Animal rights advocates scored a massive victory when SeaWorld announced it would be ending its controversial captive breeding program for orcas beginning this year.
"For some time, SeaWorld has faced a paradox," CEO Joel Manby wrote in an op-ed for the L.A. Times. "Customers visit our marine parks, in part, to watch orcas. But a growing number of people don't think orcas belong in human care."
Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are highly intelligent animals. While this intelligence allows them to be trained to perform tricks in front of crowds at SeaWorld, it has also allowed them to be aware of their circumstances, causing emotional distress.
The ethics of orca captivity became a serious public discussion after the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film chronicles the life of Tilikum, an orca that is responsible for the deaths of multiple trainers. The whale's behavior problems were linked to many pressures of living in captivity, beginning with breeding practices that are very unnatural for the animals.
Captive orcas typically begin breeding much younger than they would in the wild. Because the population of captive orcas is small, inbreeding (which reduces genetic diversity) is a big problem. After calves are born, they are separated from their mothers much earlier than they should be, causing them to lose critical bonding time and emotional support.
Though some have debated the legitimacy of all of the film's claims, Blackfish had an incredible effect, reducing the number of visitors to SeaWorld parks by a staggering 84 percent. Lawmakers have also pushed for restrictions on orca breeding and captivity.
While many believe SeaWorld should go one step further and release all orcas in captivity, Manby states that it is not that simple. Because these animals have no experience living in the wild and have been raised to be entirely dependent on humans, being released would be fatal.
"If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. In fact, no orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild," Manby wrote. "Even the attempt to return the whale from Free Willy, Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure."
Still, animal rights advocates claim that moving the whales to an ocean sanctuary is preferable to living in the tanks in the parks. For now, at least, that won't be happening.
While these orcas will live out the rest of their lives in captivity, their circumstances are set to get better than they have in the past. The theatrical shows that require grueling tricks to be performed are being phased out in favor of shows that better reflect the natural behavior of the whales.
Manby also called out the hypocrisy of those who vilify SeaWorld for having captive orcas, yet largely ignore the overfishing, habitat destruction, and other human activity that is killing animals in the wild at a staggering rate.
"Americans and thoughtful people everywhere need to acknowledge these fundamental problems: More than 3,000 species are endangered, and hundreds are lost every year. Some scientists predict that, within a century, 50% of large mammals will be extinct," he wrote.
"Wild animals and wild places will continue to disappear — biologists call this 'the sixth extinction,' comparable to previous cataclysms such as the ice age — unless humans awaken and take action."
Many may not like SeaWorld's orca programs, but the reality is that millions of people attend the parks each year. The revenue generated helps fund programs dedicated to conservation, wild animal rescue and rehabilitation, and public education.
Cover image: Ami Parikh / Shutterstock.com.
(H/T: L.A. Times)