So wrong, but thanks for all the fish

On February 27, SeaWorld San Antonio opened its gates on the 2010 season, ushering in a tide of hundreds of thousands of visitors - even as the activist and scientific communities churned in the wake of two of the greatest controversies in the marine park's history.

For weeks prior to this year's kickoff, The Cove, a movie that accuses SeaWorld of fueling a gruesome and cold-blooded dolphin-slaughter industry in a Japanese fishing village, garnered widespread publicity created by an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Film of 2009. And just days earlier, a massive, 22-foot, 12,300-pound bull orca had attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at its Orlando park.

Even before its candidacy for the Oscar - which it won in March - The Cove had fueled public debate. “Might that season pass you purchased to a marine-life theme park near you be partly responsible for an annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan?” asked the Orlando Sentinel after the July 31, 2009, release of the documentary. Then, following the Tilikum incident, another wave of negative media exposure washed over public discourse; a feature by the Associated Press, carried for days by national and local media outlets, asserted that the tragedy “raises anew the question of whether some beasts, especially the biggest ones, have any business being tamed to entertain.”

Though a number of activist communities have long opposed marine theme parks in general and cetacean captivity in particular, myriad animal-rights organizations dived into the upsurge in public controversy with a barrage of fresh condemnations. Most echoed the charges leveled by The Cove documentary: As the world's largest aquatic attraction, the SeaWorld franchise perpetuates the dolphin slaughter through tacit complicity. Activists further stepped up their indictments after the Orlando incident, pointing out that not a single incident of a killer-whale attack on a human in the wild has ever been recorded. Critics charged that Tilikum, involved with two previous human fatalities since his wild capture in Iceland in 1983, only dragged Brancheua into his pool and savaged her body until she drowned because a life in a small concrete confine has rendered him neurotic, confused, and possibly unstable.

Officials at SeaWorld, which touts its contribution to marine conservation science and public education, lambasted the criticisms as grisly opportunism by zealots - a fringe element of the animal-rights public that would have us shutter aquariums and zoos everywhere. Its spin doctors have painted The Cove protagonist Richard O' Barry, the pioneering trainer of Flipper who is now a leading force in the movement against dolphin capture and captivity, as a crude profiteer. The company notes it has not acquired its dolphins from Taiji or other brutal dolphin runs for decades - in fact, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal to take from the wild without a permit or import any marine mammal that has been captured inhumanely. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not had a permit request at all since 1988.

But the debate, like most ethical dilemmas, runs neither clear nor simple. In the gulf between the two sides, even the salient issues bob in muddied waters, and still others lurk beneath the surface. Animal captivity for food, entertainment, and educational purposes is undeniably a fundamental feature of human civilizations everywhere, and SeaWorld has undeniably fostered a new public awareness of the beauty and grace of its show animals. At the same time, there are compelling reasons to challenge a marine-park industry that may no longer meet our criteria for civilized stewardship of the planet's wildlife.

The Cadaver Count

Despite the eddied ethics surrounding the topic, there is at least one incontrovertible datum that illuminates the discussion: death. All marine mammals in captivity in the U.S. are tracked by NOAA via its National Marine Fisheries Service division, which logs the date and cause of each death.

According to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, 22 orcas have died in 24 years at SeaWorld parks alone - almost one per year. Six of the iconic killer whales, the largest species of the oceanic dolphin family, have gone to their final reward at 10500 Sea World Drive in San Antonio. The youngest, born in San Antonio tanks, died in 1994 of pneumonia, barely one month old and listed as being of unknown sex; in early 1999, severe hemorrhaging ended the life of a 10-year-old female born locally in 1988; in 2001, “necrosis of cerebrum/fungal” dispatched a wild-take female of unknown age and origin; the following year intestinal-tract obstruction was blamed for the death of a female orca also of unknown age but captured in 1984; a 14-year-old male born into captivity in Orlando succumbed to severe multifocal interstitial myositis in 2007; and, most recently, “acute necrotizing encephalitis” took 2-year-old Texas native Halyn in 2008.

