Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.
Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

By Maymie Higgins

The movie Blackfish is set to be released on DVD on Tuesday, November 12.  As much debate as the CNN airings and film festival screenings have prompted, the DVD release will likely create a resurgence of debate, anger, accusations and activism as yet unseen as it pertains to the topic of orcas in captivity, particularly at the Sea World parks.  I have not yet watched the documentary, preferring to wait until I could control the pace of viewing on my home DVD player, allowing for periods of bawling, meditation and sips of chamomile tea.  As an animal advocate and a person whose entire existence revolves around engaging the masses on a plethora of conservation topics, I probably do not have the emotional fortitude the movie requires.  And yet, I already know I will remain a supporter of Sea World even after seeing what I expect will be horrifying, gut-wrenching and panic-inducing images.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.
Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

The issue of animals in captivity is a sophisticated issue and cannot be easily compartmentalized into easy solutions such as “No Orcas in Captivity!”  Even if there is a movement towards having no orcas in captivity, it will be a long time before the last captive orca has lived out its full life expectancy.  The concept that captive animals, particularly those born in captivity, should be “set free” is an incomplete, poorly thought out concept.  Animals must have hunting, foraging, mating and many other behavioral skills in order to survive in the wild.  Most captive born animals never learned all of those skills.  Many wild born, now captive animals are in zoos and aquariums because they cannot survive in the wild after recovering from injuries.  Did you know that modern zoos and aquariums are often sanctuary for injured animals that would have otherwise been euthanized?

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.
Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Sea World has saved far more animals than it has destroyed as they are on the ground, every day, rescuing and rehabilitating dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and dozens of species of birds, to name only a few.  I have personally viewed the rehabilitation facilities in Orlando, Florida.  From my perspective as a Registered Nurse and with some experience in small mammal and passerine wildlife rehabilitation, I was very impressed with the state of the art facilities and loving care provided.  In 2012, more than 24 million guests visited Sea World parks, generating millions of dollars of donations, 100 percent of which are used for the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for wildlife conservation efforts. Then there are the intangible contributions such as all the conservation education activities that Sea World provides both inside and outside their parks, fostering the steward in both young and old.  For orcas in particular, Sea World has conducted a significant amount of published research that has benefitted both captive and wild orcas.  And just to be clear, Sea World has no involvement in capturing wild orcas now.  As is true for many zoos and aquariums, most of their animals were born in captivity.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.
Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

 The response to Blackfish should not be to shun Sea World.  Rather, keep visiting Sea World, make donations to their conservation fund, and support your local zoo and aquarium in their conservation efforts.  Consider this: if zoos and aquariums lose visitors, they lose revenue necessary to provide the best animal care possible.  The zoo and aquarium industry (and yes, it is an industry) is here to stay but that is not necessarily bad news.  For many species, it has already been good news.  For example, the black-footed ferret, red wolf and California condor would all be extinct now were it not for U.S. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  Therefore, do not punish Sea World for their past sins.  Instead, praise them for their ongoing efforts to improve the way they care for captive animals and their safety measures to protect employees entrusted with animal care.  In all areas of life, it is far more productive to reward good behavior than to punish bad behavior.

32 thoughts on “Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals

  1. A few people have indicated they want my opinion after I have watched Blackfish. Look for it here early next week. Also, I disagree with the disputes concerning the number of animals saved by Sea World. Over time, there have been thousands of individual animals rescued, rehabilitated and many released back into the wild. I don’t need a specific ledger of animals saved to know this. The number ranks in the hundreds annually and Sea World has been around a very long time. Until we do a better job preserving and protecting wildlife habitat and controlling human population growth, it is a hypocrisy to take a hard stand against animals in captivity. Every time one buys a bottled water and/or tosses it into the trash instead of recycling, for example, you are fighting against the principles of animal advocacy you claim to believe in. And this paradox is what makes it necessary for Sea World and many other zoos and aquariums to engage significantly in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Yes, they have taken from the natural world but they also give back. Who among us can claim that 100 percent of the time?

