Captivity or Uncertainty?
In 1960, SeaWorld began capturing whales from the wild and placing them into captivity. Shortly after in the mid 1970s, SeaWorld began displaying these whales in theatrical shows as tourist entertainment. Then in 1985, SeaWorld took the next step by starting its own whale breeding program. After years of protest from animal-rights activists, SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that it would end its popular orca shows by 2019 as well as end its breeding program (Bomey). This came as a huge breakthrough for those fighting for the well-being of SeaWorld’s whales, but unfortunately it is not satisfactory enough. Although it has agreed to phase out its popular attraction, SeaWorld has made it clear that it will not be releasing any of its captive whales. “Critics want us to go further; they believe we should simply ‘set free’ the whales and release them into the ocean. We believe this would be a death sentence for our whales,” (qtd. in Schelling). Ending the shows that these whales have been forced into performing in is only the first step in ensuring that these orcas live out the rest of their lives as ordinarily and naturally as possible. The next step, is freedom. The conditions of their current captivity pose threats to SeaWorld’s whales, and releasing them into the ocean to roam free could have potentially fatal consequences. Sea pens are the best way of allowing the killer whales more freedom without putting their health or lives at risk.
“Any sanctuary is… better than captivity,” says marine mammal neuroscientist Lori Morino, founder of the Utah-based Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project (qtd. in Kirby). In order to better understand how captivity affects them, researchers scanned the brain of an orca that had been in captivity for several years, and found something astounding. Orcas have an extended part of their brain adjacent to the limbic system which processes emotions. “The safest inference would be that these animals lead highly emotional lives. It’s becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self, sense of social bonding, that they’ve taken to another level much stronger, much more complex than in other mammals including humans,” says Morino (qtd. in Blackfish). Because all of the whales in SeaWorld were either captured or bred into captivity, they lack this sense of self and social bonding that their natural communities are meant to provide them. This is one of the main reasons for why so many of its whales are given antidepressants as humans would be if they were depressed and lacked social interaction.
An easier way to think about how these whales lack interaction, even in a small space, is by thinking of each of them as a different nation. They’re from different parts, have different genes, and even use different languages because no orca community is exactly the same as another. Critics of releasing them entirely, such as SeaWorld, claim that even though they’re not with their original communities, their whales have built up new communities with their fellow tank mates. However, putting these whales together in a place of small confinement doesn’t create a new community, or pod as they’re called in the wild, it only creates an artificial assembly. Because the whales at SeaWorld are indeed all different from one another in several ways, being forced together in a small concrete pool with no means of escape creates hyper-aggression especially towards males who are larger and less agile than their female counterparts. This overcrowding has led to some of the most violent animal incidents including orcas raking strips of skin off of each other, animals pushing each other out of their tanks, and fights that have even turned fatal (Schelling).
Take for example Kandu, a 14 year-old, 4,000 lb., Icelandic whale caught in 1977. In 1989 she rammed 23 year-old, 8,000 lb. newcomer Corky during a live show (the two had been aggressive towards each together ever since Corky’s arrival). After ramming Corky behind her dorsal fin, Kandu broke her jaw which severed an artery in her head. After forty-five minutes of hemorrhaging, she died spurting blood from her blowhole while her 11 month-old daughter Orkid circled panicked around her mother.
Aggressive acts such as the fatal attack made by Kandu are extremely rare in the wild for several reasons. The first, is that whales are by nature unaggressive creatures. The fact that each orca pod is complexly different from any other in the world is why many whales don’t interact with other whales outside of their communities. The second reason, is that if there were to ever be a rare altercation between two whales in the wild, there is room to escape and the interaction would be brief. Whales kept in SeaWorld’s pools have no choice but to live in close proximity to whales that they can barely communicate with, and that they don’t necessarily get along with. Morino believes that, “All whales in captivity have a bad life. They’re all emotionally destroyed, [and] they’re all psychologically traumatized so they are [essentially] ticking time bombs,” (qtd. in Blackfish).
Because the whales at SeaWorld are for the most part psychologically damaged, they aren’t fit for full release into the ocean if SeaWorld ever did decide to take that next step. While it is almost every animal-rights activist’s or animal loving person’s dream for the twenty-four orca whales currently inhabiting SeaWorld to be released into the ocean where they should be, doing so would be unbeneficial for them in the long-term. But whale’s come from and are meant to be in the ocean, how can it be unbeneficial to return them to where they’re meant to be?
