During the final weeks of December 2013, SeaWorld finally launched a counter-offensive public relations response to the growing tide of public discontent that has been mounting through an outpouring of social media and other events since the general release of the documentary Blackfish in July 2013.
Compounding the ever-surmounting pressure undoubtedly spurred by the late-October 2013 premiere of the documentary on CNN in the US, a host of high-profile recent events have captured the climate change occurring in the public’s waning support for captivity. An ever- increasing list of recording artists have publicly cancelled their performances and associations with SeaWorld’s weekend concert series known as “Bands, Brew, & BBQ.” Protesters have lined the streets of both the Macy’s Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade as well as the Rose Bowl Parade. And a barrage of online petitions have surfaced encouraging other corporate interests to cut their ties with SeaWorld, including Southwest Airlines and Groupon.
It is clear that SeaWorld is feeling the heat from the rising firestorm. As Blackfish was gradually released around the globe through screenings at film festivals and then general cinemas following its debut at the Sundance Festival in January 2013, SeaWorld remained fairly silent, except for a direct response to film reviewers in the US seeking to rebut various points in the film as the documentary began to roll out at theaters across the country later that summer. However, with the more recent attempts by SeaWorld to ramp up its public relations game in the midst of all of this negative publicity with a full page advertisement and open letter posted in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other large-circulation newspapers on December 20th, alongside the announcement of new public outreach campaigns branded under the banner of ‘SeaWorld Cares,’ and including a recent video released on January 13th attempting to refute the practice of separating mothers and calves at their facilities, WDC felt it necessary to respond. WDC responds point-by-point to those primary ‘facts’ highlighted by SeaWorld in its advertisements.
Claim #1: ‘SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.’ Unfortunately, killer whales, also known as orcas, continue to be captured from the wild in the Russian Far East, and the market demand from countries like Russia and China that supports these captures is instigated and encouraged by the very existence of SeaWorld and other captive facilities. Taking a page from the playbook of SeaWorld who has pursued years of litigation in hoping to eventually overturn the original citation from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the Georgia Aquarium launched its own legal challenge against the US regulatory agency that denied it a permit to import wild captured belugas from Russia, including belugas that were also destined for SeaWorld parks. The US government noted this was the first time such an application had been denied to a marine mammal facility and SeaWorld and other captive facilities are now on their heels fighting to maintain the status quo.
Live captures of whales and dolphins continue around the world in regions where very little is known about the status of populations targeted. The long-term effects of wild captures can be significant. Captures and associated mortality also affect the dynamics and cohesion of the dolphin societies left behind. Some populations of orcas, the Southern Residents, have not rebounded from captures for public display that occurred as far back as the 1960s and are actually listed as ‘endangered’ as a partial result of these historic captures. We do not know the impact of recent captures on orca populations in the Russian Far East.
Orcas that were taken from the wild are currently part of SeaWorld’s collection, or could be in the future. Orcas are transferred between facilities frequently and the recent orcas captured in the Russian Far East could eventually become assets to be traded among facilities, including SeaWorld. An example is Morgan, the wild orca held at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands, who is now technically owned by SeaWorld. Although not directly captured by SeaWorld, she was acquired from the wild and may now become part of the breeding program that, as the number of orca facilities expands across the globe, must ultimately rely upon orcas captured from the wild.
The truth. Whether orcas, bottlenose and other dolphins, or belugas, the very existence of SeaWorld continues to instigate captures from the wild, not only by feeding the demand for performing cetaceans, but by maintaining the ability to import wild-acquired orcas in the future, and even placing purchase orders more directly as in the case of the Russian belugas earmarked for the Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld. Even the new Russian Sochi facility is being called a Russian SeaWorld by commentators, and it has reportedly sourced its dolphins from the infamous Japanese dolphin drive hunts.
Claim # 2: ‘We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.’ While SeaWorld might recognize the importance of a mother-calf bond, such recognition seems to have a time limit. For example, Keet, Skyla, and Kayla were all separated from their mothers at less than three years of age. Although wild orcas may not ever be fully independent of their mothers, many captive orcas have been transferred from their mothers shortly after weaning.
Although it may be true to say that SeaWorld doesn’t separate mothers and calves immediately, it does seem to have little concern with maintaining family groups and instead seems to treat the orcas as commercial assets to be moved around to maximize commercial return. Considering the lifelong bonds this species displays between mothers and offspring in the wild, no age is appropriate to remove these individuals from close association with their mothers.
Furthermore, SeaWorld claims to understand the importance of healthy social structures, but its human-assembled social groups result in forced associations and abusive hierarchies that compound the stress experienced by orcas in captivity. Aggressive interactions between orcas are rarely witnessed in the wild, but aggressive behavior between captive orcas and resultant injury (and, in one case, death) is common. SeaWorld has, for decades, housed incompatible orcas together in enclosures. We believe that this practice is in violation of existing US regulations specifying that marine mammals that are incompatible be housed separately and away from other animals that cause them unreasonable stress, discomfort, or that interferes with good health.
The truth. In the wild, orcas live in complex and stable social groups which are often genetically distinct, with distinct dialects, and they separate from these closely knit groups for only hours at a time and only to mate or forage. SeaWorld takes orcas from widely divergent groups that do not interact in the wild, interbreeds them, and forces them to live together in unnatural social groups.
Claim # 3. ‘SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.’ It is no surprise that confining and maintaining orcas in captivity is a costly undertaking and requires not only expensive insurance policies, but a hefty price tag for the feeding and care of SeaWorld’s high-profile attraction. Quite simply, with such ‘extraordinary and superior care’, one could expect that orcas would be living longer and thriving in this environment. Instead, killer whales suffer from ulcers, infections, aggressive behavior and other byproducts of stress, confinement, and forced associations in captive facilities. Despite these professed millions spent on environmental improvements, orcas are still confined to tiny pools that result in extreme sensory and psychological deprivation. An orca at SeaWorld would have to swim the circumference of the main pool nearly 1,400 times to match the equivalent daily distance traveled in the wild.