Six orcas currently live on in our city: Kyuquot, Keet, Unna, and Tuar, all captive-born in other facilities, as well as recent Orlando transfer Takara and her offspring Sakari (one of nearly 20 calves reportedly fathered by the virile Tilikum); Sakari was born here in January. Not counting either the 1994 death or the two of unknown age, the expired orcas lived 9 years on average - early adolescence for the species. The average age of the surviving animals, not counting Sakari, is just 15. The NOAA reports that, “Life expectancy for wild female killer whales is approximately 50 years, with maximum longevity estimated at 80-90 years. Male killer whales typically live for about 30 years, with maximum longevity estimated at 50-60 years.”

Of the bottlenose dolphins, the subject of the The Cove's controversy, 48 have called SeaWorld San Antonio home since the park's inception. Ten, or almost one-third, were captured in the wild, but since 1978, 33 have been born in captivity at one of SeaWorld's facilities and another five arrived through the Stranding Network. Twelve of the total are now deceased.

The ill-fated among the tursiops truncatus perished to a catalog of conditions you wouldn't wish on your worst enemies, or even their most annoying pets: maladies such as acute erysipelothrix, acute necrohemorrhagic encephalitis, or severe granulomatous tracheitis. Those born in captivity endured an average of only four years before reaching their untimely ends, although the oldest has lived 32 years. Four wild-caught specimens, for whom age may only be estimated, lasted an average of 26 years in confinement; those six who remain alive (not all in San Antonio at present) have been swimming the tanks for an average of 34 years. According to the NOAA, “This is a long-lived dolphin species with a lifespan `in the wild` of 40-45 years for males and more than 50 years for females.”

In addition, as the Current reported in an article last last year, “11 beluga whales have died in the shadow of La Cantera since SeaWorld SA opened in 1988. ... It was ‘cardiac arrest' for the wild-caught female who died in the summer of 1995; ‘acute renal failure' took another wild-caught female the next year; ‘acute bacterial pneumonia' was blamed for taking the life of a captive-born female.”

According to scientific research compiled in a report by the Humane Society International, annual mortality rates for captive orcas are three times as high as for their wild counterparts, while rates for bottlenose dolphins are nearly double. Dolphins that survive traumas such as capture or transfer may adapt and live nearly as long as wild dolphins, but beluga whales live only roughly half of their wild lifespan expectancy and orcas do even worse.

“Killer whales in captivity live into their teens if they're lucky, into their 20s if they're really lucky, and maybe into their 30s if they're amazingly lucky,” says Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with Humane Society International who specializes in international marine mammal protection issues. “They're all dead by the time they're 40 or 45. All of them.”

“If a female can live to be 80 or 90, and most of them are dead by the time they're 20 in captivity, then something is wrong. The mean life expectancy for a female in the wild is 50 years and not a single female in captivity has made it anywhere near that. One of the things SeaWorld will tell you is that they've had a sharp learning curve in terms of husbandry techniques, so animals are living longer now than they did back in the '60s and '70s. To a certain extent that's true, but they've been holding them for 46 years since the first orca capture, and they're still dropping like flies.”

Life Without Parole

The death count is not the only metric by which to judge whether cetacean captivity subjects these creatures - generally accepted to be among the most sentient beings on Earth - to inhumane living conditions. It's simply the most objective.

But other evidence casts a pall on SeaWorld's frolicsome shows. Trainers regularly combine antacids with the animals' diets to combat stress-related digestion problems, and the high incidence of infection-related deaths has led scientists to speculate that high stress levels suppress natural immune systems in captive animals. Most SeaWorld Shamus present collapsed dorsal fins, a benign but pathetic condition, rare in the wild, that some researchers suspect also stems from captivity stress.

Critics say milder performances or improvements to storage conditions can never eliminate animal anxiety in claustrophobic SeaWorld pools. In the wild, orcas commonly swim up to 100 miles a day; dolphins travel 40 to 50. They stay with their family pods all their lives. Belugas, too, are extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups of 10 to several hundred.

“These are physical realities, this is scientific data,” says Rose. “There are two things you can look at here: Do they do well, do they thrive in captivity? If they don't, then that's it, you don't hold them in captivity. If they do, then you have to look at it from an ethical standpoint. Bottlenose dolphins, even though they do OK `in captivity`, I would argue psychologically they're not doing that well.”

