SEAWORLD MAKES MAJOR ORCA CONCESSIONS
Most of us are aware by now of the announcement by SeaWorld that it is ending its orca whale breeding program, thanks in no small part to the eye-opening, heart-wrenching documentary, “Blackfish.” Does this end to breeding mean that among the SeaWorld facilities, when the current captive orcas have died, so, too will orca “shows,” where orcas are asked to perform what appear to audiences as tricks?
Maybe. A reason other than entertainment has always existed for the behavioral displays by the cetaceans at zoos and attraction centers: the tricks allow their keepers to observe the cetaceans’ health and well-being, to keep them active, to enrich them [how boring to swim around a tiny pool all day with nothing to do and then for dead fish to appear for dinner.] To teach them to pull up onto surfaces and remain still so that blood samples can be taken.
As a practical matter, as long as any captive orcas remain in SeaWorld pools, these husbandry behaviors will surely be taught and practiced. For example, Sheiku, in captivity at the Pt. Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, developed a skin condition, and it was imperative that the ailing whale come to a vet and cooperate while samples were taken to determine what the condition was and how to treat it, and then that she assume the proper place and posture to carry out the treatment. Under the excellent care of staff biologist Kathy Sdao, her condition was carefully monitored and kept under control. [Alas, she was moved as part of a breeding program to a different facility where she soon died.]
Any animal in captivity must be taught these behaviors for their own best care. Whether they will perform them in a public setting, I cannot say. But I can say that however well intentioned the entertaining shows of Sea World and its ilk might be, they were also something unintended: they caused the impression that the whales and dolphins were there for the entertainment of the admission-paying audiences, that these wonderful creatures were ‘made’ to do tricks.
It is my fervent hope that people come to understand that the whales and dolphins are not, most emphatically not, there for our entertainment, although because we admire the beauty and splendor of these creatures so much, merely seeing them, in all their glory, is in fact entertaining.
WHY DOES SEA WORLD KEEP ANY WHALES OR DOLPHINS THEN?
IS IT SAFE TO FREE THEM?
So if no more orcas will be coming to SeaWorld, why are there still orcas still there? Well, of course the most obvious answer given is that that the orcas have been in captivity too long to be set free. The argument goes that they have no pods, an essential social group for these sea mammals. They either never learned to hunt or have lost the skill or are no long strong enough for their travels. They would contract diseases from wild cetaceans because they have never been exposed. They would spread diseases to which wild cetaceans have never been exposed. They are too habituated to humans. Little is known, for example, about whether pods would accept newly freed individuals. [And why don’t we know? Because we haven’t tried it.]
But there are those who say that these concerns can all be overcome. These are the people who want Lolita freed. And if you search on Facebook and Twitter, you can find dozens of other concerned citizens of the world, seeking the freedom of other whales and dolphins around the globe.
Remember Keiko of “Free Willy” fame? He did pretty well when freed, considering the very weak and compromised position from which he began his journey and considering that an experiment of this sort had never been tried, so data and models of approach were unavailable. I had the pleasure of a visit to the off-public area of Keiko’s enclosure while, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, he rested and prepared for his trip north. I gave him a tickle under his pectoral fins and I could see how weak he was, even compared to the beluga whales with which I volunteered, who, despite captivity of ten years and more, had muscular strength Keiko did not. [You know those leaps from the water that look so amazing when whales and dolphins perform them in “shows?” Those behaviors keep the animals stronger and more supple than they otherwise would be in their tiny pools.] No, Keiko’s odds may never have been great, but they were better than withering away in his too-warm cramped pool in Mexico.
In this regard, I do remember reading that after one of the recent terrible southern hurricanes, a zoo with a dolphin attraction had flooded, enclosures collapsed and the dolphins were swept into the sea. One of the dominant females among the captives kept a group of them together and safe in nearby waters, and there they were found days later and returned to captivity. I wished then that a grand experiment had been undertaken. A pod had formed and they were already on the road to survival.
IS IT CRUEL TO FREE THEM?
Perhaps more troubling is the often-suggested objection that captive cetaceans, being social animals, bond naturally with their handlers. Therefore to turn them loose would be inhumane, their human associates abandoning them, not understanding, no pod to turn to.
Keiko, to be sure, often popped up by boats in his vicinity. Having lived a long lonely life in solitary confinement, he had clearly bonded with humans. He might well have needed to continue some such bonds, at least until other bonds could be formed. And why should this not be possible?