  2. This article smells of PR BS, Sea World continues to breed animals in captivity instead of actually rescuing them. I find it hard to believe you could still “overlook” and support a company who’s main agenda is to make money off of animals, not help them. I think there needs to be some serious fact checking with your article, i doubt 100% of their profits go to Wildlife Conservation. I absolutely will not support this huge corporation anymore, rather i will donate and spend money at real Marine labs & sanctuaries who demonstrate helping animals and releasing them when possible and don’t put on “Shows” every day, every hour on the hour and pack in millions of visitors so they can empty their pockets for them.

    1. That’s awesome! You are part of the movement against animals in captivity. 175 million annual visitors to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and countless visitors to 2,400 USDA approved animal exhibits (safaris, ranches, sanctuaries, etc.) could use your wisdom. In the meantime, what shall we do with all the captive animals at Sea World? Open the gate and wish them well? Read my piece on red wolves. This country can’t even co-exist with wolves.

      And read my statement more closely. 100 percent of donations to the conservation fund go to conservation efforts.

    2. Ever seen the show SeaRescue? It’s entirely about helping injured animals in the wild. How about you watch that? ABC Saturday mornings.

      1. Thanks! Setting the DVR now. Also, I recently ran across the figure of how many animals Sea World has rescued or helped rescue. It’s more than 22,000.

  3. This evening I watched Blackfish, including the full documentary and all the DVD special features. I encourage everyone to watch all the DVD special features which include interviews with several whale experts and an interview with the director of Blackfish.

    There would be no captive animals in a perfect world. The world is not perfect. And humans have held captive animals a very long time. Prior to agricultural development, nomadic people caught young wild animals during the Neolithic era. There is evidence these animals were not intended as food in all cases. Some were objects of play or were killed for body parts while others were used as decoys in hunting. Animals were kept tethered at the edges of camps and possibly provided status to the humans who held them captive. Therefore, it saddens me to tell you that my emotional reaction to Blackfish was not as extreme as I anticipated. I guess I have become tainted and developed a crusty shell that lets me stay on the front line and continue to write and fight for animals. That said, I gasped several times, mostly at images of babies being yanked from their families.

    I still have the opinion that Sea World does more good than harm. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no shows involving cetaceans of any kind forty years from now. Though Sea World is kicking and screaming, lying and denying about many issues surrounding captive orca husbandry and trainer safety, I can’t help but believe they have gotten the message. Clearly, the era of trainers and orcas doing shows together should come to an end for the well-being of all involved. But the ending of that era should not come at the expense of all the other animals that benefit directly and indirectly from Sea World’s expertise in animal husbandry, rescue and rehabilitation. Boycotting Sea World is not the only way to send the message that you want their practices to change.

  4. Boycott Sea World. Money talks. They have the ability to rescue and learn from those rescues. People still want good to happen, and Sea World can be the leader, we oppose using animals for our entertainment. Their mere presence and their well being will please more people. People realize many of these animals cannot be released for their own safety, but they don’t have to live like slaves either. The next study is to learn how to release back to the wild unharmed.

    1. I posted this as well. Great minds think alike, Jefferson. Also, aren’t we glad Sea World has finally defended itself in writing?

  5. As a marine biologist and general animal advocate, I wanted to weigh in here. I feel that your piece has some items which I agree with (Sea World isnt being truthful about some issues, the entertainment shows with orca and dolphins need to stop), but it is missing some other items. Yes, Sea World does conservation and helps animals. No, the makers of the film were not denying that, nor were they suggesting that Sea World should be shut down (this is, or should be public knowledge..they have stated it in enough interviews). They also were not advocating to dump all the animals back in the wild. Yes, I agree that its a complex issue. Many of the long time captives arent even in good enough health (poor dental health, on antibiotics etc, other health conditions) to be considered for a wild release. And yes, if Seaworld just shut down suddenly, what would happen to all the animals in their care, its a legitimate concern, imo.

    What the makers of the film want, what all of us want, is better conditions for the orca and dolphin, to stop the captive breeding, and also to stop wild capture. To consider for at least a sea pen release, the candidates who can, and especially those who we know where their families are. At least a few people even came up with a plan how Sea World could work to do this and still make profits off of it.

