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The Dangers of Phasing Out Killer Whales in Captivity

This week, I learned that SeaWorld elected to transition out of offering performance-based show programs with their killer whales at their San Diego park in favor of offering presentations that feature more natural behaviors in a more naturalistic environment. In essence, the marine park has opted to place more emphasis on education and less on entertainment. This is progress and shows that SeaWorld is trying to meet the needs of a more evolved consumer.

But last 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 altogether. This is not progress.  A press release from Schiff’s 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.  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 should be a priority. And as a consequence of enhanced welfare, it will be possible for these sentient animals, which are so closely bonded to people, to become more 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, aquariums and marine parks of charismatic mega-vertebrates 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 prominent 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 umbrella and flagship species for terrestrial ecosystems and their respective communities and faunal assemblages. Killer whales are 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 than 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 was footing the bill to expand their captive orca habitats significantly with the exhibit Blue World. However, the pressure from activists has now apparently forced the marine park to put plans for a new exhibit on hold. I see this as a lost 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. I think 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. For example, recent studies indicate that the lifespan of captive and free-ranging killer whales is comparable, refuting earlier longevity and demographic assessments (Robeck et al. 2015).

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.

References:
Robeck, T., Jaakkola, K., Stafford G., & Willis, K. (in press). Killer whale (Orcinus orca) survivorship in captivity: A critique of Jett and Ventre (2015). Marine Mammal Science.

This is an updated and retittled version of an earlier article, which recently appeared on the Zoo Nation website.

 




2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Phasing Out Killer Whales in Captivity

  1. Jacqueline Schmidt

    A number of you may remember the notable journalist, John Stossel, tearing apart the film “Blackfish”. I did quite a bit of research on Mr. Stossel’s “research”, and, in my opinion, his was nothing, but a farce.

    The following comments are regarding John Stossel’s article entitled: “Blackfish’s ‘Green’ Lies About SeaWorld” that you can find, among other places, here:
    http://capitalismmagazine.com/2015/06/blackfishs-green-lies-about-seaworld/

    I have done considerable research on what SeaWorld claims, what the film “Blackfish” and animal rights groups claim, and what the experts have to say. I found that “Blackfish” and animal rights groups are not being deceptive. For instance, in Mr. Stossel’s article whale expert Ingrid Visser states that “ . . . killer whales in the wild have collapsed dorsal fins, too”. But, according to my investigation, Dr. Astrid van Ginneken states that ” . . . less than 1% of wild orcas have dorsal fin collapse”. You can read her five reasons for captive fin collapse in the following article. (Source: You’ll need to scroll down a few articles when you get into this source: https://oceanadvocatefl.wordpress.com/2013/04/

    Also imbedded within this article is another that you can access that states ” . . . out of 26 expert responses, 20 of them list captivity as the main reason for the flop. Other theories given were the fitness of the whales, injury, water pressure and temperature (both due to the lack of diving deep in captivity and heat breaking down collagen)”.

    We already knew that SeaWorld no longer steals orcas (babies or adults) from the wild. However, they do continue to breed and they admit that right in this article. In its latest T.V. ad, SeaWorld talks about how it does not capture orcas in the wild, yet it keeps mating its captive orcas. That equals MORE CAPTIVE orcas which is just as heinous! And, in the following source, it talks about SeaWorld’s claim that it does not capture killer whales in the wild. The article maintains that “this point is fairly misleading given that the film ‘Blackfish’ never claims or even implies that SeaWorld is still capturing killer whales. The wild capture segment of the film opens with a clear date: 1970, and, in case the dated footage doesn’t indicate its age, narrators explicitly state that this was a past event. However, SeaWorld responds to the segment by saying that it has not captured killer whales in 35 years. SeaWorld describes their breeding program as a “groundbreaking success” in spite of the fact that it has produced several inbred and hybrid animals, a 50% infant mortality rate, and multiple instances of infant rejection.” How sad. This article will also explain other deceptive things that SeaWorld has stated in conjunction with the film “Blackfish”. It is an interesting read and some of it supports what I have stated in my comments here.
    (Source: https://cetaceaninspiration.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/seaworld-lies-in-response-to-blackfish/

    And of course Kelly Clark says there’s no evidence that the whale’s behavior meant that he was frustrated because he lives in a tank. She works for SeaWorld; why would she say otherwise? Clearly because she’s parroting what administrators want her to say. Kelly may know the truth; she may not. And what about the former employees that spoke out against SeaWorld in the film? Common sense tells you they would only do so if it were true.

