Sea World's Blue World Project

Opinion Piece: What is a Fair & Appropriate Fate Concerning the Welfare of SeaWorld’s Killer Whales

We need to dismiss the misplaced compassion of animal rights activists, again. If you were a killer whale raised by humans and used to daily human contact, would you benefit more from being placed in an expansive 100 million dollar enclosure similar to the provisions you were offered at birth, as a subadult and an adult animal or would you thrive in a seaside sanctuary exposed to an array of nature’s elements? Keep in mind that nature is both unforgiving and dangerous to a naive immune system, not to mention the exposure to degraded conditions of marine habitats. Dangerous contaminants and debris are just a few concerns. You would also be limited with respect to opportunites for human contact and interaction, which are huge reinforcements for the captive-born cetacean and all captive-living marine mammals.

When I worked on reintroduction and rewildling programs for the largest terrestrial mammal in the the Western Hemisphere—the wood bison—we went through great lengths to prepare the individual animals for life in the wild.  In the case of these large bovids, nature was not far removed from captivity. With that stated, and from a soft release standpoint, you can’t afford to always be gentle in a reintroduction effort because nature is unforgiving and unkind. So we intentionally challenged animals with stressors that they may encounter in nature to condition them for a full release back into the wild.

SeaWorld would be negligent if they placed captive born animals in an open ocean enclosure. Can you imagine how shocking the experience would be for a captive living killer whale to suddenly be placed in the ocean. Do you think their first response would be, “Wow, freedom feels awesome.” History tells us their response is death. Learn about Keiko!

People jumped on the Blackfish bandwagon without much thought, but at a time in contemporary history when most people believe everything they hear and have limited ability to think critically, this should come as no surprise.   A respect for science is at an all-time low, while everyone who watched the scathing and fictional SeaWorld docudrama is now a marine mammal expert.

Seaworld has changed ownership three times since it opened and the management and care of its animals has evolved and been shaped by cutting edge husbandry science.  SeaWorld parks were regarded as the most esteemed zoological facilities among Association of Zoo and Aquarium accredited member institutions before the film aired. So how is it that one film has been able to have such influence over an entire industry–the marine mammal park industry? As one former SeaWorld trainer mentioned, the film was designed to make you feel and not think, and unfortunately the repercussions may influence the fate of captive born animals for the worse.

Disclaimer: I have not been paid by SeaWorld to advocate for their conservation programs. I simply believe in what they do.

Dr. Jordan Schaul
Dr. Jordan Schaul is an American zoologist, conservationist, journalist and animal trainer from Shaker Heights, Ohio.- Wikipedia

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2 thoughts on “Opinion Piece: What is a Fair & Appropriate Fate Concerning the Welfare of SeaWorld’s Killer Whales

  1. Peggy Bergson

    Absolutely no one is saying to release captive-born orcas into the open ocean. Keiko, as you’ve mentioned (perhaps you should be the one doing the learning about him?), wasn’t simply released either! There were months spent counter-conditioning him from his association with humans. Even so, what he ultimately died from was pneumonia. Your article makes it sound like he died as a direct result from being placed into a non-captive environment. This is untrue.

    As a zoologist, you should know how difficult it is to release captive-born predators into a non-captive environment. An animal raised by humans is NOT domesticated. They can have an association with humans, but they aren’t tame and never will be. A tiger handfed by humans will still, given the opportunity, rip into the flesh of his caretaker if they happen to move the wrong way once they’re an adult. Yet this tiger will never be released into the wild because they don’t know how or where to hunt, and because of its association with humans now becomes a danger to them.

    Indeed, most of Seaworld’s orcas aren’t able to be released even in a similar way that Keiko had because they’re hybrids of ecotypes and therefore have no home to go to. None that’d be ethical, anyway. But there are some captive orcas existing that DO have pods that still exist, or have possible relatives still living to this day. The decedents of the bloody, violent drives meant to capture vulnerable young stock for lucrative business purposes. Those few (not necessarily in Seaworld’s stock, but relevant nonetheless) knew what it was like to be in the ocean. Why would they be expected to languish in a tank a fraction of the size from the world they once knew?

    If you’re so inclined to reply, I’d be interested what you think of Seaworld’s orca and dolphin shows, and what they contribute to the welfare of the animal itself as well, as that’s suspiciously gone from support articles like these. Thank you.

    1. Dr. Jordan SchaulDr. Jordan Schaul Post author

      I’ll pretend the presumption here was just an oversight. I’m also not sure if you know what you are asking. Captive cetaceans and all intelligent life, in my opinion, fare much better when they are thinking and occupied. To allow animals to languish in a sanctuary with minimal human interaction would be negligent if not cruel.

      The shows are for the people whether they educate or entertain or both. The nature of the show is not of concern to the animals or perceived in any particular regard by them. The term “show” simply has a perjorative connotation for humans. It is assumed by people that the animals feel exploited or humiliated when, in fact, they could care less as long as they get attention, not unlike a dog. Dolphins and killer whales would be just as happy to receive food rewards and tactile stimulation if they were asked to participate in presentations featuring erudite scholars as much as if they were asked to particpate in shows targeting 4th grade audiences. I’d much rather be a dolphin in a marine park setting than any animal with nothing to occupy my time as may be the case in a sanctuary. I think that is a compelling argument for wanting to be a performing animal than a subject of a natural history presentation, with nothing to motivate me.

      Indeed, cetaceans are not domesticated, except for the fact that there is no precise definition of domestication. Domestication exists on a continuum, with dogs for example being more domesticated that cats which have lived with us (i.e. domestically) for much less time in the context of evolutionary history. Captive-born cetaceans may not be domesticated, but for all intents and purposes they are very much domestic when they live in close association with people.


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