Captivity Audience

This month, a looming billboard message courtesy of PETA confronts visitors to SeaWorld and San Antonians commuting nearby. The signage near Loop 410 and Old Pearsall Road asserts "Whales and Dolphins Want Out: Don't support captive animal shows." That's roughly the same message that four experts (three scientists and one preservation society head) urged congress to consider during last week's subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Oversight hearing entitled "Marine Mammals in Captivity: What Constitutes Meaningful Public Education?"

Last month, Jeffrey Wright wrote a probing cover story on the ethics of displaying marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins and orca whales for an adoring public. Prompted by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove and the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau during an orca show at SeaWorld's Orlando facility, Wright questioned the quality of the public education that SeaWorld has maintained is one of its core missions, and the theme park's legal reason for holding and breeding once-wild species for captivity. This captivity results not only in trainers' deaths (there have been three other such fatalities), but, as Wright documents, the deaths of dozens of whales and dolphins due to host of nasty illnesses.

Madeleine Z. Bordallo, chairwoman of the subcommittee hearing and delegate from Guam, also noted Brancheau's horrific drowning in her opening statements and stated "despite what many people may think, orcas, dolphins and seals are wild and potentially dangerous animals. These factors must be considered when developing the standards to evaluate and guide the implementation of education and conservation programs at public display facilities." Bordallo also seemed frustrated that the 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act required organizations taking in marine mammals for public display to have a public education or conservation mission and yet, "the `regulating` Agency apparently has no process for ongoing evaluation of education and conservation programs at public display facilities to ensure that they are meeting the professional standards that the industry has established."

The hearing was evenly split between witness testimony from advocates for SeaWorld-style education, including the Association of Zoo and Aquaria's senior vice president of conservation and education, Paul Boyle, and the previously mentioned experts, including Humane Society Internationals Naomi Rose, a specialist in killer whale biology, and Louie Psihoyos, the Executive Director of Oceanic Preservation Society and director of The Cove (Wright interviewed both Rose and a representative from OPS). The subcommittee also seemed split between members who introduced themselves with a variation of "there's an `aquarium, animal theme park, etc...` in my district and my young children just love it!" and the more skeptical members like Ms. Bordallo and Dale Killdee of Michigan, who bluntly asked, "what are the reasons for captivity of marine animals?" According to the pro- side (which downplayed the obvious MASSIVE PROFITS argument), the informal exposure to these marine animals help Joe Public realize the value in conserving oceanic environments, animals held in captivity are "safer" in that they won't have a run-in with a Bumblebee Tuna boat, and their performing shows help fund scientific research and conservation efforts that ultimately benefit marine mammals the world over. According to the con- side, there's no definitive evidence SeaWorld visitors learn anything meaningful while watching marine animals perform, their performances have little relationship to their natural behavior ("Never once have I seen a dolphin...moonwalk," in the wild testified Psihoyos.), and any of the educational benefit must be weighed against conclusive evidence that animals in captivity often die well before their natural longevity.

Should congress decide to change anything based on these hearings, they may require the National Marine and Fisheries Service, the agency tasked with issuing permits allowing public display facilities to house marine mammals, to regulate more thoroughly the educational aspect of locations like SeaWorld. Or they could change the law which allows captive marine mammals to be counted under the Animal Welfare Act, an adjustment that occurred in 1994, and pass a more strict law.

"Just the fact that the hearing was held..was a very big deal," said Rose by phone yesterday. "I can assure you SeaWorld did not want to hold it. In the past, anything that's happened in Congress has happened at the instigation of the public display industry... This is the first time that this was not true." Also reached by phone yesterday, Psihoyos added, "it seemed like everybody was pro-captivity at the beginning. I think by the end of the three hour hearing, they had come around at least to entertaining our point of view."

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