SeaWorld is under assault again following the untimely death of an 18-year-old killer whale. The cause of death—a fungal infection. I’m sure the mycotic lesions generated evocative imagery for those who found the 2013 docudrama Blackfish to be as factual as it was a sensationalized portrayal of apex marine predators in captivity. The film immediately cast a dark shadow over the world’s most famous marine park conglomerate and its fallout has been quite damaging for the company. Blackfish has been touted as an impactful cinematic treatment of captive cetaceans by marine biologists working in situ and has elicited much conjecture on the part of non-experts regarding the confinement of the world’s largest dolphin.
But is it fair, however, to place blame on an institution that also rescues so many animals from the brink of death. SeaWorld, in collaboration with local, state, and federal agencies has helped rescue as many as 26,000 marine animals, many of which were rehabilitated and returned to the wild. That figure far exceeds what any other zoological facility on the planet can claim. No, a gesture of humanity does not undue past transgressions, assuming the marine park even did anything intentional to compromise the welfare of its animals. But let’s put Shamu in context. Through its history of showcasing riveting in-water performances of these majestic marine predators with their trainers, SeaWorld rebranded orca, demonstrating the intimate human-animal bond while dispelling myths and alleviating fears of these cetaceans which naturally prey on fish and pinnipeds and were hunted by humans for recreation and retribution over perceived threats to people. A utilitarian view of how these sentient beings are treated in captivity takes under consideration that SeaWorld’s nearly 30 killer whales, most of which were captive born, are ambassadors for their species and compared to their wild counterparts face different human stressors. And a new paper to be published in the journal Marine Mammal Science dismisses, on the basis of empirical data, the notion that natural lifespans of killer whales in captivity differ from those in the wild.
When I saw that Cosmopolitan, the women’s fashion magazine, ran a critique last week in regard to the story of Unna the killer whale, I realized the reputation of my profession—captive wildlife husbandry—had reached an all-time low. Although I respect Cosmo for its pop culture editorials, relationship advice and reviews of fashion accessories, when they publish conjecture concerning exotic animal care and welfare, I think it is time to revisit what it means to be an expert.
The vast majority of animals in zoos, aquariums and marine parks are captive born. This is because captive facilities have developed innovative assisted reproductive technologies and have designed captive habitats that encourage natural behavior like breeding. It is also cost prohibitive and logistically challenging to capture animals from the wild and they don’t always acclimate as well to ex situ environments as animals born in these facilities. With that said, animals are occasionally imported from the wild and many assimilate just fine. They are imported when there is a need to recruit new DNA into captive gene pools to improve the genetic diversity of zoo, aquarium and marine park populations so that they can be self-sustaining.
Animals die in captivity all the time and most reach a ripe old age, often twice to three times the age of their wild counterparts. Orca it turns out, live just as long as their wild cousins, but sometimes animals do succumb to disease or injury before they reach a natural longevity.
In the case of Unna, she expired following a long battle with a fungal infection. Yes, the causative agent was a commensal organism, which can become pathogenic in stressed or immunocompromised animals. Captivity does induce stress, but different stress than free-ranging cetaceans encounter in our degrading oceans, where pollution-induced lesions are visible on a great many marine mammals. Zoos and related facilities continue to educate the general public through mere exposure to wildlife in their care. Whether and animal is performing a routinized behavior or freely playing with a sibling in an enclosure, the display of that animal places it in our consciousness in a way that television and cinema can’t. We know this because the animal species that are neglected to be exhibited in zoos, aquariums and marine parks fail to become part of the conservation conversation and subsequently efforts to fund research and protection of these vanishing creatures is greatly underminded .