SeaWorld is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the Animal Welfare Act. The regulations determined by the act govern every aspect of treatment, housing, care, transportation, and interaction for public display of marine mammals and all other animals in parks, zoos, circuses, laboratories, and the like in the country. Rigorous inspections by unannounced APHIS agents enforce compliance. “Everything we do is always based on ensuring humane treatment of these animals,” says USDA spokesperson Dave Sacks.

As the world's largest park of its kind, SeaWorld San Antonio generally exceeds the USDA's minimum standards, and receives very few and very minor citations during these inspections. But it remains an open debate whether or not the minimum standards mandated by the regulations truly satisfy the well-being of enlightened creatures that have proven to be self-aware and even able to communicate with humans. For most cetaceans, laws require tanks to be only twice as long as the largest specimen on display, and, depending on surface area and volume, multiple specimens may be enclosed in the same pen. In SeaWorld's dolphin-feeding pen, some 10 bottlenose swim circles in a shallow tank roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool. In almost all cases, except for some limited rescue situations, no captive cetacean will ever be released back into the wild. In fact, SeaWorld's own scientists assert they could not survive a return to their native environments.

“Even when dolphins are bred in captivity, they are in a tank their whole lives,” says Gina Papabeis, a representative of the Ocean Preservation Society, which produced The Cove. They are thus permanently alienated from their natural pod social structure, she continues, and, though they possess sensory sonar, they are housed in echoing concrete-walled pools and exposed to loud crowd noise. “There's no way that's suitable compared to their natural conditions.”

The notion of recreating the natural conditions of wide-ranging, highly social, intelligent marine mammals for public display purposes defies practicality. Expecting SeaWorld as the big fish in the sea to set an example and spearhead the effort despite competition with other parks in a profit-driven industry would be akin to hoping McDonald's would convert its franchise into health-food restaurants or that Wal-Mart would transform its big-box hypermarkets into mom-and-pop collectives.

But emerging research does indicate that when it comes to public display facilities, not all species are created equal. Wide-ranging, predatory animals such as polar bears and large cats, for example, fare poorly in U.S. zoos and circuses. Wide-ranging, social animals like elephants also apparently suffer negative psychological effects. “I'm not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater and paint all public displays as evil,” says the Humane Society's Rose. “I'm trying to base it on sound science. If you do this, you could definitely come up with a list of certain species that are inherently unsuited to being confined. I think killer whales are absolutely on the top of that list.”

A Fishy School

Like many public display facilities in the U.S., the mission of SeaWorld goes beyond sheer entertainment. Company officials stress a commitment to advance scientific knowledge, contribute to global conservation efforts, and ultimately heighten public awareness in the name of greater marine stewardship. The renowned San Diego-based Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute employs dozens of the world's top marine scientists for its stated mission, “to apply sophisticated technologies to seek the solutions that protect and conserve marine animals while benefiting humans and their reliance on marine resources … and to provide innovative education programs to promote scientific literacy among our children and young scientists.”

“A large numbers of public aquariums provide services for rehabbing and releasing animals,” says Jennifer Skidmore, a federal scientist who maintains the NOAA Marine Mammal Inventory. “We have partners that accept animals that cannot be released, especially in the case of cetaceans where they really need that maternal care, or injured pinnipeds not able to survive in the wild. They participate in our watchable wildlife programs so the public knows the rules and regulations as far as approaching animals and interacting with animals.”

Public display institutions have funded more than 3,700 conservation projects in more than 100 countries and spend nearly $70 million each year on conservation initiatives, according to the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums. SeaWorld scientists and veterinarians are on the forefront of research and rescue missions worldwide. Park initiatives have led numerous conservation efforts for imperiled creatures ranging from tiny seabirds to beached whales.