The truth. Whales and dolphins do not belong in captivity. Improvements in care and facility changes do not obviate this fact. They cause physical harm to one another and to their trainers, they live shorter and more deprived lives than their wild counterparts, and they are subject to mental and physical illness and disease not seen in the wild. With every new show or stage prop and the millions spent on enhancing the entertainment value of the orca pools at SeaWorld, these efforts could be better directed at phasing out whales and dolphins at SeaWorld and enhancing other aspects of SeaWorld’s programs.
Claim # 4. ‘SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.’ While comparing lifespans may give us some indication of the ability of orcas to adapt to a stressful environment, it does nothing to address the quality of life and the causes of death of orcas subjected to a life in confinement. Orcas fare particularly poorly in captivity. Captive orcas suffer much lower survival rates than their wild counterparts, with an annual mortality rate which is more than two and half times higher in captivity than in the wild. Furthermore, recent reviews of mortality data reveal that captive orca survivorship has actually grown worse in the last decade, in spite of any improvements that might have been made in terms of husbandry and veterinary care. Even captive-born orcas have only reached a maximum age of 25 years. In the wild, male orcas live to an average of 30 years (maximum 50-60 years) and females, 46 years (maximum 80-90 years). A minimum of forty-four orcas (including stillbirths and miscarriages) have died at SeaWorld parks in the US since its inception, including four within four months in 2010.
The most common causes of death among orcas and other cetaceans in captivity are pneumonia, septicemia and other types of infection. Information is now coming to light about how these lethal infections may be a result of poor dental health caused by gnawing on concrete walls or steel gates due to aggression towards other animals, stress, or boredom. These kinds of problem are not seen in wild orcas, neither is another cause of death of some captive orcas which has been revealed. Fatal mosquito-borne viruses have been transmitted to captive orcas as they “log” at the pool surface for unnaturally long periods of time, unlike in the wild where they spend the majority of their time swimming beneath the surface.
The truth. In general, most captive orcas die in their teens and 20s, and have a lifespan about a third as long as in the wild. Highlighting the few outliers that survive beyond this average lifespan in captivity merely serves as exceptional examples of orcas that have managed to partially adapt to this stressful and cruel environment. Despite the rhetoric, captive orcas are not living longer than their wild counterparts, and considering the purported superior care provided in captive facilities, the mortality record at SeaWorld remains unconvincing.
Claim # 5. ‘The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.’ SeaWorld’s claims that its research programs contribute to scientific studies that enhance conservation of this species in the wild fails to acknowledge that the majority of the research undertaken is focused on husbandry, and even in that area there are few recent published studies. A search of SeaWorld’s website for a list of research publications contributing to conservation even reveals several studies relating to orca capture techniques and capture ‘fisheries’ in other countries, hardly research that contributes to the wellbeing of wild populations.
Also notably absent from the body of research attributed to SeaWorld are any studies or contributions to research addressing vulnerable orca populations. Despite targeting the Southern Resident orcas and helping to deplete their population in the late 60s and early 70s, contributing to their current ‘endangered’ status, SeaWorld has not devoted any financial or academic attention to this, or other endangered or threatened populations of orcas.
Furthermore, SeaWorld’s breeding programs do not contribute to the actual enhancement of the species in the wild. According to the IUCN, the ultimate objective of captive breeding programs should be the reintroduction of individuals to the wild. Rather than for conservation, breeding programs at SeaWorld are maintained merely to provide continual replacements for those individuals dying prematurely in captivity.
In addition, very little of the money SeaWorld takes through its cash tills appears to end up in conservation. For example, it has been calculated that a mere half of one tenth of one percent (.06%) of annual revenues may be dedicated towards conservation efforts.
The truth. SeaWorld, and other members of its captive breeding consortium, are actually promoting the depletion of whale and dolphin populations in the wild, including the recent captures of belugas in the Okhotsk Sea to supply SeaWorld facilities. SeaWorld and other facilities have taken great pains to promote themselves as research and conservation centers, but have failed to produce substantive research that contributes to the protection of orcas.
Claim # 6. ‘SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.’ WDC acknowledges SeaWorld’s work to rescue and sometimes rehabilitate and release marine animals, including some cetaceans. Unfortunately, this rescue work also provides a convenient means of diverting attention from the incongruity of SeaWorld’s continuing incarceration of other whales and dolphins. While working on high profile and emotional stranding events that capture the public’s attention, SeaWorld can take public relations cover for the less palatable realities of captivity, including complicity in ongoing captures of wild cetaceans, animal and human injuries and deaths, and the poor health of many of its orcas.
Unfortunately, this ‘rescue rationale’ has also been used as justification by SeaWorld in the past in acquiring dolphins from the dolphin drive hunts in Japan where SeaWorld explained its involvement in these cruel hunts as saving individuals from certain death. Instead, SeaWorld’s involvement in the drive hunts only solidified the ongoing connection between captive facilities and these deadly hunts, providing a financial incentive for their continuation.
The truth. By rescuing animals, SeaWorld is provided ongoing access to wild whales and dolphins that are considered unreleasable, without the negative criticism of capturing these individuals directly from the wild. At the same time, these rescue efforts reinforce SeaWorld’s ongoing narrative that whales and dolphins are better off in a captive facility where they can receive care and protection under their guardianship, than in their natural environment.
Find out more about the orcas held by SeaWorld.