8 SeaWorld and Captive Orca Criticisms that are Completely Misguided
There are 23 killer whales currently in SeaWorld’s care (55 worldwide, and around 36 adults have died at the parks). 23.
If as much energy, vitriol, and attention was injected into easily resolvable conservation-related subjects (such as for instance, ending the free-roaming of pet cats) as it is with hating SeaWorld after the numerous exhibitions of the documentary Blackfish, we would see a substantial increase in our local biodiversity. Yet it isn’t to be.
In our current virality and trend obsessed culture, popularity, by whichever mechanisms bring such forth, rules the roost—and this is why one tragic disease is on everyone’s mind in 2014 (ALS). It is also why one string of aquariums garners more negative attention than any other, despite—as I’m sure it will be difficult for critics to argue against—having not done anything overtly more ‘horrible’ than any other zoological facility. It’s not that some of the criticisms aren’t valid, but at this point, much of them are absurdly flying off the handle to the point that they aren't questioned anymore.
The captivity of any and all organisms is a trial and error process and just like with most examples of these processes, there exists errors with such trials. In other words, captivity isn’t perfect, just like ‘the wild’ isn’t. Is SeaWorld the first zoo to make errors? Not by a long shot. But with a little help from pseudo-science claiming cetaceans to be just as intelligent as humans (or more) and the sensationalistic ‘David and Goliath’ parable super-glued into many minds, the appeal to focus on SeaWorld and only SeaWorld remains ever robust, and closing it down a rapturous yet foolish desire.
1. Making orcas perform is cruel
Training sessions, such as what the killer whales of SeaWorld receive, are absolutely essential husbandry methods that enhance the welfare and well-being of many captive animals. Whether you find SeaWorld’s shows to be exploitation, circusy in nature (I know, I get it, I hated flashy animal shows before it was cool, and still do) or demeaning to a ‘magnificent’ wild animal, they are essentially training sessions dressed up in flashy fanfare.
There are many critics that are imploring SeaWorld to “retire” their killer whales, or in other words, make them ‘stop working’ in the form of participating in these shows. Many feel that it is ‘cruel’ to make animals work for their food, as though they would rather them have fish routinely dumped in their mouths, day after day.
I ask such critics, how many wild orcas get such handouts? Orcas in the wild must work for their food, everyday, or they don’t get fed. In fact, this activity fulfills most of the mental stimulation requirements the animals require in their natural lives I find that target training is an extremely useful tool in the management of my own exotic pet. This is me doing exactly what SeaWorld does without music.
I know that if I let my pet 'choose' to be fed instead of exercise, he would rapidly gain weight and endanger his health both mentally and physically. This similar cycle occurs with humans, and is flat out common sense, but for those who need a scientific perspective, this study involving the orca's dolphin relatives is suitable.
Complain about the music, the corniness, or other aspects of the presentation all you want, but to halt the animal’s food motivated training sessions because it makes some humans uncomfortable would be foolish, at best.
2. Orcas need live food
The website SeaWorld of hurt states:
“Diet of Pig and Cow Bones”: In captivity, orcas are unable to hunt and obtain water from their prey, so SeaWorld gives them gelatin, a substance that is not natural for them, in an attempt to keep them hydrated.”
Oh no, it's not natural! Is this new? Little or no captive animals eat a ‘natural diet’. My pet green iguana eats chopped salads and not a single leaf is derived from a plant native to South America from which iguanas originate. Most people feed their dogs dry kibble, and even people who feed domesticated pets raw meals, which they proclaim are superior, give their cats foods like beef, turkey, and fish, and we all know how cats love water. In reality, the ‘natural’ diet of cats and their wild relatives are small rodents, insects, and birds, not large domesticated herbivores or ocean dwelling bonito.
Here, once again, the appeal to nature fallacy rears its ugly head. People need to know and understand that natural does not always equal optimal. In fact, one population of orca whales has effectively decimated their dental health (something SeaWorld is also accused of imposing on captive orcas) with a ‘natural’ diet of sharks.
“In most offshore killer whale specimens, tooth wear was categorised as extreme (rating 4). Teeth were usually worn flat to the gum line, with exposed pulp cav-ities in the anterior 6 to 8 rows of mandibular teeth.”
This particular criticism of SeaWorld’s husbandry is perhaps one of the most confounding. Of course, live fish would offer a substantial enrichment opportunity for the animals, just as it may for other animals (although I find it unethical), but alternatives are far from inherently bad for animals.