Almost all of the whales in what is being called SeaWorld’s last generation, were bred into captivity or were captured many years ago and forced into living a captive lifestyle. Because of this, many of them don’t remember or have no experience/concept of an oceanic lifestyle. Meaning, that they have no survival skills or experience as well as no family to return to. Having no skills on how to catch fish is a major issue because whales need to be able to hunt and catch fish in order to not starve. Having been fed frozen and thawed food for the majority of their lives, they might not only be unable to catch food for themselves, but they may reject the fresh food that they are unaccustomed to. Not having a family to return to is also an important issue because whales, as previously stated, are by nature social creatures that have an enlarged part of their limbic systems that actually allows them to have a sense of social bonding. Whales in the wild travel over seventy-five miles per day which after several years of captivity, would make it nearly impossible for SeaWorld’s whales to reunite with their families. It would be especially difficult for those born into captivity who were separated from their mothers and have no other family to return to. The language barrier between them would also make it extremely difficult for them to integrate themselves into a new pod.
Without social bonding these whales could become solitary misfits or worse, fall into depression if they’re not already there. Killer whales are similar to humans in the way that depression affects them. They may lose interest in interaction even when presented with it, they may lose the will to be active, and they may lose their appetites. Without constant doses of antidepressants, like many of them are receiving right now, releasing SeaWorld’s whales into the ocean would surely be a prolonged death sentence. Similarly, discontinuing the medications that many of the whales are already receiving as a means of forcing them to learn to be natural again, is unethical and unmorally sound.
Some argue that if these whales were able to be taught how to splash their tails, wave, or how to throw a marine animal trainer dozens of feet into the air then they should be able to learn or relearn how to be wild. However, teaching an animal how to be in the wild takes away the whole component of what it means to be wild. To be wild means to live or grow in the natural environment and not be domesticated or cultivated. If one were to try and train an animal to be wild, then the animal would only be learning how to act just as it would if it were learning a new trick for a show. The animal would be expecting a reward for its actions and without that reward in its natural habitat the whales would surely die of starvation because they wouldn’t know any better. Animal Welfare Institute mammal scientist Naomi Rose says, “The arrogance of thinking we can teach a captive-bred whale how to be a wild, competent adult is pretty outrageous,” (qtd. in Schelling).
Advocates of full-ocean release bring up the case of Keiko, an orca that was captured as a calf in 1979 and was the first captive whale to ever be released back into the wild, as support of ocean-release success. Only one year after being captured, Keiko was released back into the ocean in 1998. However, even though he was born in the wild, had only been in captivity for a year, and millions were spent preparing him for his release, he still failed to reintegrate with orcas and remained dependent on caretakers ultimately dying of pneumonia and starvation (Hackett, Kirby). Although he was indeed close to reaching his natural lifespan of a killer whale, his death actually serves as a better example for why captive whales should not return to the wild.
If a whale that was born naturally into the ocean and was only in captivity for a year could not be rewired to return to its natural ways, then it is almost impossible to believe that whales who were bred into captivity or have been captive for many years can change their ways to live freely in the ocean without dependency on caretakers. This is the main concept behind why if the whales of SeaWorld are to be freed or relocated, they should be placed not into the vast ocean, but rather into the sanctuary of sea pens.
Sea pens are large netted off areas of the ocean usually established in coves, archipelagos, or bays. In comparison to barren concrete tanks, sea sanctuaries provide acres of deep natural sea water to swim and dive in without exposing its inhabitants to all of the uncertainties of the ocean. Critics of sea pens argue, “What’s the point of exchanging one form of captivity for another?” Well, because ocean-release poses significant threats to SeaWorld’s whales, sea pens are a fantastic alternative to provide sanctuary rather than captivity without putting the health of these whales at full-risk.
In a sea sanctuary, the whales would still have the chance to learn how to catch prey without be forced to since there’s no guarantee that it’s possible for them to become independent from their caretakers. They would also still have round-the-clock monitoring and veterinary care which would be important since they would still be being, “… exposed to the disease, pollution, and other man-made and natural disasters,” (SeaWorld, qtd. in Kirby) that they aren’t accustomed to. Also, the orcas would not spend their lives performing tricks or thinking that they are being punished by no longer performing when in fact, the shows just no longer exist.
For those who would not have the chance to see the whales before the move, theoretical retirement plans for these whales have already been drawn up and include public access to sea pen sites where visitors can still view the whales from a discrete distance. This will allow public viewing while also allowing the whales to be left in as natural as a setting as attainable without stadium seating, flashing cameras, roaring crowds, and deafening music. Basically, sea pens would allow orcas access to the things that they’ve become dependent on in captivity such as medical care and prepared food, while also allowing them more room to swim and regain a part of their lives that nature intended for them.
