SeaWorld has been feeling the heat lately. As an ever-growing list of musical acts such as Willie Nelson, REO Speedwagon, and Heart continue to cancel their scheduled 2014 performances at the Orlando theme park, and the critically successful documentary “Blackfish” fiercely continues to condemn the organization’s treatment of their captive orcas, it looks like they’ve decided to engage in some damage control.
SeaWorld recently released a statement arguing that their employees are “true animal advocates,” who have “dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned. Whether it’s a sea lion, manatee, sea turtle or whale, we are on call 24/7.”
Let’s take a look at the six main points raised in the statement, and see whether they stand up to some closer scrutiny.
1. “SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.”
In arguing this point, SeaWorld invites us to consider the success of their “marine mammal reproduction” program – as if we’re supposed to celebrate the fact that certain animals in SeaWorld have never known what it is to lead a natural existence, but have instead spent all their lives in concrete tanks.
The Orca Project (a group that has genuinely devoted themselves to the care and protection of endangered cetaceans), in their open letter back to SeaWorld, stated that “the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits entities like you from removing marine mammals from their natural habitats (but) you are not better for breeding wild animals in captivity instead of capturing them from the wild – stop pretending that you are.”
In making this claim, SeaWorld also glosses over their alleged involvement in the cruel procurement of wild orcas to be displayed during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
2. “We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.”
According to David Kirby, the renowned journalist and author of “Death at SeaWorld,” this is a flat-out lie. In the book, he describes the fate of four young whales named Kohana, Skyla, Tekoa, and Keto, all of whom were removed from their mothers over the last decade. Sadly, he says that “their lives could best be described as ‘interrupted.'”
In 2011, former SeaWorld trainer Carol Ray told The Orca Project of a truly heartbreaking scene she witnessed during her time at the amusement park, when a baby orca named Kalina was taken from the Florida facility and moved elsewhere:
After (she) was removed, I stayed and made observations throughout the night. This is one of the worst memories I have from my time there. Her mother, Katina, was not an overly vocal whale but that night I watched her for hours as she stayed floating in one spot, alone, emitting such heart-wrenching vocalizations it truly broke my heart. The other girls, including Katerina (Kalina’s sister, Katina’s other baby at that time) left her alone in her grief even though the gate between their pools was open.
So…you’re not separating killer whale mothers and their calves, SeaWorld? Hm. Might want to reconsider that statement.
3. “SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.”
Well, we can’t dispute that. They did install a new “whale treadmill” earlier this year, which was designed to provide their captive orcas with “greater stimulation.” And it seems as though they introduce another gadget and gizmo into their parks every five minutes – all with the stated aim of improving their animals’ lives.
Instead of spending millions of dollars on all of these things to look as if they “care,” wouldn’t the money be better spent on rehabilitating the animals who have suffered at their hands, and arranging for them to be returned to their natural habitat?
The Orca Project puts it best when they say: “A cage, no matter how gilded, is still a cage. All the money in the world cannot build oceans or repair the psychological damage you have inflicted on these creatures.”
4. “SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.”
Not according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, they’re not. The organization’s recent report, “Fate of Captive Orcas in 2013,” makes it abundantly clear that wild orcas can live for up to ninety years in the wild, rather than the amount of fifty specified by SeaWorld.
WDC’s report found that of the thirty three orcas who have been born in captivity to date (products of SeaWorld’s much-vaunted “marine mammal reproduction” program) each survived an average of 4.5 years.
What’s more, the median survival age for killer whales in captivity is estimated to be just nine years. While a few of SeaWorld’s animals have managed to live to the age of thirty or forty, this is considered to be the exception, rather than the rule, for captive cetaceans.
5. “The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.”
SeaWorld says that the “controlled research” carried out on their captive whales “is simply not possible in the wild, and has significant real-world benefits to the killer whales that live there.” Once again, the Orca Project are on hand to debunk this claim by saying:
Any real scientist will tell you that the best scientific research on animals is done in the wild, not in a cage. Case in point: any lay person attending SeaWorld would think from your shows that killer whales swim in circles over and over over again. In fact, they swim single file in straight lines throughout the ocean. How do we know that? Through field research and oceanic observations.
We also know that their dorsal fins have less than a 1% collapse rate in the wild because the oceanic pressure of the water keeps them erect, compared to the almost 100% dorsal fin collapse rate when kept in a tank. Again, we know this from observation of animals in the wild – not because of you. Your “scientists” are merely paid lackeys who read from a script about the virtues of animals in captivity.
Strong and true words!
6. “SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.”
The corporation says, “Our veterinarians have created nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned whales, prosthetics to save sea turtles, and a wetsuit to help injured manatees stay afloat during rehabilitation. We have rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild.”
While all of this may be true, and there may indeed be many employees at SeaWorld who genuinely regard themselves as “true animal advocates,” can they not see that whatever help they have provided to the cetaceans in their care has quickly been undone by forcing some of these animals to inhabit tiny concrete tanks and perform tricks for the sake of human entertainment?
Just like the people who claim to love their dogs and cats, but still consume factory-farmed pigs, cows, or chickens, it appears that many of these “true animal advocates” cannot see just how deeply they are contradicting themselves.
Ultimately, the clue behind SeaWorld’s true intentions lies in its name. The very fact that they continue to call themselves SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. says it all. Not “Conservation,” not “Marine Research,” but “Entertainment.” At their heart, they still believe it is acceptable to parade certain orcas and dolphins around in order to amuse human audiences and boost their profits.
If SeaWorld is truly committed to promoting the well-being of both wild and captive cetaceans, as they claim to be, why don’t they drop the “entertainment” label from their name and focus all of their efforts on marine conservation? Who knows – if they do some day find the courage to do just that, perhaps they could become a force for good in this world.
But until that happens, we at One Green Planet will never stop calling them out. SeaWorld can continue to talk about what good people they are until the world itself comes to an end, but the bottom line is that orcas – and all other sea animals, for that matter – do not belong in captivity.
Image Source: Farhan Chawla/Flickr