Some also argue that wild-caught dolphins (which SeaWorld doesn’t import anymore) have to be force-fed dead fish, and this is true, although this is probably because they do not recognize it as food, in the same sense that an animal raised in captivity wouldn’t recognize live animals as food. Simply put, some animals prefer what they are used to and literally do not perceive something new as edible. Stress from capture could also be a reason.
So indeed, SeaWorld feeds dead fish, supplementary gelatin, and uses multivitamins, probably for convenience, but this is not a unique practice. Criticizing the zoo on the grounds of being ‘unnatural’ is silly.
3. Sea pens are The Answer
Keiko the killer whale, also famously known as ‘Free Willy’, floated in his sea pen, listlessly and lethargically, despite having been freed from a concrete tank, despite being in the Icelandic waters of his homeland, surrounded by migrating conspecifics and the ‘rhythm of the ocean’, as SeaWorld detractors sometimes put it. All this stimulation did not morph long-time captive Keiko into the gallivanting joyous fantasy of an animal that Blackfish sympathizers probably picture.
Instead, the friendly animal was in poor physical shape (though doing much better than his condition in his previous Mexican home), that is until the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, some of which included former SeaWorld trainers, helped him develop the skills to survive in the wild (it ended up not working) through specially designed training sessions, including Keiko working for his food.
Much more of this story can be read in the new book Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons.
The concept of the all mighty sea pen is designed to make Blackfish followers feel like there is a 'light at the end of the tunnel' for the crime of captivity—something they can fight for and refuse to compromise until the goal is met. Seeing an animal in a bay pen makes humans feel good, and they cannot and will not consider that the animal might not share our sentiments.
The major benefit I predict for sea pens is the ease of providing more space (which I will describe the benefits of later), but I am unable to secure facts on how large any proposed sea pens will be.
This animal rights organizations seems to detest sea pens. Their criticisms of the Israel-based dolphin park Dolphin Reef include:
"A sea pen is still a captive facility. A dolphin which would normally travel hundreds of miles throughout oceans and dive hundreds of feet is, at Dolphin Reef, contained in a shallow bay a tiny fraction of the size of the usual area it would have to explore and hunt."
What makes their criticism laughable is this:
"Yes, for six years a small 'door' was left in these nets. However, these dolphins are habituated - they receive food in the pen and no longer need to hunt - why would they not come back to their pen if they thought food was readily available there?"
Sorry humans, we actually like being fed
Bingo. Why would an animal want to live in the wild when it can be in the care of humans? Basically, these pens used to remain open, so the dolphins could even leave if they wanted to. This isn't good enough for the typical religious natural-philliac. They proclaim that the dolphin cannot make the decision to stay with its own free-will—that humans are enslaving them, psychologically, with the same comforts we enjoy.
When you have activists this foolish, we can certainly expect people to project their own desires on to animals and assume that anything other than the ocean is cruel for cetaceans. Sea pen advocates also severely downplay or completely ignore the pathogenic risks that will be imposed on animals whose immune systems haven't adapted to the environment.
This is certainly not to say that sea pens and in some rare cases release goals shouldn't be attempted, but just like enclosure expansions, they are experimental trial and error, and those who believe that a sea pen transition will deliver instant feel-good results (in our perception) for the animals have been misinformed.
I believe that sea pen facilities would be a wonderful addition to America's zoos, and then perhaps we could collect some real evidence on whether or not the animals significantly benefit from being in the ocean, and gradually make the change if so (hint hint, SeaWorld, maybe you should start one).
Perhaps, theoretically, if the animals can thrive and yes, breed there (just like with elephants, orcas likely benefit from starting families), then everyone's interests can be satiated (except for faith-following natural-philiacs). Sea pen facilities can be perfect for rehabilitation of large animals like baleen whales and orphans like A73.
Moving some orcas to sea pens that are the best candidates (the positives outweigh the negatives, such as with Lolita who resides in an undersized tank presumably) can contribute to our understanding of the animals both in the wild and captivity, but failures, even death, are possibilities.
4. Adding more room will not help
After much public pressure and scrutiny, SeaWorld has proposed that they will build a larger tank for their orca residents, expanding their enclosures an additional 1.5 acres. This announcement, unsurprisingly, was met with criticism.
"Nothing about enlarging the pools will deal with the stress and health issues associated with captivity. So, to me, enlarging the pools shows that they understand there's a problem with the environment,"
Says Tim Zimmerman, co-writer of Blackfish. What an extremely unscientific (as well as damaging) assumption to make. The reason a larger tank fails to create a dent in the extreme anger people have toward captive killer whales is because of this awesomely terrible logic that I will write about more extensively in other articles: orca whales swim hundreds of miles a day, therefore they need to. If this were true, the sea pen proposal would be a joke. The size of the world’s largest sea pen would be an atom compared to the entire ocean.
