On Friday, I was alarmed to learn that Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced legislation, which would phase out the display of killer whales in captivity. A press release from his office asserts that every animal belongs in the wild. I couldn’t agree more, except for the fact that the state of the world’s oceans is very disconcerting. Indeed, marine habitats have become quite inhospitable to marine life, particularly marine mammals. From nuclear disasters across the Pacific to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the health of marine ecosystems is extremely compromised, and as indicator species, marine mammals are not faring well.
The tragic story is unfolding off our coasts and in the deep water of pelagic zones. This is not to suggest that we should gather up all free-ranging animal kind and place them in captivity, but rather, we need to enhance the quality of life for those individuals already in zoological facilities. Affording wildlife emissaries and their offspring optimal care and welfare will make it possible for these sentient animals, which are so closely bonded to people, to become exemplary ambassadors for their species.
If there is to be a future for wilderness, every child needs to become a steward of nature. Depopulating zoos of charismatic megavertebrates will have a profoundly negative impact on the conservation of imperiled wildlife species. A vast majority of captive species are of lower profile than flagships like killer whales. Nonetheless, these less prominant wildlife ambassadors are important to natural processes and the stability of ecosystems. Flagship species are what zoos bet on to excite people about nature. They are the “big brands”, which elicit the kind of behavior from our citizenry that helps safeguard habitat and other species in peril.
This is why zoos are so passionate about advancing the welfare needs of elephants in their care. Elephants are flagships for terrestrial ecosystems and their respective communities and faunal assemblages. Killer whales are both umbrella and flagship species for marine ecosystems. To halt the exhibition of orca would be detrimental to the invertebrate and vertebrate fauna that benefit from the conservation of these apex predators.
Rather then stifle efforts to exhibit these kinds of animals with distractions from the animal right’s sector, we need to give these institutions the support and funding they need to enhance the quality of life of these sentient beings in our care. SeaWorld is footing the bill to expand their captive orca habitats significantly with the exhibit Blue World. Why waste an opportunity to showcase these sentient creatures in an environment that both caters to enhanced welfare and conveys a message of conservation?
Most people can only name a few toothed cetaceans like bottlenose dolphins and killer whales. What about the 70 other toothed cetaceans in nature? Our fascination with killer whales persists because of the tremendous effort SeaWorld has put into branding the flagship cetaceans, which dates back decades. SeaWorld put the killer whale on our radar and elevated its status. Once targeted and hunted as a perceived threat to humans, much like many shark species remain today, the killer whale is now our friend. In fact, “Shamu” translates to “friend of orca”.
Through introducing killer whales to the public, SeaWorld softened the image of these marine predators, making them both accessible and loveable. We need to maintain a commitment to all marine life by continuing to promote flagship species conservation. Humans are stakeholders in this war on environmental degradation and it is in our best interest to continue to promote educational initiatives of zoological parks.
Furthermore, this legislation has been proposed on the basis of questionable science. Recent studies indicate that the lifespan of captive and free-ranging killer whales is comparable, refuting earlier longevity and demographic assessments. My colleague and former SeaWorld trainer and incoming president of the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association Dr. Grey Stafford said, “Just because CNN failed in its responsibility to thoroughly vet its 90-minute fictionalized film filled with lies, bad science, and deliberate misrepresentations about the welfare, lifespans, and reward-based training of orcas today, doesn’t mean Congress should use Blackfish as the basis for determining public policy.”
SeaWorld cares for many ambassador animals, but it also rescues and rehabilitates more wildlife than just about any other organization of its kind, and that includes many distinguished zoological facilities. If we continue to beat up on SeaWorld and ultimately end the inspiring work they do, who will take their place. I don’t think the California Legislature is poised to come up with that answer.