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Imagine a mammal that has populations spread across the globe.
Each one has a distinct mode of communication and set of behavioral norms. They have unique diets and techniques for gathering food, and enjoy rich interior emotional lives. This familiar description, comparable in so many ways to the defining characteristics of humans, in fact applies to the majestic orca—or as they are colloquially known, The Killer Whale.
For approximately the last 50 years, these hyper-intelligent, thinking, feeling creatures have been captured and bred in captivity for the sake of display and unnatural theatrical performance.
Dr. Naomi Rose, a leading orca expert, explains to BTRtoday that their adaptability is what initially made them so coveted, but “when you look at it ethically and morally–let alone biologically–that incredible intelligence is precisely why they shouldn’t be held in captivity.”
Perhaps the most prominent and accessible marine life franchise in the United States, SeaWorld, came under fire in recent years for the inhumane treatment the orcas in their care have endured.
Last week, after pressures from animal welfare activists mounted and reached a fever pitch, SeaWorld announced that they would discontinue the breeding of orcas, and would change the format of their shows from trained performance to educational observation. This would be the last generation of the iconic SeaWorld orca.
Orcas fall under the umbrella classification of Cetaceans, which includes bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales, respectively. Dr. Naomi Rose explains that SeaWorld’s decision is an essential one for orca health, because these creatures are simply not designed to function in the conditions that they have been subjected to while confined.
“Cetaceans do not thrive in captivity. They cannot thrive in captivity. You can’t give them what they need,” Rose explains. “For the past 50 years, all of the orcas that have been in captivity have been suffering.”
SeaWorld’s announcement is without a doubt momentous, however, it is also imperfect. Backlash has arisen surrounding their decision not to release their current population into Seaside Sanctuaries, or Sea Pens, which SeaWorld justified through insistence that these coddled creatures would not be safe in less controlled environments.
Rose rebuts these assertions. “SeaWorld’s claims that it would be dangerous, that it would kill them–none of those claims stand up to scrutiny.” Still, she is pleased with the strides that the change represents, and believes that eventually SeaWorld will have no choice but to remove their existing orca population from the parks and place them in more appropriate homes.
BTRtoday reached out to SeaWorld for an interview; they responded with a press release, and explained that they were not conducting local interviews at this moment in time.
SeaWorld’s document largely reiterated their commitment to providing more educational and humane environments for their remaining ora. It cited a quotation from Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of the organization, who said, “SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals.”
Rose begs to differ, asserting that one of the most prolific and damaging repercussions of SeaWorld’s orca history, aside from the atrocious treatment of the animals, is the sheer scope of misinformation they have propagated. She says that the biggest sin of SeaWorld is that it teaches incorrect information, and skews visitors’ understanding of how marine life actually functions in the wild.
This is the case for many zoos and aquariums.
“Just having animals on display is not educational,” says Rose. “In fact, in many circumstances it’s counter-educational. It teaches people that a tiger belongs in a box, which is not true.”
She further explains that if certain animals are provided with suitable semi-natural enclosures that mimic climates of their native habitats, there may actually be legitimate educational applications. But this must be considered on a species-to-species basis. Simply placing living creatures in cages, without context or consideration, is neither educational nor ethical.
Potentially one of the most exciting outcomes of SeaWorld’s decision could be that it sets a new overhaul precedent for animal treatment and captivity. Rose remarks that, although there are still hurdles to cross, this is a huge first step in the right direction.
“There is now going to come a day where there will be no captive Cetaceans. This really upsets the other zoos and aquariums that have them because it really upsets their future,” Rose explains. SeaWorld’s drastic change may force other organizations to revisit their own policies, and evolve with the times.
As society learns more about animal intelligence, habitat, and welfare, concerns about the larger ethical implications of animal captivity as a whole are called into question. How do we recognize emotional intelligence in animals? Should this be the the primary measure for determining which animals are suitable for captivity, and which are not? What are the most effective ways for humans to learn about animals without exploiting them?
Hopefully the example of SeaWorld inspires larger and more frequent steps towards creating a world in which the beings that inhabit it are not subjugated or mistreated, but rather are appreciated for the invaluable contributions that they provide to our ecosystem.