Did you know that one extremely popular pet, the hamster, can travel up to 5 miles a day in the wild, but even a 50 gallon tank (which by a wide margin most people do not keep them in) is still pathetically sized compared to that? No, let’s take that a step further. If I made an enclosure for a hamster the size of my room…no, my house, it would STILL be pathetic—a drop in the bucket compared to the miles rodents normally run, but I think most people would find that amount of room to be absurd for one hamster.
I can already hear my detractors yelling ‘a hamster is dumb, nowhere near the intelligence of orcas’. What about elephants?
No one seems to mind when ‘undersized’ enclosures (one that does not provide the same space as the wild) are used by ‘animal sanctuaries’ that deride zoos. The Performing Animal Welfare Institute (P.A.W.S) prides themselves on their enormous elephant pens of over 80 acres, which still do not simulate any species of elephant’s wild range.
For example, in one study the Bornean elephant’s range was found to be about 61776 acres (which I calculated from the 250 of the 250 km2 to 400 km2 figure)not 80! That’s almost 700x the size of their enclosure! But I don’t think this matters a hair. 80 acres is more than sufficient, and we have no reason to believe that smaller sizes couldn’t be just as acceptable, particularly with a great enrichment program.
But that’s not all. In the study:
“The results also show that home range and movement rate for the elephants are influenced by the degree of habitat fragmentation.” And in fragmented forests (i.e., decimated ones) “the annual home range for elephants is estimated to be around 600 km2.”
Elephants travel more when resources are limited. There’s a shocker. People who oppose wild animals working for their food will surely be horrified to learn that animals in the wild must not only work for their food, but tediously follow it.
Why does the Marine Mammal Protection act ban any interaction with or feeding of wild cetaceans?
"It changes their natural behaviors, including feeding and *migration activities*, and decreases their willingness to forage for food on their own."
That's a fancy way of saying the animal will intelligently decide that getting free food from humans is a lot more satisfying than constantly chasing their natural prey. They aren't doing it for fun.
Do wildebeests enjoy their 'Great Migration', in which they must expose themselves and their newly born calves to an assortment of predators, in order to access more resources? This includes trudging across rivers filled with crocodiles.
In addition to the inherent silliness of believing animals must travel as much as their wild counterparts, it is true that many zoo enclosures are certainly too small, bringing us back to the trial and error process I mentioned earlier (I, for one, am also sick of seeing animals like bears, big cats, and wild dogs in enclosures they can barely run in).
Elephants are such an animal, and we now know they should have sufficient room to travel in order to ward of killers such as obesity, joint problems, and infertility, but this does not mean 1000 acres, we can probably see much improvement with 5. At the right is a wonderful 7 acre facility for African elephants at the North Carolina Zoo (elephant death causes for this zoo are 5 bacterial infections, 1 degenerative nerve disease, and one due to old age, most deaths having occurred in the 90’s and 80’s).
Much of the proposed welfare issues that compromise the welfare of orcas can be pinpointed to social stress and strife. Poor dentition, which kills orcas in the wild, also contributes to the deaths of captive orcas, and much of said poor dentition is said to be a result of dominance displays called ‘jaw popping’. More space has the potential to assuage this issue, or possibly even remedy it.
The key to hypothesizing the right amount of space for captive animals is to consider room for animals to avoid conflict, or be able to get out of view from the aggressor, enough room to sufficiently exercise, and enough room to keep the animal mentally stimulated, though a large portion of this will come from other sources of enrichment.
In my opinion, several acres stand a better chance of making the most impactful difference for captive animals like cetaceans, elephants, and chimpanzees (see my statement about the Arhem Zoo), though SeaWorld’s proposal of adding an additional 1.5 acres can still quite possibly stand a chance at dramatically improving the welfare of the animals, particularly if it is utilized in a science-based manner with an understanding of animals. So basically, there could very well be a light at the end of this tunnel, one that unscientifically-minded natural-philiacs have a devoted faith to not consider.
5. Artificially inseminating killer whales is ‘bad’
Criticizing Seaworld for breeding the animals at young ages? Perfectly valid. But for collecting semen? One criticism SeaWorld faces that defies logic is the shocked, appalled reaction people have toward this completely common technique of producing animals, both domesticated and not, in captivity. The popular animal rights blog The Dodo (or ‘The Dumb Dumb’, as I like to refer to it as) states:
“While not drastically harmful to the animals, this is far from natural behavior and often doesn’t result in pregnancy.”
