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.

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