SeaWorld Accused of Heavily Drugging Orca Whales

By May Wilkerson 03/16/15

The popular San Diego attraction is facing yet more controversy for drugging its main attractions.

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More scandal has surfaced regarding SeaWorld, with several former trainers claiming that the marine theme park routinely drugged many of their orcas. A laundry list of substances, including benzos and antipsychotics, were allegedly given to the whales to reduce testosterone, calm them down, and treat “chronic stress.”

Some of the whales were on meds "every single day of their life,” according to former trainer John Hargrove, who has written a book about his experiences working at the park.

Though it has been argued that the drugs were for the whales’ benefit, marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute points out that they only needed drugs because they were in captivity. "I can respond with confidence that all of these medications are given as a result of problems associated with captivity," she said. "Wild orcas don't get any medications at all and they seem to do just fine.”

Some of the drugs regularly given to the whales included antacids, like Tagamet, to treat ulcers brought on by the stress of living in tanks. They were also given antibiotics like clindamycin to prevent infections caused by living in close quarters with other whales. 

Some males were even given antipsychotics to lower their testosterone levels. ”When [an orca named] Val was becoming sexually mature, we gave him an antipsychotic drug to drastically decrease his testosterone level," said Hargrove. "I would swim with him in the water and he would be so looped up. We would have no idea what's going on in his mind because he's so out of it.”

The theme park confirmed last year that they were using benzos, like Diazepam, to treat stress and prevent aggressive behavior. Other substances allegedly used by SeaWorld included powerful contraceptives to regulate pregnancy, and huge doses of gelatin to prevent dehydration. Trainers say that their own safety jeopardized since they had to swim alongside whales that had been dosed with potent drugs.

SeaWorld has been under fire since the release of 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which revealed how harsh treatment of the orcas contributed to multiple deaths and severe injuries of both trainers and whales. Park officials have not responded to these most recent allegations of drugging their animals.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.