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SeaWorld’s Killer Whale Treadmill Does Not Make Captivity Okay

sea world killer whales

News has been floating around that SeaWorld is devising a new machine for its orcas—a water treadmill, to be exact.

SeaWorld is working with KSB Pumps on the treadmill or “flow channel” which would create water flow at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, giving the sensation of endless swimming, reports the theme park website, Mice Chat. So far the device has not been tested on any of the killer whales and is currently in its initial feasibility studies.

Mice Chat goes on to remark that “This is exciting news for the Orcas in SeaWorld’s care as the park develops new ways to exercise the animals in their care and provide them with enrichment.”

But can we really say it is exciting news? We cannot deny that an improvement is being made and perhaps even some of us can applaud this achievement. The machine will give the orcas an additional chance to exercise (aside from the circles they swim and tricks they perform, which are negligible physical activities for orcas who would swim up to 100 miles in the wild every day, if permitted). And it will provide enrichment that is currently unavailable to them.

Yet, there is still so much we don’t know about the treadmill. Will it be noisy and cause the whales distress? Will it make them frustrated because they will swim and swim and never reach their goal?

Animal welfare professionals and advocates also seem to be unsure of SeaWorld’s new move.

Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute said via Take Part, “This development will improve the whales’ overall fitness and endurance and anything that improves the welfare of the animals is a welcome change. However: 1) this innovation was something SeaWorld could have added a long time ago, so why didn’t they? It’s clearly a response to changing public sentiment rather than a proactive recognition that the animals’ welfare requires more and 2) it does not address the lack of variety in the whales’ social and physical environments.”

“It will not relieve their boredom or their social limitations. It’s better, but it is not good … It’s still not good enough. Only the ocean is good enough,” said Rose.

Activist and author Deborough Blalock even goes so far as to say that SeaWorld is recognizing that captivity is making its animals unhappy with their proposed addition, reports Take Part.

We can acknowledge that the treadmill will provide improvements to the whales’ daily lives, but much like the advent of “cage-free” or “free range” facilities at factory farms, just because a small change is made does not make captivity okay or easier to stomach. These whales, along with SeaWorld’s other animals, should be out swimming around in the ocean, not spending their days cooped up in small concrete pools.

Image source: Scott Akerman / Flickr

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One comment on “SeaWorld’s Killer Whale Treadmill Does Not Make Captivity Okay”

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4 Years Ago

The marine environment is rife with noise; the captive aquatic environments are similarly incredibly noisy. Doubt that this flow generator will be an acoustic stressor to the whales. However, there are other potentially stressful aspects with respect to flow generation; some of them may be positive stressors, as is the case with exercise. The welfare question is a reasonable one to raise; if SW is thoughtful, they will conduct appropriate pre- and post- treatment research to ascertain if there are any scientifically-supported positive or negative impacts. Easy enough with simple behavioral observations and hormone analysis. This whole effort reminds of the push in zoos to develop treadmills for polar bears, who also travel great distances during their active seasons and are prone to stereotypies in captive environments. I am not aware of many successful efforts to address this among that species, despite the brainstorming behind it.


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