Archives for April 2010

EPA Flea Treatment Investigation News (Video)

Captive Orcas Surrounded by Agendas

orcinus orca the killer whale

Okay, so when it comes to the whole captive orca issue there are many issues that are involved.

In an earlier post I included a few of the agencies and laws that come into play in the captive management of marine mammals.

Although it is still legal to capture orcas in the United States with a permit, to my knowledge none have been requested since the 1980s (National Marine Fisheries Service).

This means the only orcas in captivity are those that are acquired from other parks or that are born in captivity.

So a big issue that arises in this matter is the legal one about property.

Like it or not, animals are considered property.

This means the captive wildlife you see in any collection is private property.

So, when Tilikum was first relocated to Sea World in 1992, his market value as a property was estimated to be around one million dollars.

However, as the largest bull orca in captivity, Tilikum has since sired 13 whale calves and this makes him a very valuable commodity.

Plus, the Sea World brand is built around Shamu–and that is big.

When you mention Sea World, Shamu the orca is what most people think of and it is the show personality name given to every orca seen in any of the parks.

Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, has estimated that this orca image translates into hundreds of millions of dollars to Blackstone and the Sea World Entertainment group.

So in 2010, he estimated the market value of Tilikum to be more like ten million dollars.

Now would anyone really buy him for that—I mean how big is the demand for a captive orca?

Would Sea World sell him?

Not likely.

Would Sea World release an asset that valuable?

Not likely.

It doesn’t matter if you like the facts or not, they are reality.

Real Concern or a Marketing Opportunity?
Now I’ve worked with all kinds of groups and I am a bit odd in that respect because I’ve crossed a lot of industries and worked with animal professionals on all sides of the spectrum.

I’ve had friends from every area of the animal industry—including animal welfare professionals.

Some of my colleagues think that some are better than others and that “us” and “them” (“us” being animal trainers and “them” being animal welfare folks in this case) are mutually exclusive—but that is not really true.

Everyone has their role but it does get a bit ridiculous at times–and people fall for the marketing and public relations all the time.

Which brings up a pet peeve of mine.

One of the big issues being thrown out at people is how evil corporate wild animal facilities (or private facilities) are.

We live in a world that is changing but where free enterprise has always been a good thing.

To be clear, I began my career as a marine naturalist world and spent a lot of time at Marineland of the Pacific (which was scientifically oriented rather than entertainment oriented) until the acquisition by Taft Broadcasting and the Kroger Company.

But the reality in the captive wild animal field is that it is hard to maintain and keep wildlife.

They cost money—and lots of it because they need special care and maintenance. They also need medical care and specialty services.

So the gate and merchandise are easy ways to help maintain the collection.

Captive collections go out of business all the time and many get into dismal conditions when the interest of the public wanes.

Small facilities and some municipal zoos are a mess just because of how they are managed—live collections not managed as live animals but as other business concerns that appear on a budget sheet

Okay, so while I am on the topic, I want to remind you that non-profit corporations ARE corporations but somehow they are looked upon as acceptable while for profit groups are not.

I am amazed at the public relations expertise and marketing abilities of zoos, humane groups, and yes—animal rights groups.

They ALL need and want your money so don’t be fooled by the labeling.

Have you ever looked at the annual reports to see where the money actually goes to when you give to those animals rights groups?

You’d be surprised that your favorite animal rights charity probably has more going to administrative costs and other things that do not directly benefit animals.

Keiko & Other Fundraising & Back-Slapping Antics
Currently there are people on the bandwagon to release Tilikum and to get wild animals out of captivity–and that will always be the case.

Captive animals bring up questions on ethics—something I wrote about in another captive wildlife rant.

I think most educated and affluent people would agree with a colleague who said that [insert species here]“…should be in the wild because they are intelligent animals with rich and complex social lives, they have an important ecological role to play in their native habitats, and they are amazingly inspiring animals who deserve to be respected on their own terms, and in their own environment…”

Sorry to say but we have a cultural bias in the more affluent and educated countries because the whole world doesn’t feel that way.

Animals are commodities and food sources and the way you look at them directly correlates to where you live, how much money you make, who you hang around with, and what culture or religion you are immersed in.

Seriously, when you get into conservation—real conservation, you get into a complex mix of governmental relationships, cultural beliefs, economic influences and a lot more.

I recently had a discussion with a friend, who although she often claims to be a vegetarian, is no such thing.

She likes the idea of it.

People like the idea of captive animal release but never give much thought to the actual animal and its welfare during that process—or the aftermath of such an action.

I challenge you to do a bit of research on the captive marine mammal “rehabilitation” back into the wild, you will find it is an awful mess.

At the moment I am waiting to see if there are some actual statistics on this but I am very suspicious of any captive whale or dolphin release claims when they are declared a “success” with little or nor follow up and little press on the animal after the goodwill deed.

Back in 1999, Luther & Buck, two bottlenosed dolphins were irresponsibly released by Ric OBarry (and who is one of the featured folks in The Cove). Cruel to say the least and they were fined by NOAA:

Former “Flipper” dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry, and his associate Lloyd A. Good III, have been found guilty of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act for releasing two captive dolphins off the Florida coast in May that were not prepared to survive in the wild and sustained life-threatening injuries. O’Barry, Good, and their respective corporate entities were ordered to pay civil penalties totaling $59,500, the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.

Anyone who has been involved in real wild ceteacean rehabilitation knows that habituated animals are not good candidates for release.

Poorly socialized animals are not good candidates for release.

Animals with medical or major dental issues are not good candidates for release.

So, I have to ask, anyone remember Keiko?

You know, the Free Willy whale?

What? You didn’t know Keiko the killer whale is dead?

Did you even care to follow up on that story after his release?

An animal exposed to extreme stress can suffer from pneumonia–which I am certain was the case with the now deceased Keiko whose rehabilitation and release I believe was more about marketing and public relations than about the best thing for the animal.

It sickened me that people were so emotionally invested in a project that had little to do with what was right for him.

Did you know that Keiko never reintegrated into a pod and was dependent on his handlers for care?

He would show up back at his pen to be let in or for care and companionship.

Captive wild animals are not the same as their wild counterparts. They change in association with humans.

So, is releasing Tilikum an option?

Doubt it.

Do I like the Sea World model?

No, because they kiss the whales, hug them and make them seem pet-like when they are big, smart predators.

In the aftermath of the tragedy of the Tilikum incident we are going to see a lot of things–and hopefully no footage of the actual incident.

Will we see changes in the show model? Probably not, they’ve always been about entertainment and in the amusement park business.

What I’ve heard is that a team of animal behavior experts from groups such as the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association will be reviewing existing procedures with Tilikum.

Whether you like the Sea World model or not, take a minute to read this statement give to PBS back in 1997.

Although I’ve never agreed with their presentation models, I do think this statement hits the nail on the head for how captive animals can make a difference.

I think that as our population becomes more and more crowded, more people are urbanized, if you will, there’s less natural contact with animals living in the wild. I don’t think that it’s rational for us to assume that people are going to be able to get experiences with wild animals by all going into the wild, there’s too many of us, we’ll destroy what little habitat is left by trying to do that.

I actually calculated once how many boat trips it would take to take all the Sea World guests that come to Sea World each year out to sea killer whales at Robson Bight, and it was over two thousand boat trips a day [that] would have to go out of Robson Bight. Well that would be ludicrous.

So I think the mandate for the future , if want a public that’s knowledgeable about wild animals and has some sensitivity about them, if we want our children to have a chance to see many of these animals, it’s gonna have to be in places like Sea World and the rest of the zoos in the world. These are gonna be the places where people are gonna be able to get in touch with nature without destroying habitat.

Now you might not agree but I’ve been around a while and have seen the change that has happened from public exposure to animals–which is why so many people give a sh** today and think that captivity is not for the highest good.

I hope your are not sick of my rant but I think this is a big important topic and more complex than people think which is why I’ve been spending so much time on it.

I promise to wind  up shortly–but in the meantime, Take a moment to leave your comments below, I’d be interested in what you have to say on this issue.

4-29-2010 Update: