‘their’ animals.

My first stop was at the medical building for the animals. Working in the human medical field for many years did not prepare me for the state of the art technology that was available for these creatures. Dr. Hendrik Nollens explained to me that everything in his office is on wheels, so that whenever possible, they bring the equipment to the animals to make everything as easy a possible for his patients. I noticed a roll-up door in the exam room, and he quipped “We say we are the only veterinary hospital in San Diego with a garage door- but we have the largest patients!” Next, we went to the surgical area of the hospital. I was very impressed with the open style way that they were designed – windows everywhere, with labels on the outside so that tours passing through knew what area they were looking in on. Dr. Nollens explained to me that they had a very special feature in his OR – inside the typical lights that you would find in any ordinary OR, there was a camera hooked to the light! This wasn’t for his benefit – this is so when his back was to a tour, they could look at a nearby monitor and see EXACTLY what he was doing. This was the ultimate in transparency. The next place we went was the lab, where blood, feces, urine and semen are regularly tested on each and every animal in SeaWorld’s care. Used to the human hospital standard of days and days of waiting for lab results, I was shocked to learn that EVERY SINGLE SAMPLE was a STAT. For you non-medical folks, that means right away. They will have results from the beginning of a routine fluid sampling before they have finished. I also learned that the animals receive better healthcare than most humans. All the healthcare is preventative, they keep a baseline of each animal’s blood counts, urine quality, daily skin checks, and the best thing? The animals are trained to participate in their own healthcare with certain husbandry behaviors. I would probably live to 150 if I had the level of care these animals receive from the amazing SeaWorld team.


This is the famous 'roll- up' door in the exam area. Notice everything is on wheels for moving to the animals.[2]

This is the famous ‘roll- up’ door in the exam area. Notice everything is on wheels for moving to the animals.

This is one of the lights for surgery that has a camera installed to be broadcast on monitors. No secrets here.[3]

This is one of the lights for surgery that has a camera installed to be broadcast on monitors. No secrets here.

This is the Operating Room at SeaWorld, San Diego. [4]

This is the Operating Room at SeaWorld, San Diego.

Next up was the Rescue Team. This was a truly amazing experience. I met with Kevin Robinson, and he was a font of information. In case you didn’t know, SeaWorld is the major responder to marine animal distress calls in southern California. They have 2 trucks, one for north, and one for south, that basically are able to stay on the road all day as needed to rescue whoever needs rescuing. The facility is as good as any human hospital would be, and extremely organized. I saw all stages of recovery for seals, sea lions, and elephant seals. The staff here is very careful not to bond with these animals while providing excellent care. This is important because animals are easily imprinted, and the staff knows these animals will be released into the wild. The animals would not be safe if they thought all humans were as kind as the ones at SeaWorld. The staff utilizes a board with each animal’s number on it, amount of food, any medications, and special instructions. This at-a-glance board really helps streamline the efforts. Rescuing over 1200 animals so far this year, double the amount for last year’s total rescues, I would say that this program is wildly successful – and the animals released prove it.


Some of the Rescue Animals. The orange tag on him gives him a health tracking history for field  tracking[5]

Some of the Rescue Animals. The orange tag on him gives him a health history and age for field tracking

Deciding who is in charge is tough, but these two have it figured out[6]

Deciding who is in charge is tough, but these two have it figured out

It's easy to recover when you can do it in a  great facility like SeaWorld [7]

It’s easy to recover when you can do it in a great facility like SeaWorld

Next, we went on to the park. Seeing the smiling families and children oooh’ing and ahhh’ing over all kinds of different things made my heart smile. We went to the Sea Lion exhibit, where I had the privilege of meeting Diamond, a California sea lion. Sea Lions are a naturally social creature, but Diamond has something special figured out. She makes a foghorn type noise, which she is certain will get her a fish snack. She was right, as I threw several fish to her. She was a great catch! Diamond likes to make noise, and she was beyond adorable. Getting to feed one of my favorite animals was a dream come true.


Sea Lions enjoy the area they live in and enchant guests[8]

Sea Lions enjoy the area they live in and enchant guests

A Sea Lion is swimming (and probably trying to con me out of more fish)[9]

A Sea Lion is swimming (and probably trying to con me out of more fish)

I just couldn't resist this beautiful face[10]

I just couldn’t resist this beautiful face

Goodnight. [11]


We then went on to see ‘Blue Horizons’, a show featuring beautiful music, acrobatics, and amazing dolphins. Watching them was breathtaking. They performed jumps, twists and flips. The dolphins even let the trainers do a waterski-style trick with them. The music was so good that I bought it on iTunes.


A majestic leap from the water[12]

A majestic leap from the water

On display for part of the show[13]

On display for part of the show

A trainer rides a dolphin[14]

A trainer rides a dolphin

A trainer and her dolphin in the water[15]

A trainer and her dolphin in the water

Our next show was Killer Whales: Up Close, where we not only got to see the interactions between whales and their trainers, but also were able to learn so much about killer whales. Our host was Jessica, a very talented young woman from the education department. She joined us after the show for a backstage tour about the whales.


Adorable Orcas stick tongues out! [16]

Adorable Orcas stick tongues out!

The tail wave is adorable[17]

The tail wave is adorable

Going backstage, we met with John Stewart, one of the killer whale trainers. I was treated to most amazing sights that took my breath away. The animals really participate in their own healthcare at SeaWorld. The trainers have taught husbandry behaviors to the animals. With a certain hand signal, the whales are weighed, or positioned for a urine or blood sample. It was simply amazing to watch. Of course, being the easy mark that I am, the trainers played a joke on me. I watched them get a urine sample, and the trainer brought it down and showed it to me. I thought it was neat, and she said “you know, you can kind of smell the fishy smell of it – or taste it!” and took a huge swig. I was mortified inside, but my nursing kicked in and I just said “Well, urine IS sterile” as the trainers around me erupted with laughter, letting me know it was just lemonade and OJ in the tube. I had to laugh. Jokes aside, I also saw how the whales live in a matriarchal community – in other words, the eldest female is the boss. Nothing happens, including mating, without the female giving the green light. John even arranged for me to throw ‘snowballs’ – shaved ice we packed into balls- into their mouths. It was so cool. They whales are also great catches, and take turns on who gets to have a frosty treat. I was sad to leave them, because they are so majestic and beautiful, but humans need to eat lunch, too.


A Killer Whale participates in it's healthcare with a weigh in[18]

A Killer Whale participates in her healthcare with a weigh in

Killer Whales are trained to give urine samples[19]

Killer Whales are trained to give urine samples


The whole family lines up to visit with trainers[20]

The whole family lines up to visit with trainers

Lunch might not seem like a big deal to write about, but it is if you are at SeaWorld! They call it ‘Dine with Shamu’, and I thought, oh, cute, a guy in a Shamu costume in a restaurant. Nope. SO much nope. This is a dining experience that I will never forget. You are literally eating right next to a killer whale pool. I had whales less than 15 feet from me. I was almost too excited to eat my food. Also, as a side note, SeaWorld is concerned about the animals to the extent that they have paper, biodegradable straws so nothing gets thrown/blown into tanks and ingested by animals – and the park has no lids, except on reusable cups.


Lunch with the Whales Selfie[21]

Lunch with the Whales Selfie

The whale waves goodbye [22]

The whale waves goodbye

We then went on to Explorers Reef, where I got to pretend to be a kid and let some little sucker fish kiss on my hand and arm- it tickled! I got to touch a shark, and I was too scared to touch a horseshoe crab, but my guide Jessica showed me underneath, and it turns out they are actually related to spiders. I saw a very entrancing display of ‘mermaid purses’, which look like kelp, but sharks lay their eggs in them and they hang down. You could see the tiny shark embryos moving around. Absolutely fascinating, if you ask me. We saw and touched round rays, and other sharks. Sharks have triangular scales that feel much different from other reptiles – and, don’t worry, these guys don’t bite.


Sucker fish. They only eat necrotic tissue, so no worries![23]

Sucker fish. They only eat necrotic tissue, so no worries!

We then went to see animals you wouldn’t expect to find at a marine park. They have flamingos, an armadillo, poison tree frogs (only poison if they eat a certain berry), a sloth, two gorgeous porcupines, and a giant lizard (sorry if I forgot anyone, you are all so cool). I was amazed, especially since these guys are all endangered or rescues that SeaWorld uses for education in the San Diego area schools. They offer an affordable field trip option of only $6 a child so everyone can experience the high value of information SeaWorld offers. I was quite enchanted by these critters, but it was time to scoot along.

Six-banded armadillo. These guys aren't the ones that roll into a ball.[24]

Six-banded armadillo. These guys aren’t the ones that roll into a ball.

We met with Lauren DuBois, Assistant Curator of the Penguin Encounter, in front of the penguin exhibit. She told us all about the artificial insemination program at SeaWorld, and how they are pioneering a blueprint to help save endangered species through AI. Walking inside, she explained that the lighting was down, because in the natural habitat of penguins, it is dark most of the day. They stay on a Southern Hemisphere light schedule. The penguins were swimming, socializing and busy being generally adorable as heck. They all had personalities. I also found out that they get real snow every day to play in. Pretty nice amenity, if you’re a penguin.


Penguins cooling off in the pool[25]

Penguins cooling off in the pool

Relaxing outdoors[26]

Relaxing outdoors

We next met up with Jonathan Dwyer, Senior Aviculturist, for a behind the scenes tour of the penguins. I didn’t realize it, but, I was about to see and touch a real live penguin! He turned down the lights, and brought a beautiful female in for me to see and touch. I was so excited. By the way, only a tiny tip of the penguin feather is black- the rest is white, so they have a very dense covering of feathers. She was incredibly soft and beautiful. If there was a way, she would have been on my flight back with me. I was in for an even bigger treat though. I went up the back stairs, and suddenly found myself in 25 degree weather. I was behind the actual exhibit I had just looked into just 30 minutes ago. I was so busy looking and snapping pictures I barely noticed the weather, until we went back inside. The regality of these animals is just amazing in person.


#288, My Surprise Guest[27]

#288, My Surprise Guest

About to touch #288 for the first time. She's so soft![28]

About to touch #288 for the first time. She’s so soft!

Selfie with the Penguins Behind-the-Scenes[29]

Selfie with the Penguins Behind-the-Scenes

Emperor Penguins. They can be up to 90 lbs.[30]

Emperor Penguins. They can be up to 90 lbs.

We then saw the penguin nursery, where the eggs hatch. So. Much. Cute. The nursery is kept at a cool 50 degrees- after all, they ARE penguins – and put in habitat as they grow old enough to be on their own. They are just the sweetest little cutie pies as babies.


Awwww. Such a sweet baby![31]

Awwww. Such a sweet baby!

My time at SeaWorld was drawing to a close. I wish I had a whole week there- and I still wouldn’t have seen it all. There is so much to do and see there, that any family would have the time of their lives on vacation.

The truth is something different than you’ll see in Blackfish. The truth is that there really is no threat to the animals at SeaWorld. In fact, who care about sea life should realize that they’re on the same side as SeaWorld. They love the animals, they care for them and they rescue them. When you attack SeaWorld, you’re hurting animals and people who are dedicating their lives to helping them.

Written by Katie McGuire. Follow Katie on Twitter @GOPKatie[32], or email the author at [email protected]

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