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Getting Out Of The Orca Business

SeaWorld trainer interacting with an orca at a park show
photo by Britt Reints

SeaWorld’s most famous residents are still in show business, but the company is preparing to bring the curtain down.

SeaWorld plans to end its captive breeding of orcas, and to replaces the whales’ circus-style performances with a new education-oriented “encounter” experience. The changes in SeaWorld’s handling of orcas (still known in some quarters by the pejorative nickname “killer whales”) is probably a smart business move, and almost certainly an inevitable one, given the backlash that followed the 2013 film “Blackfish.”

But SeaWorld’s decision to end orca breeding is apt to have unintended consequences, not only for its theme parks’ signature attraction but, in the long run, for zoological parks and wildlife conservation in general.

First the unalloyed good news: SeaWorld refuses to engage in the commerce for wild-caught whales. According to SeaWorld, they have not “collected” a wild whale in over 35 years, and SeaWorld has also signed the Virgin Pledge not to accept any whale or dolphin caught in the wild.

Such a barbarous and needless practice should be banned outright. South Carolina became the first state to do so in 2013, with a law that also forbids keeping the animals for show, regardless of whether they are wild-caught or bred in captivity. Other states are currently considering similar laws, and Congress has also considered such a move. Legislation proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, would ban the sale of wild-caught orcas; it would also ban captive breeding.

California regulators made a halt to captive breeding a condition for an expansion of SeaWorld’s San Diego park. At the time, this struck me as a case of serious regulatory overreach, but it is now moot given that SeaWorld is abandoning the breeding programs in all its parks.

It costs a lot of money to maintain whales in captivity, especially if you have a high standard of care. The whales’ performances help cover this cost. If the whales stop attracting paying customers, perhaps because future legislation like South Carolina’s bans such displays, it may become cost-prohibitive to keep them. What would happen to the whales then?

Despite the claims of some well-intentioned advocates who want to see captive whales “set free,” releasing whales who have never been in the wild before is likely to prove both cruel and futile. As SeaWorld’s CEO, Joel Manby, pointed out in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, most of the parks’ orcas were bred in captivity, and the few that were not have been under human care for most of their lives, making their release unwise. Halting the breeding program means SeaWorld will have fewer whales to support in the future if the whales can’t pay their own way.

But is putting a stop to breeding actually healthy for the adult whales already in SeaWorld’s care? SeaWorld itself issued a statement after California regulators forbade breeding in its San Diego park, pointing out that “depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane.” Following the announcement that it would end its breeding program, SeaWorld has stated that it will now work with “leading veterinary and scientific experts” in order to put the whales’ well-being first.

Unless the company is prepared to use some effective form of birth control – and I don’t know if such a thing exists for orcas – an end to the breeding program presumably means keeping sexually mature animals from mating. Do we really know enough about the psychosexual development of whales to understand what this means for their long-term well-being?

Zoos, including privately operated versions like SeaWorld, play a significant role in encouraging of human support for animal welfare. Absent places like SeaWorld, at this point in my life I would never have seen an orca. Until a few weeks ago, the only other place I ever saw any whales at all was during a whale-watch boat trip from Massachusetts, which my wife and I took more than 30 years ago. My more recent contact came during a business trip to San Diego, when my eagle-eyed colleague David Walters spotted the spouts of a few whales far offshore. We stopped to take a look, and I managed to see a couple of flukes before the whales departed. They were too far away for me to identify, and I’m not an expert anyway, but based on the season and geography I would guess they were grays or humpbacks.

Will urban landlubbers like me know, or care, anywhere near as much about these creatures if we never get a chance to see them?

For now, SeaWorld has committed to allowing guests to view the orcas in it new educational encounters, designed to replace its phased-out theatrical shows. The company says it will work in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States and has launched pilot programs, such as one in San Diego, to work with schools to promote interest in marine science. Still, if this generation of orcas is to be the last in captivity, someday the public will have little chance for up-close educational opportunities with orcas, other than possibly the rare rescue animal.

Will other marine parks or aquariums come under severe pressure to follow SeaWorld’s lead and end captive breeding? I am sure they will. What, then, about terrestrial zoos, many of which have breeding programs meant to combat the dangers of shrinking populations in the wild? Animals with as much likely inner life as orcas are focuses of breeding programs around the world, including great apes and other primates, elephants, bears and big cats. The ethics and effectiveness of such programs are already hotly debated, and SeaWorld’s decision will likely be cited by those who think captive breeding of all these creatures is immoral.

Yet nearly all of these species require extensive conservation efforts if they are to survive and thrive in the wild. This means they need more than just an adequately diverse gene pool; they also need people to value and care about them. It is harder to appreciate a creature you have never encountered.

