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.
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.