Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Orcas, the documentary film "Blackfish", and SeaWorld's Open Letter

The former head dolphin trainer for the 1960s television show Flipper turned pro-dolphin activist Ric O'Barry undertook a film project in the mid-2000s designed to expose the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan, associated with an annual dolphin hunt.  The main purpose of this hunt is to trap dolphins to be sold and then trained and used in marine mammal shows around the world.  Dolphins not selected for training are herded into a secluded, carefully guarded cove where the remaining dolphins are slaughtered for meat, that is consequently sold as "whale meat".  This documentary, "The Cove" won the Academy Award (Oscar) for best documentary film in 2009.

You can learn more about that film here:  The Cove - Official movie site

"The Cove" movie trailer: "The Cove" movie trailer

Like many of you, I grew up watching Flipper, Jacques Cousteau Specials, and National Geographic specials.  I particularly loved the ones about the ocean.  These early impressions led me to pursue training in marine biology, and I was blessed to become a college biology professor (zoology and marine biology), a career I have enjoyed for more than 20 years so far (PhD University of California, Santa Cruz)

In the late 1990s I took my family to SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio (sold to Six Flags in 2001).  We there saw the marine mammal show, including dolphins and killer whales, as well as petting tanks for dolphins, etc.  I remember thinking how amazing and regal all of the marine mammals were, while simultaneously mourning their limited existence.  You see, I have had the privilege of seeing pods of killer whales in the wild on multiple occasions in the San Juan Islands, Washington, USA, dolphins in California, and elsewhere.

I was already somewhat soured by my experience, and after leaving the park in Ohio, decided never to return.  I did not want to support that industry.  Then about a decade later I saw "The Cove" (see above), and my resolve only hardened.  Then, just this week I finally had a chance to see "Blackfish", the documentary about killer whales in captivity, mainly at SeaWorld parks.

You can learn more about it here:  The official "Blackfish" movie site

"Blackfish" trailer: "Blackfish" movie trailer

These two films together or either alone is enough to make you weep for these intelligent, majestic animals.

The makers of "Blackfish" reportedly did due diligence in inviting SeaWorld to participate or at least be interviewed for the film, but they refused.  The film, in the meantime, has caused quite a stir, raising people's awareness of challenges and risks associated with holding killer whales in captivity.

SeaWorld claims that "Blackfish" has had no impact on ticket sales (apparently the primary measure that matters to ventures like theirs), but at the same time, felt it necessary to take out full page ads in major newspapers across the country in which they published the following open letter in response to "Blackfish".

You can see the complete letter at the Official SeaWorld website here: Open Letter from SeaWorld

This is the text of the letter with my personal comments (in red) on its contents:

SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People 

An Open Letter from SeaWorld’s Animal Advocates

Inaccurate reports recently have generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care. The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight.
The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates. We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned. Whether it’s a sea lion, manatee, sea turtle or whale, we are on call 24/7.
Here are some important facts about SeaWorld and our work:
  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild. Due to the groundbreaking success of our research in marine mammal reproduction, we haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years. In fact, only two of the whales in our care were collected by SeaWorld and they continue to be in our care today. In addition, our research has led to a much greater understanding of whales in the wild, giving researchers important scientific insights surrounding marine mammal reproduction.
    • My comment:  I believe this point is true.  There is no evidence of which I am aware that refutes this.  SeaWorld has become a large enough operation with enough captive animals and knowhow to staff its parks with captive-born animals.

  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves. SeaWorld recognizes the important bond between mother and calf. On the rare occasion that a mother killer whale cannot care for the calf herself, we have successfully hand raised and reintroduced the calf. Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure.
    • My comment:  I find this statement to be confusing at the least, and misleading at the worst.  SeaWorld states that they "do not separate whale moms and calves".  Then in the last sentence of this bullet statement they state that "Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure."  So, if we look back at point one above, that no whale has been collected from the wild in 35 years, the vast majority of whales at SeaWorld have to be captive-born, so moving any of these whales removes calves (offspring) from their mothers - a bond that is permanent in the wild.  In other words, SeaWorld does not remove offspring from their mothers unless SeaWorld decides to.  