As you can see by now, my criticisms of SeaWorld’s criticisms will have a common theme of me expressing irritation with the ‘natural’ obsessed crowd. Not only is it invalid to assume that something unnatural is automatically harmful, but the critics often blunder with their complete inability to see the double standard they create with their piling accusations against orca care takers. Dog breeds like the bulldog routinely make America’s top 10 most popular breeds, and they literally epitomize ‘unnatural’. This breed is famous for its health problems, and on top of that, it cannot mate naturally:
“Artificial insemination has become a very common means of reproduction for many breeds of dogs but it is actually a necessity for English Bulldogs, few of which can mate naturally.”
Here is an article on ‘The Dumb Dumb’ that glamorizes the debilitated breed. I do not want to get overly sidetracked with this article and rant about another subject I strongly believe in, but I’m astounded at the foolishness associated with the ‘domestication myth’, in which people are appalled with the treatment of ‘wild animals’ and couldn’t care less when it occurs with a ‘domesticated’ animal. It's time people stop viewing animals as 'this and that' and just start viewing them as animals.
However, there are also videos that feature semen collection on elephants and cows in graphic detail—and let’s face it—the orca semen collection videos are far less disgusting in comparison. The animals are not harmed, and there is no outrage. Also, Dodo’s criticism that it doesn’t always result in a pregnancy? I can’t figure out why this bothers them.
6. Orca aggression is the result of mental illness
One of the main points of Blackfish is the history of Tilikum and his so-called involvement in three human deaths. It is suggested throughout the documentary that the orca might be ‘psychotic’ from the stress of captivity and it is even insinuated that SeaWorld is propagating ‘human-killing genes’ in their orca population by using Tilikum as a sperm donor (which does negate that the behavior is brought on by captivity).
Mental illness, in order to be considered as such, must “cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function”. As humans, we would know mental illness, considering that up to 40% of Americans carry at least a mild form, according to one 2005 study. Yet we largely have a perception of mental disorders resulting in abnormal aggression. While a large part of the populace believes that aggression is mostly caused by a mental disorder "…the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).
Aggression in healthily functioning killer whales can and does exist just as it does us. Yes, it is perfectly possible that a captivity-induced stressor could have affected the animal in that moment, but there is little logic to believe a mental disorder, or frequent stress, is the cause.
Now, please be aware that I am not claiming that Tilikum, Nootka IV or Haida II (all involved with the death of trainer Keltie Byrne) are not ‘mentally ill’, because as a scientifically-minded person, I cannot know for sure either or. However, I do consider classifying attacks on humans as mentally ‘pathological’ behavior patently misguided.
No warm-blooded animals (and plenty of cold bloods too) have a finite behavioral repertoire. That is, just like humans, animal behavior is shaped by environmental factors, and this is even truer of cognitively complex mammals like orcas.
Take for instance Luna the killer whale, featured in Blackfish to manipulate audiences into believing that wild orcas are puppy dog-like toward human visitors in the wild (orcas typically avoid humans and other orcas), yet in doing so revealed the ignorance of its creators.
Luna was behaving abnormally because of abnormal conditions, much of which we will never fully understand. The key to my example is this: did anyone decry that Luna was mentally ill? The answer is no—in fact his presence was so beloved that Blackfish’s director chose to feature him in order to make the point ‘look how abnormally aggressive captive orca whales are!’.
Luna was likely not ill but given the conditions of his upbringing, he did not successfully integrate into a killer whale pod which is paramount to their survival. He instead found positive reinforcement interacting with humans. A Canadian federal fisheries officer said, "I don't think he realizes he's a whale. He thinks he's one of the boys." This particular ‘phenomenon’ occurs with our domesticated pets.
So now that I’ve established that ‘abnormal’ behavior doesn’t equate to a debilitating mental illness, what about so-called abnormal aggression?
Dr. Ingrid Visser reports in one study that two killer whales with rake marks were likely targets of other (psychotic?) killer whales. Interspecies aggression between orcas is uncommon but does occur, and if it can occur between wild whales, why not with humans that spend an immeasurable amount of time with them compared to wild orcas? Regardless, normal or not, captivity is not normal, and a captive orca might have as much in common with a wild orca as a human raised in New York City has with a human born into a tribe in Papua New Guinea.
All humans have aggressive tendencies, but the cultural catalytic source of such aggressive ignition varies tremendously from culture to culture and individual to individual. This strange desire of people to simplify the orca mind flies in the face or their ‘they’re just like humans’ view (in this context, orcas are like humans. Just like chimpanzees, their ‘cultural’ and social behaviors are dependent on whom they are raised by at an early age).
