SeaWorld Still Under Pressure For Orca Sea Pens, HSUS May Agree
SeaWorld has taken one step forward, two steps back in its efforts to win the public’s good graces.
SeaWorld’s orca breeding program and whale shows were canceled after heavy criticism following the release of the movie Blackfish. The documentary film outlined the life of the killer whale, Tilikum, from his capture in Iceland to several incidents where he killed people, including his trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Reports of Tilikum’s failing health have caused a new surge in the protests against SeaWorld and the practice of keeping whales in captivity.
— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) April 1, 2016
In hopes of polishing their battered image, SeaWorld partnered with the Humane Society of the United States. The union is designed to “advocate marine animal protection efforts.” In Wednesday’s online conversation with park supporters, outlined by San Antonio Express News, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said that it had come down to a choice of losing the whale shows or losing the company.
“…The data and trends showed it was either a SeaWorld without whales or a world without SeaWorld. We are an organization that needs to have cash flow to (succeed) and unfortunately, the trends were not in our favor. I know that’s blunt but that’s the simple fact. We need your support more than ever so that SeaWorld will continue to exist.”
SeaWorld plans to replace its theatrical shows with a more natural habitat-like display involving orca encounters. Manby said that he had struggled with the decision.
“For many people, having whales in human care was a barrier for people to come. In some research, it was the No. 1 reason people wouldn’t come to our parks, and the trend wasn’t abating. And the data was even worse for millennials.”
Meanwhile, public outcry to free the whales, or set non-releasable ones up in sea pens, has escalated. Ric O’Barry, an activist for sea mammals and producer of the documentary The Cove, published an op-ed piece calling SeaWorld’s change in orca shows “corporate spin.”
“The only way that captive-born dolphins (including orcas, which are the largest species of dolphin) could serve to educate the public to something of value is if they are identified for what they really are: victims. SeaWorld would actually have to tell their audiences the truth: keeping orcas and other dolphins in captivity is wrong. Including stillbirths, 20 orcas and 133 dolphins have died at SeaWorld in the last 24 years. These mammals are not ambassadors. They never were, and never could be.”
SeaWorld’s rationale against establishing the whales in sea pens includes suggesting that they would be susceptible to pollution. The Los Angeles Times reported that the company’s chief veterinarian, Chris Dold, said that orcas in sea pens would be exposed to viruses and harsh weather which they would not be able to withstand.
But O’Barry argues that point. He said Manby, “the former car salesman is trying to sell us a lemon.” He said not to be fooled by Joel Manby and President/CEO of HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, and that there was no scientific documentation to substantiate their claim. He added that it’s because “this is a partnership of marketing, not dolphin welfare.”
“They will try to convince the public that dolphins cannot be retired in a coastal sanctuary environment. I’m not talking about a so-called seapen or floating cage but rather, a large bay, lagoon or cove. There are hundreds of them available on government land, and in fact, we the people own them. We may be able to use them free of charge. It’s a matter of fencing off the mouth of a cove, for example, then building a medical pen, fish preparation house and all the usual infrastructure. Ideally, we should establish several of these in strategic locations around the world where dolphins are languishing in concrete tanks.”
Wayne Pacelle wrote on his April 1 blog, A Humane Nation that he had not dismissed the idea of a sea pen. He added that SeaWorld had made huge strides in hearing out the public’s wishes, and they should be acknowledged for the changes they have made so far. He indicated that a sea pen would require further study.
“I understand the impulse among so many advocates to call upon SeaWorld to remove orcas from their enclosures and allow them to live in sea pens. I’ve long talked about that idea, too. We have quite a history with that issue, given that The HSUS was centrally involved in the Keiko project more than 15 years ago and put a million dollars into his release into sea pens and eventually into the wild. Keiko lived in those environments for five years. In terms of improving his individual welfare, I believe the project was a success. Many others, especially the folks at SeaWorld and others from the zoo and aquarium worlds, consider it a failure because Keiko never achieved full independence. But I think everyone – on both sides of this divide — agrees it’s an issue that comes with tremendous challenges and costs and risks and warrants more careful study. It’s probably further complicated by the biographies of the whales at SeaWorld, since all but four of the nearly 30 whales are captive-born, and the few that were wild-born have been in captivity for decades.”
O’Barry said that sea pens can make money, adding, “Build it and they will come.”
He added that people were asking him if it’s okay to go back to SeaWorld again. He said the answer is no.
“It’s easy to do the right thing. Build a sanctuary. Then move your turnstiles there. Profits can still be made by embracing this new and progressive business model, and the dolphins can retire in peace and dignity.”
[Image via Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock]