Sunday, November 10, 2013

Orcas on Parade: time to close the circus of marine mamals

Throughout 2013, there has been a spike in interest as to whether or not organizations like Sea World should have marine mammals like whales, particularly orcas or "killer whales," dolphins, porpoises, and even seals and sea lions in captivity.  Part of this heightened interest has been due to the release of the documentary "Blackfish" which recently was aired to much fanfare and additional news programming material on CNN.

In the documnetary, the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca named "Tilikum" at Sea World's amusement park, in Orlando, Florida, was investigated.  The details leading up to that tragic incident and the subsequent aftermath was used to look at the broader history of orcas in captivity and the impact on the animals physical and psychological condition.

In past posts, I have expressed my views regarding maintaining marine mammal like whales and dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes. (Click here, and here.)  For whatever, broad educational or even research purpose it may have served, dating back as much as fifty years, that rationale has run its course.   

My initial first-hand experience with whales and dolphins was in the early 60's at Southern California's Marineland of the Pacific, watching pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins leaping into the air and jumping through fiery hoops.  It was impressive to see such animals and to wonder if there was something more to these animals' purpose than the simple commodity by which they were being viewed by segments of the commercial fishing industry.  From those early days, the public slowly became aware of the social intricacies of these animals, their advanced forms of communication and echolocation for hunting, and their threatened existence due to aggressive whale hunting.  Attitudes and policies slowly shifted as a steady stream of scientific research and facts changed our perception of these animals, and the fate of several species have benefited significantly for it.

Through this entire process of awareness, one activity remained virtually unchanged in the face of new facts: the use of marine mammals as entertainment. What science didn't know then, we know now.  And we know better. 

While there are many aquatic amusement parks throughout the world, Sea World is by far the largest and most extensive organization.  It is involved in four different areas of research and/or entertainment: traditional aquaria, marine research, marine animal rescue & rehabilitation, and aquatic amusement park.  To give Sea World a measure of credit, it has been responsible for some significant marine research and animal rescue and rehab work.  And it has fulfilled the traditional role of combining education and entertainment through some of its aquarium settings.  However, its role as an aquatic amusement park has become its flagship activity and the most easily marketable one.  Having the public watch whales and dolphins do tricks is what Sea World is known for; it is a major revenue stream for the organization and, ironically, helps support the other activities.

From a purely business perspective, to radically alter the Sea World business model by eliminating its whale, dolphin, and seal programs, would be a very risky step.  Marine mammal shows have been a cash cow for so long, it would be hard to walk away from it.  This is the same dilemma environmentalists face in dealing with the energy companies.  Regardless of the obvious benefits to the environment from a major shift to alternative energy, the extant of change required to the established business model, the disruption of the status quo, is more than the energy companies are prepared to willingly endure.  However, if a change in public perception were to occur and, by extension, a change in attitude regarding marine mammals for entertainment purposes that equates to diminishing ticket sales, then Sea World's decision could possibly be made for them by the demands of the marketplace.

Some defenders of Sea World have compared the whale and dolphin shows to that of zoos and aquariums; that the public learns about orcas through these shows just like someone learns about tigers at a zoo.  I beg to differ.  Zoos and aquariums strive to show animals in as natural of an environment as possible, so that people can develop an appreciation for the animal in a more real world setting, seeing them behave as they would in the wild.  To be sure, zoos and aquariums are not without fault.  We have all seen animals in confinement exhibit unnatural behaviors - from the path habits of pacing big cats in bleak cages to the neurotic ticks and twitches of elephants - and there are the occasional entertainment shows with monkeys or exotic birds.  But zoos and aquariums have evolved to gain a better appreciation of their role and it has been reflected in improved exhibits for the animals' physical and psychological needs and a dedication to informing the public as to the ecological importance of the animals.  One goes to the zoo to see the tiger and marvel at an important jungle predator - not to see it jump through a hoop.

Perhaps, decades ago, going to a whale or dolphin show was the only way a person could learn anything about these animals and come away with some degree of awareness and appreciation.  However, in light of the amount of written material, pictures, and films or videos about whales and dolphins in today's information age, it is impossible to justify keeping pelagic marine mammals in confining concrete enclosures and having them leap in the air on command as the price to be paid for our knowledge and enlightenment.

But what is it about seeing a whale give a trainer a ride on its back that attracts the general public?  Why does seeing a dolphin shake its head back and forth and squeal for a hand-delivered fish fill the seats?  Why are we entertained when a sea lion balances a ball on its nose while clapping its flippers?  Sadly, people will pay money to watch these stupid tricks because, regardless of what is said at the time regarding the animals intelligence, it humors our sense of superiority.  

For some people, it is unsettling deep down to realize there are other creatures on this planet who have unique abilities that equal or even surpass our own.  We must be the dominant species, in their minds, and so they are only prepared to consider an orca as something more than a "dumb fish" if it can demonstrate it by doing something demeaning, something that it would never do on its own in its natural environment.  It does it because we, the vastly superior species, taught it to do so.  With each and every marine mammal show, consciously or unconsciously, our human arrogance is what is being put on display.

And it is that insecure pomposity with our role in the natural order of things that continues to feed Sea World's coffers.  When more people realize that no aquatic amusement park can provide suitable confinement for a marine mammal who - by virtue of its size or its echolocation, radar-like abilities - requires both space and nurturing social interaction, then organizations like Sea World and others around the world will change.  These are businesses that are providing what the public wants to see.  We must see these animals in a new light just as we must see our role and purpose on this planet in a whole new light.

We know better. 

Source: Sea World
Source: Blackfish 
Source: RTSea posts 1, 2 & 3                                        

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