Special Series- Why Zoos Matter: A Slippery Slope

In 2013, a movie masquerading as a documentary premiered that would change many people’s lives.  The film “Blackfish” changed the way many folks saw SeaWorld and the keeping of orcas in captivity.  After fighting organizations with millions of donated dollars at their disposal (you didn’t actually think the money donated to these “animal welfare” organizations actually went to the ANIMALS, did you?) for three years, SeaWorld has finally waved the white flag and cried “Uncle”.  They will be phasing out their orca program, after only fifty years in cetecean husbandry, and being the pioneers in the field to boot.  More than that, SeaWorld is starting a partnership with one of their biggest and loudest critics, the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that has spent millions of donated dollars promoting anti-captivity, not just anti-SeaWorld campaigns (although ironically, this new partner was one of the front runners to anti-SeaWorld campaigns to end the orca program).

I’m so flustered and perplexed that I can’t even think or type straight.  Okay, what’s wrong with SeaWorld ending its orca program?  Let me count the ways:

  1.   Orca husbandry is still in its infancy.  I know 50 years sounds like an extremely long time, but in zoological institutions, it’s just a blip on the time spectrum.  Humans have captured and maintained animal collections for thousands of years.  The early zoos and menageries were a far cry from the institutions that house similar animals today.  But it took science and researchers hundreds of years to perfect husbandry practices for many of the animals that now thrive in the care of humans.  Looking at the progress and strides made by SeaWorld in just the past 50 years shows how far advanced they really are.  In fifty years, SeaWorld emerged as the world leader in progressive animal trainer with operant conditioning through positive reinforcement.  They are considered the premiere experts in rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals.  Within the past fifty years, SeaWorld was able to produce third generation of animals, something that until 2008 wasn’t accomplished in elephants, an animal that has been in human care on record for more than a thousand years.  Progress in the housing environment was also being progressed, giving the orcas more space, more quality space, and more naturalistic space, with the conception of Blue World.  These steps toward advancing orca husbandry and providing better welfare was definitely progress.  And in such a record short amount of time compared to the rest of zoos.  SeaWorld should have been commended.  Instead, animal rights activists complained that nothing except ending the program completely would be good enough, and so SeaWorld, a leading expert in orca care, felt the animal rights activists had more credentials and should be listened to over the voices of thousands of animal welfare professionals, and millions of visitors who wanted to see how far SeaWorld could have gone in their killer whale efforts.
  2.  This decision is entirely based off the pressure from animal rights activists, and done in an effort to “get them off SeaWorld’s back”.  However, this action will unfortunately provide the exact opposite of ARA easing off.  This decision has fueled their fire, and provided them with the recipe to create similar pressure for them to end other animal programs, and to pressure other zoological institutions to end their animal programs.  Again, SeaWorld had risen as one of the most premiere zoological institutions, pioneers in behavioral husbandry and animal training.  If THEY saw “the light” and ended their program, why won’t Blah Blah Aquarium?  Or Yada Yada Zoo end their animal program?  By pressuring a prestigious institution to bow to the whim of non-animal professionals, SeaWorld has spelled out the exact recipe for these organizations to get their way with less funded or prepared institutions.  How is a non-profit going to pay their legal fees if they are sued, like SeaWorld has been countless times?  How are they going to outcompete and out-propagate the anti-captivity agenda?
  3. Killer whales were indeed a big ticket item, but star attractions have a great role to play in zoological institutions, and I truly believe the ends can justify the means, so long as animal welfare isn’t compromised.  People paid big bucks to see Shamu.  There’s no secret to that.  The orcas were the stars of SeaWorld and anyone that argued that point was simply fooling themselves.  But you know what often happens when you visit a zoological institution?  You get up-close and personal with those animals and appreciate them as you never imagined.  And that encounter inspires you to protect not just that super-star mega-fauna, but all the other animals they share their habitat with  If your favorite animal is a tiger, you will not just save the tiger’s home, but you will strive to protect the tiger’s food source, and other animals within its ecosystem.  But what is always fascinating to me is when someone comes to see the mega-fauna, and discover a whole new species they didn’t realize existed.  This happens ALL THE TIME!  But people wouldn’t have walked through the gates to discover this life-altering encounter with a species of unknown kind, if it hadn’t been for the big ticket animal.
  4. Know what else big ticket animals do?  They help fund conservation and research that would not be affordable without the big draw.  Want to know what killer whales at SeaWorld help fund?  Conservation programs that give more money and fund more research than several non-profit zoos combined can afford.  They also provide the resources, staff, facility, and medical care to the most successful rescue and rehabilitation program on earth.  Not in the marine animal industry, not in the United States.  ON EARTH. How big is big?  Big as in SeaWorld is contacted and consulted with rescue efforts around the globe.  An oil spill in Africa affected thousands of penguins, and SeaWorld sent several avian specialists to Africa to assist in the rescue efforts.  Big as in 27,000 animals rehabilitated and released.  No other wildlife rehabilitation center can claim such outstanding success.  Because no other wildlife rehabilitation center has the funds and resources that SeaWorld has.  SeaWorld is a for-profit organization, which means they get absolutely NO government funding.  So, where does the money come from to afford such lucrative efforts for wild animals?  From ticket sales.  And what’s the #1 drive for ticket sales?  Yup. Orcas.  So, this decision has me worried.  If orcas are a big ticket drive, and ticket sales are what fund this incredible animal rescue program, how does SeaWorld predict they will still continue to provide such a great asset to wildlife rehabilitation?
  5. And finally, I get that SeaWorld’s critics claim they don’t think of the whales, but in this decision, I just don’t see the whales’ welfare was considered down the road either.  Orcas are highly social animals, and one way to provide a quality life to such a highly social, and intelligent animal, is to provide them with the opportunity to raise their young.  Raising a calf is considered one of the best opportunities for highly social animals to demonstrate natural behaviors and behave as normal individuals.  The older females have had their opportunity, and many of them have led more fulfilling lives as a result.  But the younger whales will never have this chance.  How can SeaWorld claim to provide the best possible life to their orcas, yet deny this inalienable desire to raise their young?  How is ending their breeding program providing quality care and great welfare?

I know the subject of orcas in captivity has been a sore subject for some people.  I won’t pretend to understand why there are people who are okay with some animals in captivity, but not others, just because a certain animal rights group claims that having said animal in captivity is bad.  I can’t help but be reminded of this poem by Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

All you have to do is substitute one animal species and I feel this is the road we are heading down.  A slippery slope.  Stand together or fall separately, which is exactly what the animal rights people are hoping will happen.  When we fall one by one, it makes it that much easier for them to crumple the next facility.  Don’t let this decision from SeaWorld be the beginning of the end.


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