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:

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  1. I agree that it is a very emotional cause for a lot of people and unfortunately not as black and white as the orca itself. I had the good fortune to get a “behind the scenes” tour of Sea World through my work with marine mammalogists in the area. I brought my family. It was eye-opening. The Research Center behind Sea World is essentially a rehabilitation center for marine mammals. There were an alarming number of manatees that had been harmed by boats; dolphins with terrible diseases, etc. A lot of the gate revenue will go to overhead, of course, it is a business; but the good work and research advances that are taking place behind the scenes are definitely benefiting marine mammals.

  2. Patricia Komoroski says

    I happen to be a HUGE Sea World fan, and your blog is one of the only ones that I am finding interesting. You are being 100% fair in your review of the entire situation and I greatly appreciate that. Though I may not agree with everything you say, I can tell you that I appreciate your point of view greatly.

    I am hopeful that if nothing else comes from this tragedy, at least perhaps a better understanding of the regulations, and or lack of over-site of the regulations perhaps might.

    I have spent weeks arguing to no avail with PETA members and Animal rights activists. I have been told repeatedly that releasing these animals is the only right thing to do, of course these same individuals tout Keiko as a success story. I have struggled greatly, and actually made myself ill thinking on the matter. I am a Sea World fan and always will be, that does not mean I do not see room for improvement and growth, especially in regards to the Orcas, but when the debate begins, for most it is either black or white, wrong or right….and I just cannot see it that simply.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I feel a bit better knowing that I am not alone in the difficulties in consideration of this matter!

  3. Hi Patricia,

    Sorry to hear about all the angst. The problem is that when you get into discussions with people without personal knowledge, agendas, and militant thinking–there is no dialog, only emotion rants, name calling and blame.

    I think those with true motivations will attempt to find a common ground. The world is not in black and white even though some would like to believe it is so.

    Unfortunately, I worked under some animal rights managers at a facility for animal rescue. What I found bizarre was that they would ignore mental anguish and refuse placement of animals because the potential adopters or homes were not perfect.

    I’ve got news, no homes are perfect! But I do find that a home is better than a kennel.

    As for the captive wildlife issue, the “be free” mentally is idiotic. We are encroaching, polluting, and infringing more and more which is why human animal encounters have escalated.

    People want to believe virtual animals or models will work or motivate–but they don’t.

    However, unless you’ve seen it or experienced the process it is hard to identify.

    It is such a hard issue and one I don’t think is going to drop but in the end I think most of us want what is best for the animals in our charge and the animals in our world–but the blaming, emotional, hard lines won’t get anyone anywhere.

    Don’t waste your time trying to change people’s minds but do try your best to give people the right information so they can make their own decisions.

    We won’t all agree but we can figure something out if we don’t draw lines in the sand.

  4. Hey Jen,

    Thanks for commenting and I like your comparison with the black and white of the orca–if you’ve been watching the news there is new debate as to whether or not the scientific nomenclature needs to be changed to reflect the differences between the three types.

    Most people want to bash private facilities but those are the ones that usually have the money to donate to conservation (Sea World has such a funding arm), fund and conduct research, engage in efforts it benefit animals (such as the rescue and rehab), as well as entertain, educate, and engage people.

    I’m glad you had the experience, most people will never get up close and personal or behind the scenes to see what animal management and care is like. It is a whole world beyond what you see in the shows and in the park on the front end.

  5. A thought provoking blog, but I have one issue with this:

    “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.”

    Well in some cultures, slavery and child trafficking may be the norm. Doesn’t make it right.

  6. Thanks for chiming in but your comparison of slavery and child trafficking is off base on an animal blog.

    If you fail to understand the issues in other cultures and countries and overlook how animal livestock is managed and slaughtered in this own country your views are simply from the perspective of someone who is not in a struggle influenced by the factors listed in this post.

    Too many people jump into judgment on issues because they have the luxury to do so. It doesn’t change anything, just makes it harder to deal with those issues.

    Like it or not, right or wrong is a moral issue and really is an idealistic viewpoint.

    Sure, slavery and other issues are wrong but if you purchase products from big box stores that import from countries that use slavery, child labor, and have poor conditions for their workers–you are supporting such issues in this global economy.

    Same thing in the world of fast food and sundries. If you buy cheap food when the sources of the food come from countries that clear cut rain forest or barely pay the labor or use products that pollute the environment–can you complain and pass judgement?

    There are so many people who just don’t look at the issue from beyond their own perspective and the belief that we can live in a Utopian world.

    Reality isn’t pretty and change is slow so unless people are willing to change their habits or to be involved on an active level where they really know about an issue–it doesn’t do any one good to point fingers especially when you have no idea about the full spectrum of the issues–which was the point of the post.

  7. peyton mills says

    Hey, love the blog. I am one that is with Patricia trying to teach the anti’s the real information and not the crap they are spouting! But you definitely had some great real information in there and that is hard to come by these days. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi Peyton, thanks for stopping by. Julie Scardina and I graduate from the same animal training college. I saw your comments over at Tim Zimmerman’s blog some time back. It is a bit frustrating at times since people are so into the emotional wave instead of really looking hard at ALL the surrounding issues.