    In this next article, and there are a number of them similar to this, it says that ” . . . SeaWorld, which owns all but one of the captive orcas in the U.S., states that ‘the average life expectancy of southern and northern resident killer whales is about 29 years for females and 17 years for males’. Whereas ” . . . the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that males live on average for 30 years, but can live as long as 50 to 60 years, while females live 50 years but can live as long as 100 years”.
    (Source: https://www.thedodo.com/orca-lifespan-captivity-1102374453.html).

    The article then goes on to talk about the fact that wild whales would not accept Willy into their pods. This is because, by nature, orcas do not accept outsiders into their family units. Apparently, social mores are what thwart them from taking mates from outside of their group, which would generate an inbred populace.

    Mr. Stossel states that ” . . . marine parks and zoos are often the only way people learn about nature, and ticket sales pay for education and conservation efforts”. That is a common myth. There are many ways in which to learn about nature other than animal-based entertainment. There are sanctuaries; films; television; state-of-the-art, virtual reality; and animatronic exhibits that will educate as well as “wow” young people as well as adults. Moving on to ticket sales paying for education and conservation efforts as Mr. Stossel claims: In reality, things such as government grants do that, not ticket sales. And, speaking of conservation efforts: SeaWorld spends less than one percent on conservation. Want proof? Keep reading.
    (Sources: https://cetaceaninspiration.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/seaworld-and-conservation/
    and
    http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/seaworld-does-conservation-justify-captivity/).

    Also, in this article, Mr. Stossel only takes the word of SeaWorld’s representatives for all questions asked. He has no sources cited for any information. He does not follow up on any data that SeaWorld has provided him. To post this article, in this form, was a gross lack of judgment on Mr. Stossel’s part.

    Furthermore, not long ago, it had come to my attention that SeaWorld had applied for a permit to build new, artificial tanks. However, a bigger prison is still a prison. SeaWorld is simply desperate to bring back business when more and more people are finding out how captive orcas are made to suffer.

    The supplemental area and the “fast water current” that SeaWorld has in its plans are only admissions that orcas do need additional room and much more than just motionless water; however these two things do little to afford the orcas with the natural life that they so desperately need. As SeaWorld’s plans indicate, the tank expansion would only have a depth of 50 feet; however, orcas dive as deep as 1,000 feet in the wild. And, since the tank will only be 350 feet in length, the orcas will need to swim in length in excess of 1,500 times to come near to the 100 miles per day that they would travel in the ocean naturally. SeaWorld is without a doubt only making these new designs in order to win back the public, not to benefit the animals. SeaWorld persists in breeding orcas who are frustrated and aggressive, yet, as I previously mentioned, the marine park expends less than one percent of its revenue on rescue and conservation.

    SeaWorld is not a conservation society; it is an amusement park. If it was truly concerned about orcas, it would release the orcas to reputable, seaside sanctuaries and stop breeding them. As well, SeaWorld needs to devote funds to state-of-the-art, animal-free enticements. Moreover, studies have revealed that when animals are observed in captivity, it promotes disrespect from humans. Certainly you can understand that when patrons view animals held captive in barren concrete tanks it only teaches them that they are ours to dominate and treat them as we wish.

    It is my hope that you will look at the sites that I have listed and do further research of your own so that you will discover the truth, and not just take someone’s word as fact. It is time for critical thinking. Thank you for caring.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    You could have spent the twenty minutes it took for you to write that comment and done something useful like pick up garbage at a beach or park or to volunteer at an animal shelter. Stop wasting time trolling the Internet and do something that will make a positive impact.

    Reply

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