Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts

An Open Letter from the Informed American Public

Inaccurate reports from SeaWorld recently placed in full-page advertisements in major newspapers included a series of mistruths about the quality of life of the animals in its care. The truth is in the facts about its parks and management, and it’s time to set the record straight.

The men and women that we represent are true animal advocates. We are the Oceanic Preservation Society, creators of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, and we represent millions of American citizens including scientists, researchers, veterinarians, ex-trainers, marine biologists, educators, conservationists, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, students, veterans, and many other compassionate and intelligent people. This growing sector of the public sees through the narrative that SeaWorld has crafted about its operations — they know that ultimately SeaWorld is a business with a bottom line.

Here are some important facts about SeaWorld and its work:

SeaWorld is afraid that the truth about captivity is spreading, especially since the release of the film Blackfish. The open letter advertisement placed by SeaWorld is in response to Blackfish, but steers clear of the title for fear of bringing the film further attention. Blackfish has already been seen by over 20 million people, has been shortlisted for an Oscar, and is negatively impacting SeaWorld’s public image and bottom line. Its stock price has dropped as much as 30% since the release of Blackfish, its CEO and institutional investors have dumped tens of millions of shares, eight internationally renowned musical acts have cancelled performances at the park, and the company has resorted to recruiting visitors with Groupon deals to boost failing attendance.

SeaWorld no longer captures killer whales in the wildit now has other people capture animals for them. The genetic diversity of orcas in captivity is low, often resulting in inbreeding. Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act prevents SeaWorld from capturing wild animals directly without federal permits, which would be open to public review and highly controversial, it resorts to creative ways of introducing new animals and fresh DNA into the system. One recent example of this involves an orca named Morgan. Documents filed by SeaWorld in April 2013 establish that it claims ownership of Morgan, who was rescued as an emaciated young animal off the Netherlands in 2010. Morgan should have been returned to the wild after rehabilitation, but was instead sent to Loro Parque, a marine mammal park in the Canary Islands where SeaWorld holds several young animals in its corporate collection. Morgan is the subject of ongoing litigation to return her to her family.

Earlier this year, SeaWorld helped orchestrate the capture of 18 Beluga whales in Russia from a population that its own research shows may be threatened with extinction — a permit the United States ultimately denied. SeaWorld is actively appealing the ruling.

In 2009, SeaWorld made an unsuccessful attempt to buy a dolphin that was stranded from the infamous dolphin drive fishery in Taiji, Japan. The demand for captive dolphins is thedriving force behind the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world in Taiji. The only reason SeaWorld hasn’t been importing dolphins from the Taiji dolphin drive is because conservation organizations have successfully prevented them — not because of the “groundbreaking success” of its breeding research.

SeaWorld routinely separates mothers, babies, sisters, brothers and all other forms of family bonds to accommodate its performances. There are many instances of orca babies and children being removed from their mothers at SeaWorld parks. These families are broken up purely for business purposes, despite the strong and enduring bonds shared by pod members. In nature, males may stay by their mother’s side for an entire lifetime. Orcas have deeply complex social structures—the part of their brain that processes emotions may be even more developed than in humans—that a manufactured “family” and can in no way reproduce.

No amount of money can recreate an orca’s natural environment. SeaWorld’s barren concrete tanks are an appalling substitute for nature. Orcas, one of the ocean’s fastest mammals, can travel 60 miles a day or more in a straight line. In a tank they are forced to swim in tight circles. The multimillion-gallon artificial habitats that SeaWorld boasts are less than one one-millionth of the animals’ potential daily range in the wild. In captivity, every male orca suffers dorsal fin collapse while only 1-5% of males display this deformity in the wild.
As highly acoustic animals, orcas would normally rely on a complex array of clicks and whistles to build relationships with each other, communicate over vast distances, and hunt prey. No amount of human interaction and “restaurant-quality” fish can adequately reproduce an orcas natural interaction with their wild habitat. In fact, animals in captivity are often prescribed daily medications to treat or mask the symptoms of chronic stress associated with confinement, training, and performing for screaming crowds.

Orcas die prematurely at SeaWorld. More orcas have died under SeaWorld’s care than are currently alive in all at its parks. Its orcas live, on average, as little as a third of the life span of wild orcas. Despite the veterinary care provided at SeaWorld, it has not improved the animals’ 50% infant mortality rate. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that orcas die an early death in captivity, with an annual mortality rate at least three times higher than in the wild. Most orcas at SeaWorld have died in their teens and 20’s (if they survived infancy in the first place), compared with an average life expectancy of 30-50 years in the wild (and an estimated maximum life span of 60-90 years). The few animals in SeaWorld’s collection who have lived closer to their natural average life expectancy are highlighted as poster children for the captivity industry. Instead they should be seen as extraordinary survivors.

Orca captivity is not a prerequisite to conducting scientific research; in fact, the captive environment often yields artificial results. There are hundreds of scientists and research institutions that have contributed meaningful knowledge about whales in the wild — without confining them to captivity. As pointed out by Jacques Cousteau, there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement.

SeaWorld has published very few scientific papers on the species and what it has contributed to our understanding of their biology was learned some time ago. SeaWorld contributes almost no information today that addresses the protection of wild orcas

The exploitation of sentient, self-aware, highly intelligent creatures is not necessary for rescuing and rehabilitating sick wildlife. SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been struggling to keep up with the incredible efforts of dozens of highly qualified organizations across the country for many years. SeaWorld Entertainment claims $1.5 billion a year in revenue, yet they have spent only $9 million on conservation in the last decade. This translates to only 0.0006 of the company’s net revenue being funneled back into research and conservation annually. For every hundred dollars made by the park, less than 1 cent is given back to research benefiting wildlife. Furthermore, most of its rescue work is with animals that are not profitable as performers in its shows.

SeaWorld has never released an orca back into the wild.

Captivity can drive orcas to behave violently, leading to unsafe working conditions for trainers. A lifetime of confinement routinely causes orcas to behave in an unnaturally violent manner toward each other and their trainers. There is not a single known instance of an orca killing a person in the wild. There are dozens of documented cases of orcas attacking humans in captive environments. One animal in particular, Tilikum, has killed three people. An orca on loan from SeaWorld at Loro Parque rammed trainer Alexis Martinez to death just two months before SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was dismembered at its Orlando park. In both cases, the parks downplayed the cause of death, saying Martinez had merely drowned, and Brancheau, who was rag-dolled and dismembered by Tilikum, was responsible because she dangled her ponytail too close to him. OSHA ruled that SeaWorld could no longer place trainers in the water with orcas, and yet the company is fighting the decision, stating that putting animals and their trainers together is an important part of its business of putting on shows.

Baba Dioum was right when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

We have been taught that captivity gravely harms the animals that we love; we understand that SeaWorld has a vested interest in keeping the public uninformed; and we can best carry out orca conservation by keeping them in the wild.

The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the “I can’t believe we used to do that” generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect.

SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public. [x]

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