    But of all the conservation efforts, how many orca (who are not, overall, endangered), have they helped and released? Aside from one or two examples, I can’t seem to find any. Morgan is being held in Loro Parque (a Seaworld friend), being deemed that she is unreleasable. Meanwhile, of course, she’s performing. From the statistics that I have read, Seaworld does great work with the birds, manatees and turtles, primarily. And no, they don’t ‘directly’ capture animals from the wild. But what about helping in an indirect way? How about that permit to import (aka capture and remove from the wild), 18 beluga whales that the GA Aquarium keeps fighting the government on? Who will benefit from that? The whales were set to go to Sea World, Shedd Aquarium, etc. And there’s another issue that Seaworld might be linked to. Rumors (that i am eager to see clarified with solid evidence)< that Sea world might have been a consultant or beneficiary of the capture of wild Russian Orca for display at the Olympics.

    So in conclusion. Yes Seaworld does conservation. No, the filmmakers arent trying to get it shut down (although it seems some of the public arent looking deeply enough into the issues/logistics here). All they, and many of us want is just better conditions for the orca and to stop the breeding. IMO Seaworld needs to stop hiding behind easily arguable statements (Like their ads they released. Pretty much every point has so many documented cases of things that disprove it, that it makes me shake my head 😦 . Seaworld, is not helping its case by refusing to come on Blackfish to tell its POV and talk about the good it does do..or come on CNN, other networks and do more face to face work. Change needs to happen (which I think, in one of your comments you did mention as well). Thanks for listening.

    1. They’re not going to stop captive breeding. Might as well just say the orcas would be better off dead because without breeding the whales would be gone in a few decades. Believe me when I say you should just state what you want because the shareholders aren’t going to buy that argument that they can stop captive breeding and come out on top.

  6. Mattie-

    I can’t thank you enough for weighing in. As a writer and a generalist when it comes to captive animal issues, my hope in writing this and other similar blogs is to stimulate deeper understanding in those not professionally involved in captive animal issues. You clearly are involved. Your contribution here is everything I could ever hope for.

    You and I are on the same page. I am happy that Sea World is having its feet held to the fire in a big way. In the long run, that is going to result in improvements for orca trainers, orcas and other animals at Sea World.

    What I find interesting is how little has been voiced in social media about the dangers to the trainers….the humans. Why is that not a priority as well? Because the trainers have a choice? Okay. Because they chose that work, they deserve the risk of even death? It is an interesting commentary that the outcry is not something like “No humans in tanks with orcas ever again!” Blackfish covers that issue a great deal and yet, there has been very little discussion of that content.

    1. Maymie: Thank you. I find it very interesting that the Sea World OSHA trial generated so much interest that they decided to move it to an auditorium at Georgetown Law School so that more people could attend and watch. I agree that it is also a worker/employee safety thing. Over the summer, I was in Orlando for a scientific conference, and decided to go to Sea World and see for myself what I could see about the orcas. I went to a show because for some reason the orca weren’t available in the viewing tank beforehand (and I wasn’t being given coherent answers as to why and where they were). It concerned me that despite OSHA’s rulings, at many points, the orca were within inches of the trainers. Sometimes, even a trainer was next to 3-4 orca on the ‘slide out’ at a time. I didn’t feel it was too safe (especially with the accounts and videos of orca just grabbing people by the foot/ankle). I also didn’t find the show educational (there was no educational preface to the show and it seemed to be disappointingly more about pyrotechnics and rock n roll music than information. :/ )

  7. I’m curious why you think the numbers that sea world puts out about how many animals they rescue are true? Don’t you think maybe just maybe it’s just pr to keep people coming to their parks to make money? They can rescue and rehab without the circus of shows. And rescue and rehab fine… But why breed them in captivity? Most of the orcas in captive currently are related to Tilley. Believe what you want. But I personally believe there are a sad huge number of people willing to do anything to make money. That’s all sea world is. What a joke. Do your research before posting something like this. It’s quite ignorant.

    1. I could post a picture of you holding a baby and claim you are going to eat that baby.. Then start a campaign to have you imprisoned.. Then people as narrowly focused as you and hell bent on deciding what the truth is or isn’t would hunt you down for the rest of your life and make sure you died for eating a baby.. This is the logic.. The EXACT logic you are using to condemn Sea World and all of its efforts.. You have no concept of what the truth is or isn’t.. You’re not even involved.. But you can’t wait to bash because.. Well you decided they’re the enemy..

      Ready for your close up?.. I’d love to show you from their side what it means to “decide what truth is”

    2. Sea World is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and that accreditation is renewed every five years. AZA accreditation is an exhaustive process that includes complete accounting of all activities, including animal rescue and rehab. Sea World has to provide multiple documents supporting the numbers they claim, not only to the AZA but to tax accountants, financial auditors, board members, etc. It would be very difficult for them to overstate their rescue numbers and get away with it for very long. While anything is possible, I don’t think the numbers of rescued animals reported is overinflated and untrue.

  8. Let’s keep the comments on point, please readers. Calling someone or their work ignorant is not going to further the cause of improving the plight of captive animals. We all feel passionately about the subject but keep it professional and courteous here. Also, credentials for many of the authors, including mine, are available on the Contributor page. Research was done to develop the well-informed opinion for this blog entry. Also, I have earned my educated opinion through sweat, grime and academics. There is nothing ignorant about the perspective I have written here. Unfortunately, I see all the good and bad components equally. If you think this entry is a complete and total defense of Sea World or animals in captivity, you aren’t reading closely enough.

  9. i think this is wrong they are being taken away from their family. its like if someone came to murder you but instead he takes your 2 year old baby and has to be a slave. my point is they matter just as much as we do so i vote free the whales and i watched that movie blackfish i cried to my death and again i quote free the whales.
    .-paityn age 9

    1. Paityn-

      Thank you for sharing how you feel about this. It makes me really sad too and I hope there will only be animals in forests, deserts, savannas and oceans, not zoos and aquariums, one day. It will take a long time for that to happen. But you know what? It is already better now than it used to be for animals in zoos and aquariums. And it will continue to get better as long as people like you care and speak up. So you keep speaking up, Paityn. The world needs more big-hearted people like you!

      Miss Maymie, age 47

  10. Yawn. great zoos rescue animals… Sea world would have been shut down years ago if it didn’t at least do that.

    Sea world refused to even acknowledge the obvious mistakes it makes so the stronger the activism against it is going to get.

    Sorry, the number of gawking yokels that have no moral fiber that go and drool at the things they objectify doesn’t impress me.

    1. I was hesitant to approve this comment because it does not add anything of substance to this thread. Also, insulting other people is not a productive way to foster change. So I am again reminding folks to keep it courteous and professional here. Any further insulting comments will not be approved for posting.

  11. I saw an earlier comment that implied that if Seaworld stopped breeding captive Orca’s they would cease to exist. It wasn’t in so many words, but that was essentially the crux of the comment. These whales do an amazing job reproducing in the wild. The only population the captive bred animals keep afloat is the population of captive bred animals. I don’t like SeaWorld because I don’t like being lied to. When you ask a question about the animals and are given false information, it is insulting. Not just for me, but for the animals. They deserve so much better. They deserve to keep their babies, and calf rejection is more common in captivity. Theybuse that as an excuse to split mom’s and babies but if they were wild born they would be together for life. I also wanted to post this interview with John Hargrove and Gabriella Copperthwaite. I was really surprised when he told the interviewer that the other animals were in bad condition, going blind in chlorinated pools and such. It makes my heart so heavy. Such loving and incredibly smart creatures being reduced to sideshows and entertainment.

    1. Melissa-

      Thanks for your input. I can assure you that none of my comments implied that orcas would no longer exist in the wild because I am not of that opinion. However, I am of the opinion that the single greatest possible outcome from the Blackfish documentary would be for a heightened public awareness of the plight of wild orcas. More wild orcas have died from the effects of overfishing, oil spills, persecution by fishermen and pollution than Sea World has ever owned.

      There are animal species that only exist in zoos and aquariums or in protected areas now because they are extinct in the wild. Read my piece on red wolves. Research the thylacine, the passenger pigeon and quagga. In recent history, we have indeed lost animals species forever. We need institutions like Sea World who are not merely involved in entertaining the masses. Sea World is part of an industry wide effort, with other zoos and aquariums, to promote conservation, protect habitats and rescue and rehabilitate native wildlife. Blackfish is not a complete and thorough evaluation of the topic of orcas in captivity and fails to mention the negative effects of human activities on wild orca populations. My point is that there is a much bigger picture to consider and each of us individually should evaluate our own contributions to the demise of wildlife before we allow a sole documentary to influence our final opinion on the topic.

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