Monday, March 1, 2010

Can we just all agree that having orcas in captivity is a bad idea?

Like many children, I grew up mildly obsessed with sea mammals.  I wrote my 6th grade "research paper" on manatees, watched Free Willy multiple times, and thought getting to touch a dolphin would be the high point of my life.

I never did get to touch a dolphin, though.  When I was a kid, I never got the chance, and now that I'm an adult, I understand that I shouldn't.  These animals don't want to play with us.  They don't want to live in captivity for our amusement.  They want to be free.  Confined, they get sick.  They get depressed.  They get irritable.  And, tragically, they kill.

What happened at Sea World was not a fluke accident.  It was a natural consequence of treating a wild and dangerous animal as a play thing.  In fact, the whale responsible for last week's death had been involved in two other human fatalities previously.  Flipper's former trainer, the star of the documentary The Cove, has called for a federal investigation of Sea World and its animal handling practices.

Throughout, Sea World's behavior has been shameful.  It reportedly took them 25-30 minutes to retrieve the trainer from the whale's mouth.  Do they not have security procedures in place in case this happens?  Tranquilizer guns?  If, at a zoo, a lion attacked a trainer, the lion would be shot.  For them to let 30 minutes go by without subduing the whale shows me that this company shows shocking disregard not only for the animals it has on display, but also for the people who risk their lives by working with them.  Moreover, Sea World has blamed the "accident" on the trainer's ponytail, not the recklessness of a business model that requires interacting with deadly animals, or the insufficient safety measures in place to support such a model.  Nor will they allow the animal involved to be labelled "violent."  Make no mistake: this whale is too valuable to be taken out of commission, not for this, and not for the other two deaths it (and the captive whale industry) caused.

I visited Sea World once with my sister, expecting to capture some of the magical feeling I had as a kid when I dreamt of swimming with dolphins.  What I found, instead, was a place where animal welfare was treated as secondary to children's naive amusement.  There was a pool set up where you could reach in and touch starfish, sea urchins, and other marine animals.  This was in such contrast to zoo or aquarium environments (which are far from perfect themselves) where you're admonished to not even touch the glass, lest you startle the animals.  Hundreds of children were sticking their grubby hands into this pool and roughly handling living creatures, with little supervision.  At the Shamu show, we noted many of the whales had bent-over fins.  A trainer explained to us that this happens in captivity sometimes due to insufficient swimming space.  There's a reason there are so few live births to whales in captivity.  They are trapped in an environment that is too small, rife with chemicals, and completely wrong for them to thrive.  From PETA (which I understand is extreme on this and other issues):
The only thing that people learn from visiting a SeaWorld theme park is how miserable life is for the animals who are held there. Left to breathe and drink their own diluted urine and the waste of others in the tank with them, they languish for decades as shadows of their former selves. Many marine mammals develop vision problems from the chlorine and other chemicals that are put into their tanks, while some develop nutritional problems from the diet they are fed. Denied the simple pleasures of jumping in waves or choosing a mate, they face the inescapable noise of tens of thousands of visitors, whose steps actually vibrate through the walls of their tanks all day long, every day.
Sea World has defended keeping these animals in captivity by saying they teach children to care about sea mammals and ocean conservation.  I don't buy this argument.  I was enchanted by "saving the rainforest" as a child, even though I'd never been anywhere near one.  As I already mentioned, I was obsessed with manatees, and still have never seen one outside a photograph.  It's nature.  You don't need to touch it, or have it do tricks for you, to understand its majesty.  Nor should we need to see it kill to respect its danger.


  1. Great post - I totally agree and am ashamed that the Atlanta aquarium is developing a dolphin exhibit.

    Unrelated, it's kind of awesome that we have an orca thread.

  2. i really feel for the animals in captivity, even in the zoo where we're just staring many animals still look bored or sad. On the other hand one reason we all feel for these animals is because we see them and learn about them and their natural environments by visiting aquariums and zoos. Would you ever see an orca in the wild? Would you care if it went extinct if you never knew about them? it's a tough balance


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!