Blackfish: Sea World v. OSHA

Workplace safety has been a cause of concern in the United States for over a century. Such concern has led to a slew of federal and local workplace safety regulations. The Railroad Safety Appliance Act helped significantly reduce the number of worker injuries in the railroad industry. Coal mine worker fatalities averaged over 2,000 a year in the early 1900s, leading to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Activism over children working in factories resulted in passage of the Keating–Owen Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. The most well-known set of regulations related to labor is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 that was designed to ensure that employers provide employees with an environment free from hazards.

Animals Work for Food

However, in the entertainment industry, “work” is also performed by animals. While considered by most as property, many animals routinely perform and in some instances get “paid” to do so. Indeed, the entertainment industry relies heavily on animals for revenue. Zoos, circuses, carnivals, aquariums, theme parks, television and movies all regularly feature animals. Even though there is a history of maltreatment and accidental injury and death to animals who work, there are very few laws in place to protect animals, and certainly none as comprehensive as OSHA. The only federal law that addresses the treatment of animals that are exhibited to the public is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The Animal Welfare Act requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for animals that are bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. States also have animal welfare laws. For example, 41 states make certain types of animal cruelty felonies. Six states, however, exempt exhibited animals from their animal cruelty rules. Most laws focus on animal safety during transport. Others are concerned with making sure that worldwide animal populations are maintained.

Blackfish Documentary

Blackfish, a documentary released at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2013 and recently shown on CNN documents the poor treatment of Tilikum, a dolphin, at Orlando’s Sea World. According to filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite and animal rights advocates such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, dolphins in captivity at Sea World suffer from boredom and stress. They are simply too large, too socially aware, and too intelligent to thrive in captivity. In other words, these dolphins go “stir crazy” in captivity. They become aggressive. According to Cowperthwaite, Tilikum’s aggression led to the 2010 killing of his trainer Sea World employee Dawn Brancheau as well as the deaths of two other people. In the aftermath of Brancheau’s death OSHA stepped in. But OSHA is charged with ensuring the safety of people. Thus, it stepped in out of concern for the safety of Sea World employees, not out of concern for the health and safety of Tilikum and other whales.

Nonetheless, Brancheau’s death and Blackfish have had an impact. They have brought the conversation about how exhibit animals should be treated out of the meeting rooms of scientists and animal advocacy groups into elementary school classrooms and the homes of consumers across the country. Many believe that Sea World and similar businesses should change how they treat dolphins. Children and celebrities are refusing to patronize Sea World until it changes it policies. Perhaps if there were regulations in place that looked at animal health and safety in a similar way that legislators have looked at the safety of workers, animals might be treated vastly differently. Indeed, there are some dolphin experts who would produce evidence to support the position that dolphins should not be kept in captivity at all.

Sea World vehemently disagrees with the conclusions reached in Blackfish about the treatment of dolphins at Sea World. Regardless of who is right– Sea World or Cowperthwaite–wouldn’t a set of OSHA-like regulations for exhibit animals at least force the scientific community to look at the research and come to a consensus on how to best treat animals in captivity?

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