Also, here are some fundamental differences between wild and captive orcas:
- Humans feed them every day
- Humans interact with them every day
- Captive orcas are exposed to humans 99.9% more often than wild orcas
Therefore, the emotional hypothesis ‘wild orca whales have never killed a human, therefore the deaths associated with them in captivity suggests the animals are mentally ill, overly stressed, or something else negative’ doesn’t fly and cannot fly. For killer whales or any other animal.
7. Collapsed dorsal fins mean a captive orca is unhealthy
SeaWorld of hurt writes:
“SeaWorld claims that this condition is common—however, in the wild, it rarely ever happens and is a sign of an injured or unhealthy orca.”
This is true of wild whales (see Ingrid Visser’s paper), but not captive orca whales. There are many theories surrounding the phenomena of the bent dorsal fin that mostly occurs with males because of their fin’s large size. The most probable hypothesis suggests that the male’s dorsal fin, which can grow up to 6 feet tall, maintains its erect structure due to the deep water swimming habits of the animal.
The fin is made up of collagen, and the water pressure that the tissue is exposed to helps keep the structure straight. With this, we can see why an orca with a bent fin is likely not healthy in the wild, because such animals might not be diving as deep or swimming as fast. The state of the fin may also serve as a player in sexual selection like healthy peacock feathers that can only maintain their beauty in healthy animals. In captivity, the option to dive to deep depths doesn’t exist, therefore, healthy or not, the fin will flop.
Ruffling a peacocks feathers in captivity doesn’t make it unhealthy, and neither does the presence of the bent fin. If this theory isn’t convincing enough, in a discussion forum titled Voice of San Diego, long time SeaWorld critic Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute did in fact agree that the bent fin is not a health issue. Once again, the natural-philiacs cannot fathom an animal persisting outside of their original design, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary with other species. I’m happy to see at least one SeaWorld critic put to rest one of many anti-captivity speculations being pushed as stone cold truth.
8. We cannot learn from captive cetaceans
Anyone who believes that captive animal studies are near useless needs to read Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes by Frans de Waal. This book, acclaimed by many including respected primatologists and ethologists, follows the societal culture of a group of captive chimpanzees that are thriving in a large acreage exhibit at the Arnhem zoo.
Besides giving the human observer 24 hour, adulterated access to the animal subjects, captivity offers plentiful other opportunities for researchers that are difficult or impossible to achieve in field studies. This applies even more to the highly mobile, often submerged cetaceans where the majority of what we know about them comes from observing them on the surface of the water.
Because most cetaceans do not survive in captivity, it is likely that we are missing out on learning some exciting things about dolphins other than bottlenose dolphins and killer whales, which are the species most extensively studied.
In fact, how an animal’s behavior is shaped by captive conditions is entirely relevant to research. By comparing wild and captive cetaceans, we can deduct how strong a part environmental factors play in the development of their personality and skills, as in the aforementioned addressing of ‘abnormal behavior’.
Just like discovering what mechanisms code for cognitive behaviors in the human brain by studying patients that have diseases where parts of their brain are absent or not functioning properly, captive animals teach us what shapes them—nature vs. nurture.
One more thing I’d like to add.
“In fact, it is the usual experience that toothed whales, even though often equipped with powerful dentition and predatory habits in nature, submit docily to man in captive situations from the moment they are taken on board a collecting ship. They seldom even struggle. Such docility usually continues after capture, even in animals of such evil reputation as the killer whale”.
This passage is from Aggression and Defense: Neural Mechanisms and Social Patterns (1967). Many do like to forget the massive impact that captivity has head on the perception of animals like killer whales. This is why many facilities like the Wolf Conservation Center use ‘ambassador animals’ to educate younger generations about the persecution of certain species. The impact of the existence of captive animals cannot be denied.
The scientists involved with the animal rights movement are mostly aware of all this but downplay or ignore it. Also, they carry out the simple task of discrediting studies that suggest zoos and aquariums have educational benefits for the public by concluding there is no evidence, since most social studies of this nature are rife with scientific method issues inherently. I will not spin the usual propaganda with a photo of a baby gazing upon a zoo exhibit to help back up my claims. I know the impact that the presence of captive animals has had on me.
Who are you? Do you work for SeaWorld?
Just a girl with pets who has done a minimal amount of reading to come to logical conclusions. I don't work for SeaWorld or any zoo. Any accusations of that nature will immediately be deleted.
Do you believe all animals are doing well in zoos?
Some are, some aren't.