The Organgutan Rehabilitation Center in Borneo, established and still operated by Biruté Mary Galdikas is an example of how one model of sending formerly captive animals back to the wild can work. Her charges are in the Center only because they have been wounded or orphaned by the ruthless workers at palm oil plantations that now overwhelm Indonesian Borneo, even intruding on wildlife preserves. The orangutans can’t fend for themselves. Dr. Galdikas’s workers tend to them, cuddle and play with and feed the very small babies, and gradually introduce them to the wild. But the Center always offers the opportunity for the freed orangutans to come back to feeding stations if the primates so wish. Many do, especially when food is scarce. The rest of the time, they live the ordinary lives of orangutans in the jungles. A few of them elect to visit Dr. Galdikas at the Center and sit quietly with her as she rests or speaks to visiting groups. Yes, they have bonded with their care givers. And yes some of them come back. And if cetaceans were given this opportunity?
WILL SEA WORLD BE FREE OF ALL WHALES AND DOLPHINS ONE DAY?
It would appear not, as Sea World is transitioning to a rescue-and-rehabitation model for marine mammal entertainment.
On the one hand, this answers an often-cited reason for animals to be in captivity: to allow the public to see them, learn about them, understand them, love them, and therefore support them.
For example, one of the first days I volunteered at the marine mammal area of a zoo, I was asked to babysit a three-day-old harbor porpoise who’d washed up on a beach. Not many harbor porpoises are ever held in captivity, as they often do not do well. Nor do many people see much of them in the wild, except perhaps the curvature of a back and a pectoral fin as they swim swiftly away. They are skittish and shy little members of the cetacean family.
So, quite true, at my zoo, there was a great opportunity to bring a sea creature little seen or known into the purview of people who might learn to fight for them in the wild, to fight for the preservation of a pristine sea, for marine mammal sanctuary reefs. Alas, he died not long after going on public display.
On another hand, I have always admired rescued and rehabilitation efforts of wild creatures, for it seems to exhibit a finer side to human nature than we are sometimes allowed to glimpse of our collective selves. In the news recently in Seattle were accounts of a sea turtle, endangered, who’d been severely compromised and in need of medical aid. He went first, I think, to SeaWorld, in fact, and then was flown up to Seattle for treatment in a hyperbaric chamber. [I hope I have that right.] Such treatment had never been done before. He remained for a time at the Seattle Aquarium for further treatment and observation, and when he improved sufficiently, he took another flight back down to SeaWorld, where he will be restored to full health and then freed. I like that in this case, we saw our way clear to spend admittedly limited funds on expensive travel and treatment and care for one endangered animal who needed us.
But on yet another hand [okay I don’t have three, but if I did …] I harbor suspicions about rescue subjects. I am in no way suggesting SeaWorld might “find” and “rescue” an animal that might not need rescuing, but I have heard of cases of such unscrupulous tactics. Walruses in Alaska, for example, as I understand it, can no longer be captured for zoos. But, if someone happens to find an abandoned orphan walrus, alone and in trouble, it can be taken along to authorities, a fee paid, and the baby sent to a zoo, as it could not survive on its own. Or at least it used to be so, for a veterinarian from Barrow, traveling with several orphan walruses from there, in transit to another zoo, landed for a short stay at the zoo where I volunteered. She is the one who explained to me that people sometimes shot mother walruses so that the newly orphaned could be ‘rescued.’
Every possible safe guard should be erected to ensure that any and all rescue and rehab efforts by SeaWorld or anyone else do not sink to such a sinister system to replace forbidden capture or breeding.
WHAT ELSE SHALL WE DO TO FREE CAPTIVE WHALES AND DOLPHINS?
The advocates who have accomplished so much will continue to engage in all the activities already underway, because the SeaWorld move, while wonderful, is only a small victory. After all, Lolita is still languishing. Shamu the 56th, or whatever, is still at SeaWorld. In a different arena, chimpanzees, dogs, cats, monkeys are still used in medical research even though, with modern advancements, many no longer need to suffer.
And what about the rest of us? Here are a few ideas. Perhaps you have others.
—Join the groups already working for the freedom and dignity of our animal friends
—Donate to one of the causes
—Participate in discussions of new models that might allow the barriers to the freeing of captive whales and dolphins become a reality
—Think of new ways to approach the laws regarding animals and the philosophy of their part and our part in the world
—Write about what you learn, what you see, what you think on the topic of animal dignity. On your blogs, on your social media, in magazine and newspaper articles, in books, to advertisers who still exploit animals, to your congressional members and other influential members of society
—Thank and support those groups, entities and individuals who have taken steps. Some people have little love for Sea World, but support what they have done right, even as you press to continue correcting what you feel they haven’t got right yet. When you hear about advertisers who have agreed not to use cute little dressed up chimps in their ads any more [Why? Because those cute little babies grow up big and very very strong and can no longer safely be used in commercials. Then they go, most often to bad, bad, lives. Research cages, zoo cages, death.]
My book, discussed elsewhere on my site, suggests one model for the freeing of whales and dolphins. It happens that my whale has help that whales today can’t get without extra-terrestrial intervention, but in my view the model holds. If you like what I suggest there, I hope you will let me know. email@example.com.