So far this year, for example, SeaWorld Orlando's Animal Rescue Team has saved 11 endangered West Indian manatee. In San Diego, SeaWorld zoologists have developed the only successful breeding program outside of the antarctic for emperor penguins, which along with nine other species of penguin, is currently under consideration for inclusion under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“SeaWorld has contributed significantly to the knowledge base that we need for conservation,” says Timothy Ragen, executive director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission. “The guidance for preventing or detecting disease usually starts with a captive population. An example we recently encountered was with Hawaiian Monk Seals. We had lots of challenges related to their health and we frequently engaged veterinarians from SeaWorld to help us understand some of those challenges.”

Company scientists have made “incredible” leaps in marine-mammal reproduction techniques, adds the commission's general counsel, Michael Gosliner. “The counterargument is that they are just breeding them for a life in captivity and for a profit motive, but nevertheless `the knowledge` could be brought to bear if we decided to do captive breeding of some of the really endangered marine mammals.”

The underlying logic of these arguments rests on a slippery slope. Lucrative revenues at the privately owned parks help fund research and education, but the overarching imperative must always be the growth of earnings. To judge if the ends justify the means, a cost-benefit analysis would have to be assessed at least in part by unquantifiable variables, such as the mental well-being of animals, the ultimate impact of conservation versus profit-driven wildlife hunts, and the true value of the education disseminated in glitzy amusement parks.

Opponents maintain that the negative costs outweigh any upside, and dispute how much good is in fact derived from SeaWorld's activities. “The educational benefit of watching a dolphin in a concrete tank is the same as watching a human being in solitary confinement,” says the OPS's Papabeis, quoting Jacques Cousteau.

From this vantage, SeaWorld San Antonio's attractions do not withstand much scrutiny. Even a cursory review of the park makes clear the poor quality of scientific instruction imparted to the public. “It was pretty cool; you stand on a conveyor belt and go by all the penguin species,” said 29-year-old Lacey Walker, a Californian tourist exiting SeaWorld's penguin exhibit on a recent Saturday. But when asked about the issue of melting icecaps and penguin survival, Walker shakes her head. “There's not much education about their habitat or the threats to it. If that was the focus of the message, that wasn't in there.”

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“Most of these facilities are commercial facilities, they are for-profit facilities,” says Rose. “Whenever you have a bottom line to protect, your commitment to the truth is going to be subsumed by whatever your bottom-line requirements are. If the truth isn't to your business advantage, you're not necessarily going to convey it, and therefore the education that people receive when they go to SeaWorld is compromised.”


The carnival fanfare surrounding the emblematic Shamu and fellow living SeaWorld properties make it that much the harder to see the stunning spectacles as mere aquatic circus stunts performed by depressed, ailing creatures. Whales appear eager to breach and leap on command, to be chummy for some chum; dolphins stream through their pools with permanently fixed smiles. But the impact of Tilikum-like incidents and investigative documentaries such as The Cove remind us that these establishments too, like so much in our society, contain ethical issues that require reasoned and scientific debate.

Ultimately, an overhaul of marine parks in the U.S. would require a sweeping review of federal animal-welfare regulations. But the USDA is a government agency, inevitably balancing objective fact with public sentiment. “If there are changes that need to be made, there's a set process,” says the USDA's Sacks. “We want to take the best science available and the best input that comes in from the general public. We're a science-based agency, but as such still respond and are receptive to ideas that come in from all the interested stakeholders. It always comes down to ensuring that the animals are getting the proper care that they need,” he insists. But, he admits, “It's not done in a vacuum.”

At the end of the day, the debate is framed by the much larger issue of confinement of many species in circuses, zoos, wild animal parks, and other public displays. Eliminating these American pastimes would strike almost anyone as absurd, the extremist endgame of animal-rights radicals. But it pays to remember that other mainstream animal shows such as dog and bull fights were once legal in the U.S. Only in 2007 did the U.S, Congress pass federal laws against interstate dog-fighting activities, providing for felony-level penalties.

While conventional wisdom embraces the broader mission of providing the public with exposure to nature's creatures, public standards do evolve over time. “I used to not think this, but I guess I think it's not fair,” said 32-year-old San Antonio resident Jamie Williams as she watched orcas perform in SeaWorld's Believe show one recent Saturday. “Animals should have rights.” •