By Kim Robson:
The time has come. SeaWorld is finally beginning to accept the fact that public acceptance of live killer whale shows has declined dramatically in the wake of the documentary Blackfish. Earlier this year, SeaWorld announced plans to build a much larger enclosure to display their orcas. However, the larger tank wasn’t for the orcas to live in; it was just for public display.
As a condition for approval of the plan, however, the California Coastal Commission required that SeaWorld end its captive breeding program. Since SeaWorld insists it hasn’t taken orcas from the wild for decades (they simply purchase them from countries that do), maintaining the appearance and viability of their breeding program is essential to SeaWorld’s survival.
SeaWorld complained that ending its captive breeding program would effectively deny the orcas a beautiful, natural part of their existence. This “natural” breeding involves too-young juveniles, incest and inbreeding, passing on aggressive traits (Tillikum has sired 21 calves), collecting semen manually for artificial insemination, and an alarming number of stillbirths. SeaWorld is appealing the CCC’s decision.
In the meantime, SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby just announced that live orca shows will be phased out by 2017, but that doesn’t mean the whales won’t remain on public display. It plans to develop more conservation-based shows in the future.
As yet, the announcement applies only to the San Diego location, not the San Antonio or Orlando parks. But it’s a start. SeaWorld is seeking to promote marine education and still plans a more natural setting for the killer whales.
Experts say this new approach could foster new interest in protecting killer whales. “In 100 years, we’ll look back and be disgusted by how we treated [the whales],” said marine biologist Ted Phillips, who studied marine mammals and their mental capacities at Duke University. “Getting kids exposed to the outdoors and engendering an emotional connection — that’s the best way to get people caring about the environment.”
But Phillips will not personally give his patronage to SeaWorld because he disagrees with the company’s policies on animal captivity. There are simple and digestible conservation issues — for instance, by-catch regulations that would protect killer whales from being accidentally captured or injured by fishing gear — that can be presented to the public without capitalizing on the entertainment factor. “Whale shows aren’t the only way to get people interested in marine science,” Phillips said.
Simone Baumann-Pickering, an assistant researcher with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said the controversy surrounding SeaWorld is still morally ambiguous, but she thinks the company’s rebranding efforts are positive steps.
The will of the people is being heard by government, too. Ontario’s provincial government passed legislation in May that bans both acquiring and breeding killer whales in captivity. And the California Coastal Commission recently introduced a bill that would ban California properties from breeding killer whales in captivity. If it were to become law (barring an exemption), the legislation would likely limit SeaWorld’s growth.
SeaWorld should focus on marketing its beneficial programs such as its Rescue Team, which is on call 24/7/365. They rehabilitate marine animals in distress and return them to the wild. Animals with conditions that prevent them from surviving in the wild are given lifelong care. This legacy of animal rescue has benefited more than 26,000 animals. SeaWorld’s Rescue Team has created nutritional formulas and nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned animals; has saved sea turtles with cracked shells, using everyday items like honey and baby ointment; has crafted prosthetic beaks for injured birds; and has developed an “animal wetsuit” to help injured manatees stay afloat.
It’s a start. We’ll be watching to see if this new approach is based on genuine concern for animal welfare or on SeaWorld’s bottom line.