Questioning SeaWorld's Commitment To Mammal Welfare

Posted: Dec 26 2015, 11:18pm CST | by , Updated: Dec 28 2015, 10:35pm CST, in News | Latest Science News


Questioning SeaWorld's Commitment to Mammal Welfare
Credit: Getty Images
  • Third mammal dead in 6 months.
  • Cetaceans low survival rate.
  • Changes in SeaWorld's mission?

On December 21, 2015, SeaWorld San Antonio saw killer whale Unna die. Critics and activists wonder about the quality of care since three mammals have died in just six months.

SeaWorld San Antonio is mourning the death of 18-year-old killer whale Unna, according to the company. She died on December 21, 2015, from a months-long illness.

“Unna suffered from a resistant strain of a fungus called Candida, and the team had developed a novel treatment plan in consultation with leading medical experts around the country.” 

Candida is a yeast found in small quantities in most organisms but may be deadly in a difficult to control environment like an aquarium. Even though “there was some indications that the treatment was having a positive effect,” a necropy is the only way to show the true results of the attempts.

As the park canceled shows on Monday, December 21, critics wondered if the aquarium has the best interest in the animals. Since the documentary Blackfish aired in 2013, the company has faced a lot of media and public backlash. However, the news of Unna's death set off another alarm bell. The orca is the tthird cetacean to die in six months.

Last month, a beluga whale named Stella died after gastrointestinal problems. And in July, a baby beluga calf was born prematurely. Large animals often find life difficult in captivity and have low survival rates.


Captivity's Constrictions

Earlier this year the Georgia Aquarium saw the death of a less than one month old beluga calf and later the death of the calf's mother. Maris, the mother, died of heart failure but both her calves born at the Aquarium died shortly after birth.  

Another beluga named Nico died in 2009 at SeaWorld San Antonio, a temporary placement as the Georgia Aquarium faced renovations. CNN reported an expected return with Maris and Natasha. However, unlike the begulas at Sea World, the aquarium knew of health issues prior to rescuing.

At the time, Dr. Gregory D. Bossart had been with Nico for nine years, along with Gaspar. “We rescued Nico knowing that he had health issues due to his prior home, but we were confident that we could provide a better quality of life for his final years," Gaspar's bone disease eventually necessitated euthanasia in 2007. And Marina, another beluga, died of old age 11 months after Gaspar.

Life in a very small space with an easily disrupted ecosystem brings about many different challenges. Belugas are expected to live up to 35 years in the wild.


Social Responsibility

Cetaceans such as whales, porpoises, and dolphins generally live in family pods, hunting and living together in a social unit.

While SeaWorld claims that orcas in captivity live nearly as long as wild orcas (46 years versus 49 years), the company does not often take into account the pods, ecotypes,  and social structures of the species in their natural habitat. And that claim has been consistently leveled at the preeminent supplier of orcas worldwide.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), each social structure is intricatee and the balance of environment is crucial. Colder waters are the most common place for the whales to live, although some may live in the subtropic regions. In regions like San Antonio and Orlando, where the weather becomes very humid and overwhelmingly hot, it's hard to regulate the necessary elements—especially in outdoor tanks.

NOAA denied the Georgia Aquarium the ability to import 18 beluga whales after a live-capture. The U.S. District Court in Atlanta upheld the ban as the aquarium wanted to diversify the gene pool. According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the reason was not sound and may create a SeaWorld-like monopoly on the captured mammals.

As with the breeding and live-capturing of orcas, the government agency found a decline of wild animals to be directly linked to public display. Additionally, the animals captured in Russia were a little more than a year old and possibly still nursing. However, since the quality of care falls within the United States Department of Agriculture, public comments on the permit were not admissible.


An Act of Legislation

In November 2015, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) proposed the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act to “phase out the captivity of orcas so that their display ends with this generation.” Orcas are highly intelligent, social mammals that often need a more complex, natural setting. 

Representive Schiff credits scientific research on illustrating why taking care is so important. “The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display.”

Samantha Berg, a former marine mammal trainer at SeaWorld candidly spoke about the impact of animal welfare and captivity for entertainment. “No amount of toys, larger tanks, better veterinary care or love and attention from their trainers will ever come close to simulating the richness of their lives in the ocean. We cannot meet their needs in captivity.”

Rep. Huffman spoke even more plainly. “Orcas belong in the wild.” In the wild, orca populations may peak and die out, but it is not at the hands of man. Psychologically, the animals become aggressive after being caged and separated from their offspring.

This was the second legislative act in as many years aimed at prohibiting the breeding and entertainment program. California Assemnblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) would have essentially shuttered the bulk of Sea World's marine mammal parks by making it illegal to capture or breed any orcas for entertainment purposes.

At the time, SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz released a statement accusing Bloom of joining with the extreme activist. "Included in the group are some of the same activists that partnered with PETA in bringing the merit-less claim that animals in human care should be considered slaves under the 13th amendment of the US Constitution — a clear publicity stunt."

And stating, "we engage in business practices that are responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share." Yet in the time of the act dying in California legislation and Schiff's reproposal, public opinions shifted quite a bit. Two years after Blackfish and the impact is still pushing against the profit margin.


Criticizing Change

Former trainer John Hargrove documented his experiences at SeaWorld in the memoir, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. When National Geographic asked about the psychological impact, the full truth was revealed when referring to  trainer Dawn Brancheau's murder by known killer Tilikum.

”A massive corporate entity is exploiting the hell out of the whales and the trainers. You are nothing more than a number on a sheet, and if the moment arises, you will be thrown under the bus and even blamed for your own death.”

The media blitz against the corporation moved the mission statement for San Diego, though. SeaWorld announced in November they would be phasing out the orca entertainment segment. Of course, Tilikum is now housed in Orlando and was reintroduced to the Shamu show only 13 months after killing his trainer.

“Animal rescue is part of what we have always been and a key way we are different from other theme park companies.” President and Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby said in a press release. “Guests want to know that they're making a difference for the world we share and our parks deliver on that promise.”

Animal advocates and critics may have a different view of “experiences that matter.” At least for the non-bipeds. For the animals like Unna, Tilikum, and the dead belugas, the experiences may not be worth the cost.

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