Advocates for full-ocean release and SeaWorld itself make a valid argument when pointing out that, “…sea cages for orcas do not currently exist in the world,” (qtd. in Schelling) so there’s no guarantee that they will work; however, only one whale has ever been released into the ocean from captivity and he died a cold lonely death only a few years after. Thus, there is no guarantee that full-ocean release works. Also, most orcas die between the ages of twenty-five and thirty when kept in captivity so it is obvious that captivity also leads to a premature death. Hippos and elephants are more closely related to whales than even dolphins, and they have been being placed into sanctuaries for years with great success. Although dolphins aren’t the closest relative to whales, there have also been sanctuaries successfully created for them such as the sea sanctuary for the U.S Navy’s Marine Mammal Program located just miles down the coast from SeaWorld San Diego. Thus, there is strong support as to how successful these whale sea pens could be if SeaWorld was willing to take that step forward.
SeaWorld used to move its whales around much more often and extensively so the move itself would not pose as a problem. In fact, cost and location are the two main barriers. An ideal sea sanctuary site must be protected, accessible year-round, have the right temperature, the right salinity, the right seafloor depths, the right tidal action to flush out waste, have an area for veterinary care, and room onshore to construct a command post and visitor center. It sounds impossible that the perfect location exists, but while drawing up possible retirement plans, location scouters have already identified several prime locations including the South Pacific Islands as well as areas in other various countries including the United States, Europe, Canada, and possibly even China.
Location scouting is not the only difficult task when it comes to creating sea pen sanctuaries, paying for them can also be a hurdle. Costs include paying for a project manager, staff veterinarian, caregivers, divers, security personnel, water quality manager, transportation, infrastructure, and feeding (Kirby). It has been estimated that caring for one whale can cost anywhere between $758,000 and $1.56 million. So who would pay for the move and care of over a dozen whales when they could instead pay for the move and temporary surveillance of them until they are fully released?
Director of the Washington-based Center for Whale Research Ken Balcomb, his brother Howard Garrett as well as his wife Susan Berta, who were featured in the 2013 film Blackfish (which expands on the controversy of keeping such intelligent creatures in captivity) as former SeaWorld trainers, and together are anti-captivity activists as well as the founders of the Network Conservation Organization, believe the money can be raised through traditional fund-raising methods. These methods include individual small donors, major foundation grants, and appealing to benevolent benefactors. They are also prepared to engage in academic partnerships in which universities and research centers pay fees in exchange for access to the whales for scientific study (Kirby). Donations have already been made by groups such as the Makah Tribe in the Pacific Northwest who’ve donated a portion of their land to a future sanctuary, and Munchkin, a global baby-product company, donated $200,000 and pledged another million to the movement. These are just two examples of the hundreds that have already pledged to donate if SeaWorld agrees to move its whales.
After announcing the end of its popular, theatrical orca shows, SeaWorld has rejected to take a step further by releasing its captive whales claiming that it will be a death sentence for its animals. Hypocritically, as SeaWorld refuses to free its whales because said freedom poses as a health threat, its whales who are physically unable to communicate are suffering violent attacks in confined spaces from one another. Similarly, while it is true that releasing them into the ocean is the most natural thing to be done for them, they ultimately would not survive because they would have no family/community to return to, no survival skills, and no exposure to the ocean’s elements including other animals, temperature fluctuations, and weather patterns. Cases such as Keiko stand as strong evidence as to how ocean-release does not necessarily lead to a prolonged or better life, which is why sea pens are the next best thing to be done for them. After all, if they can’t live in the ocean, life in a netted-off area is infinitely preferable to confinement in what amounts to a glorified swimming pool. “The idea that sea pens in and of themselves are dangerous is utterly ludicrous… it’s not something to be done lightly. I agree with [SeaWorld] on all of those points. But the [idea] that it would be a death sentence? That’s ludicrous,” says Rose (qtd. in Schelling). Indeed, there are no current whale sanctuaries in the world, but after the release of Blackfish, and the announcement that SeaWorld will put an end to its killer whale shows, efforts to construct sanctuaries have already begun. Locations have been scouted, land has been donated, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been donated. If circuses can retire their elephants who are closely related to whales, if research universities can send their lab chimps to sanctuaries, then why can’t the same be done for SeaWorld’s whales? “[SeaWorld] should release its animals that have put years into the industry into open ocean pens so that they can live out the rest of their lives and experience the natural rhythms of the ocean,” Samantha Berg, former trainer at SeaWorld Orlando (qtd. in Blackfish). To force them to live in their current conditions for what could be another forty plus years, and to release them into an unknown environment to fend for themselves are much crueler death sentences than moving them into the sanctuary of sea pens.
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