The theme park SeaWorld, already facing scrutiny from animal rights advocates for their abuse towards captive cetaceans, has now been documented administering psychoactive drugs to their marine mammals.
According to a sworn affidavit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in a dispute between SeaWorld and Marineland over the transport of a killer whale Ikaika to SeaWorld, trainers administer the psychoactive drug benzodiazepine to their orcas. Benzodiazepines are a type of drug that include the common human medications Valium and Xanax.
Critics of SeaWorld claim that the orcas’ mental health issues are a direct result of their keeping the mammals in captivity.
“They do not cope with being kept in these tanks. They survive to some degree, but they don’t thrive to any degree,” said the founder of the Orca Research Trust, Ingrid Visser. “They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank, and there isn’t a single orca living in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors, and in many of them you see multiple examples of these behaviors,” he added.
Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said that he believes the leaked documents will play a key role in SeaWorld’s future. “The veterinary records show that orcas at SeaWorld are given psychotropic drugs to stop them from acting aggressively towards each other in the stressful, frustrating conditions in which they’re confined instead of funding the development of coastal sanctuaries – the only humane solution,” Goodman said.
A spokesperson for SeaWorld, Fred Jacobs, defended the medication in an emailed statement.
“Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting,” he writes. “These medications can be used for sedation for medical procedures, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures. The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care,”he added.
Animal advocates disagree and say that the orcas’ condition is far from normal. PETA president Ingrid Newkirk accused SeaWorld of “pump[ing] these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks.”
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