SeaWorld’s announcement is a good move for the company and a good move for whales – at least for wild ones. But is it good news for wildlife in general? I hope so, but I am not nearly so sure.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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4 Responses to "Getting Out Of The Orca Business"

  • Randy Janssen
    March 21, 2016 - 3:13 pm

    Another American corporation bullied by a bunch of vegans. Groups like PETA and the HSUS are vegan cults that want to stop the use of animals in society. To do this they pretend that animals have the same or similar emotions as humans. Yet if you follow this thinking to its logical end, we will have to start asking chickens if they want to be fried or steers if they want to be steak.

    In the case of Sea World, they use pseudo science, without any actual scientific evidence to make people believe that the Orcas are sad. I have horses that are every bit as talented as these mammals. They dance, they bow, they can do cala and cola. They do this because they are trained to do the tricks. Now does that mean my horses should be set free, because I keep them in stables at night and tied out during the day. Do you think they are abused. Please read this:
    http://awesomeocean.com/2015/10/21/killing-kasatka-animal-activism-comes-animal-welfare/

    So Sea World needs to think about what it is doing. That is because you can’t deal with these crazies. Next it will be dolphins then turtles. These fanatics will not be happy until they shut Sea World down.

  • Eric Mills
    March 24, 2016 - 12:12 am

    Why stop at orcas? NO CETACEANS EITHER THRIVE OR BELONG IN CAPTIVITY: orcas, porpoises, dolphins, belugas, et al.

    And they all suffer the same miserable conditions of the orcas. In the wild, these animals live in extended family groups, traveling up to 100 miles per day hunting live prey, using their remarkable echo-location abilities.

    Contrast that to a life in captivity living in what amounts to a concrete bathtub with chlorinated water, your normal social bonds broken, often separated from your family, your echo-location useless, and fed a steady diet of frozen fish: FOR LIFE. Many of these animals suffer sometimes life-threatening dental problems brought on by the stresses of captivity.

    Then, adding insult to injury, forced to perform silly and unnatural “tricks” for an insensitive audience: A TRUE CRIME AGAINST NATURE. Are we, as a species, truly this morally-bankrupt? So it often seems

    SeaWorld has done much good work on behalf of marine animals, but the orcas and other cetaceans need to go. Now. Ethics, morality and common human decency demand it.

    Heartfelt thanks to the producers of “Blackfish” for bringing this issue to the fore. And esp. to PETA, for all their hard work. Would that ALL animal causes enjoyed such a documentary: rodeos, circuses, animal research, trophy hunting, fur trapping, ad nauseam……

  • Jennofur OConnor
    March 24, 2016 - 6:07 am

    This is great news, long overdue. But one thing to note: No one is saying “dump the orcas in the ocean and cross your fingers!” SeaWorld can develop protected coastal pens where the orcas, dolphins and other sealife can be transitioned. There, the animals could have greater freedom of movement; the ability to see, sense, and communicate with their wild cousins; to feel the tides and waves; and have opportunities to engage in the behaviors that they’ve long been denied. Viewing platforms would allow the public to see and appreciate these ocean dwellers in a natural setting.

  • Pat Cuviello
    March 24, 2016 - 1:47 pm

    Sea World’s statement that “depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane,” is laughable considering Sea World has never cared about the inhumane treatment of orcas or depriving them of their social needs, as they have captured and kidnapped orcas from their families and homes in the ocean and keep them in small pools and perpetually hungry to get them to perform tricks. All of this was and is done not because of any concern about the “humane” treatment or social needs of orcas but for Sea World’s profits. The notion that people won’t care enough about saving different animal species in the wild if they don’t view them in captivity is without any support at all. Many species of endangered animals – Asian elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, etc. – have been displayed in zoos and circuses for over a hundred years and yet they became endangered during that time. If captive display created enough caring people to preserve species in the wild they would never have become endangered in the first place. However, captive display fails for two reasons; (1) it leaves people with the sense that the species is saved by being kept in captivity allowing people to forego concern about their wild cousins; and (2) it doesn’t teach respect for the animals because captivity doesn’t allow people to see the true nature of any animal. With regards to circuses and marine parks the animals are treated as clowns where the viewing is actually counter-educational as circus tricks have nothing to do with natural behavior, i.e., chimpanzees and elephants riding bikes, playing musical instruments, shooting basketballs or standing on their heads. Moreover the underlying message from captive animal entertainment is that other animals exist to be used for human purposes. If we are not teaching people that other animals have their own culture, their own lives to live and that they exist for their own purposes then why would anyone care about protecting these cultures, lives and purposes in the wild -the only place they exist? Fortunately, over the past 40 or so years, nature shows have shown these cultures, lives and purposes and, after viewing these aspects of other animals, people are more and more deciding they don’t want to view other animals in the context of degrading captive situations such as zoos, circuses and marine parks. The fact that most people never saw a humpback whale or harp seal up close but still want to save them in the wild is clear evidence that people don’t need to see other animals in captivity to care about saving them in the wild. People only need to be educated to care and captivity for entertainment has not, and does not, provide that education.