  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales. In the last three years alone, we have invested $70 million in our killer whale habitats and millions of dollars annually in support of these facilities. Our habitats are among the largest in the world today. They are state-of-the-art, multimillion-gallon environments of cooled and filtered water that allow for the highest and safest standards of care. We give our animals restaurant-quality fish, exercise, veterinary care, mental stimulation, and the company of other members of their species.
    • My comment:  All I can say about this is that "they better".  This is largely a moot point as far as I'm concerned. Of course maintaining large animals like those at SeaWorld requires a major investment in capital and maintenance costs...that's the nature of their business.  They try to keep the animals alive as long as possible and as healthy as possible, because they are their bread and butter.  A moot point in terms of the whales' mental condition or the physical risk to SeaWorld trainers - the main point of "Blackfish".

  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild. While studies continue to define the average life span of killer whales in the wild, the most recent science suggests that our killer whales’ life spans are comparable — indeed, five of our animals are older than 30, and one of our whales is close to 50.
    • My comments: Female killer whales reportedly live 50-90 years, and males 30-60 years.  SeaWorld provides ages of 6 of its whales in the statement above, presumably their oldest 6, but they provide no data on the ages of whales that have passed away in captivity.  By simply saying we have some old whales that are comparable to the average ages of whales in the wild is playing with statistics in SeaWorld's favor.  
        According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, there are currently 45 killer whales in captivity worldwide, 32 of which are captive-born.  According to one source the average age of whales in captivity is about 25 years...not the same story that SeaWorld is telling in their statement above.

  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild. We work with universities, governmental agencies and NGOs to increase the body of knowledge about and the understanding of killer whales — from their anatomy and reproductive biology to their auditory abilities. Some populations of wild killer whales have been classified as endangered or threatened, demonstrating the potential critical nature of these research opportunities. This type of controlled research and study is simply not possible in the wild, and has significant real-world benefits to the killer whales that live there.
    • My comments:  I believe this is true, but at the same time, wonder about the trade-off between scientific knowledge obtained, and the applicability of knowledge obtained from captive-born animals to native born animals.  

  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue. The millions of people who visit our parks each year make possible SeaWorld’s world-renowned work in rescue, rehabilitation and release. We are constantly innovating when it comes to this care: Our veterinarians have created nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned whales, prosthetics to save sea turtles, and a wetsuit to help injured manatees stay afloat during rehabilitation. Whether it’s the result of natural or man-made disasters, SeaWorld is always on call and often the first to be contacted. We have rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild.
My comments:  I believe this is true.  Animal rescue work is highly commendable, and I applaud their efforts in this area.  Even so, don't look for me to visit any of their parks anytime soon, or ever.
Naturalist Baba Dioum put it best when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
At SeaWorld, this has been our calling since we first opened our doors 50 years ago. It is a responsibility we do not take lightly. More than 400 million guests have visited SeaWorld. We are proud that their experiences here have a lasting and positive impact on them, and on the world in which we live.
My comment:  I'm sorry, but this point makes it sound like the work done by and at SeaWorld is carried out primarily because SeaWorld is altruistic.  The reality is that this work will almost certainly be carried out only as long as SeaWorld turns a profit.  
I just checked the SeaWorld Orlando site and discovered that their day-pass tickets cost about $80 per person. Let's see...multiply that by 400 million and you've got "Merry Christmas" SeaWorld. Of course not all 400 million paid this much (over the years), but still...that's a LOT of cash.  And they will keep doing what they are doing until they are either forced to shut down (for reasons I can't foresee) or people just stop going.
The truth about SeaWorld is right here in our parks and people. Our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans. When they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job. 

My comment and conclusion: As for me, as a marine biologist, I do not believe that marine mammal shows are essential.  I actually believe the opposite, that we show our arrogance and disdain for these majestic animals and for nature when we keep them in captivity.