SeaWorld: aquarium or circus?

Readers might be interested in a more recent post detailing the sad events in Orlando, February 2010.

Reuters reports a stunning jailbreak, led by a giraffe, in which several camels, zebras, llamas and some pot-bellied pigs threw off the yoke of human slavery and made a bid for freedom in the streets of Amsterdam.  Sadly all the creatures were subsequently returned to captivity.  I suspect collusion between the three species of even-toed ungulate, while zebras are known associates of giraffes.  The pigs, in all likelihood, simply noted the circumstances and pressed the advantage: Sus domestica have form.

It is nowadays deeply unfashionable to use performing animals in a circus; the public appears to have accepted that animal suffering is too high a price to pay for a couple of hours’ entertainment.  The popularity of human-only ciruses like Cirque du Soleil is perhaps testament to this, though we still see the occasional dog and pony show here in the UK.

Yet having said all that, there is one sphere in which performing animals still seem acceptable: the aquarium. 

Over the New Year, I decided to visit SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida: a location about as far as you can get from the ocean in a state that is more coastline than anything else, but one which provides a virtually limitless supply of tourists.  I had been to SeaWorld near Cleveland some twenty years before, and was initially surprised to see that Shamu was still floating about, now down in the Sunshine State.  Of course it transpires that the name is simply a trademark, a stage name used by all orcas obtained by the parks.  The first Shamu sadly died in 1971, from an infection indirectly attributed to her captivity.

“Shamu” being the main attraction, we made our way to her arena to witness the multi-million-dollar extravaganza Believe.  While waiting for the show to start, enormous screens showed images of the iconic cetacean, subtitled thus:

One drop of water becomes a river
Joining the motion between sea and the shore
Winding its way there returning one day where
It was before.

Every creature walking the land and
Dancing the ocean or learning to soar
Tells us we’re part of something far greater
Something far more.

Come!
Take your place!
And be part of the dance of the sky,
The land, and the sea!

Come!
Touch the face of a mystery!

So it continued in the same vein, while I exchanged sideways glances with my companions.  Initially I took all this mawkish nonsense to be yet another example of our unfortunate tendency to mistake simplicity of expression with profundity.  Yet I was relieved to discover, moments later, that the words were the lyrics from the theme tune.  You can hear the whole song at Sea World’s website, if you have Flash player (and a strong stomach).

And so to the main event.  The four vast screens converged, to show a video in which a young brown-haired boy fashions a whale-fluke-shaped talisman from a piece of driftwood.  The film periodically cuts away to a canoe-borne encounter with a breaching orca.  All of this is voiced over by that gravelly bloke who features on every Hollywood trailer.  Again, pending the intervention of Florida’s finest, here’s the video.

As the film draws to its conclusion, the ringmaster enters upstage.  And what are we to make of his appearance?  Although he is an adult wearing a wetsuit, he sports brown spikey hair and, by Jingo, a wooden talisman in the shape of whale flukes!

The audience, now captivated, is brought to a frenzy, first through the demonstration of sundry tricks (which the brewery euphemistically describes as “behaviors”), then by being encouraged to chant the animal’s name, while brandishing their hands aloft in the shape of its tail.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

The coup de grace is delivered by a ten year old child brought forth from the assembly by the ringmaster.  Asked what her “dream” might be, the girl announces, in querulous voice, that her sincerest desire is to become an actress.  Having been told that “if she believes” this will be so, she is presented with the ringmaster’s very own whale-tail medallion.

At this point my cynicism got the better of me, and, consulting a timetable, I noted that there are five Believe shows every day, amounting to at least 150 necklaces a month.  And indeed, to nobody’s great surprise, the first people one encounters outside the Shamu stadium are salespeople offering replica talismen at $5 each.

Nevertheless, the show’s message is clear enough: we share a mysterious connection with all the creatures of the earth, even dirty great dolphins, and if we have the strength to believe in our dreams, they will come true.  So far, so inspirational.  And despite the fact that the ringmaster is plainly not the little boy who encountered a killer whale in the icy waters of the Pacific North West, I have no doubt in my mind that he, and all the other keepers, really do love the animals they work with, and probably believe they share some kind of spiritual connection.

But what of the beasts themselves?

The Humane Society of the United States does not mince its words: “the nature of these animals makes them uniquely unsuited to confinement”.  A seven million gallon tank of cold water cannot compare with a hundred-mile unbroken stretch of ocean, and the hard, reflective surfaces make echolocation pointless at best.  The HSUS attributes the peculiar droop seen in the dorsal fin of “all captive male orcas, and many captive females” to their spending unnatural lengths of time at the surface.  They claim that less than 1% of wild killer whales suffer from this complaint, though SeaWorld notes that 23% of killer whales observed in a New Zealand study had bent dorsal fins.

A fortnight ago, SeaWorld San Antonio announced the second unexpected death of a killer whale in eight months.  The two-and-a-half year old creature died less than 48 hours after it started behaving erratically.  The death of the previous animal was attributed to pneumonia.  “Respiratory diseases likely are among the leading causes of death of captive marine mammals,” Professor Jaime Alvarado-Bremer of Texas A&M told the Express News.  The reason for this is not known, but we might speculate that a “slideout”, where the whale is induced to beach itself on the side of its tank, would not do its lungs much good.

On the crude measure of survival, killer whales and bottlenose dolphins fare worse in captivity than in the wild, according to a 1995 study at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory.  But how can you guage the general well-being of animals that sport a permanent grin?  If they were deeply unhappy, you might expect them to tuck in to the occasional trainer.  And this has happened.  Kasatka, one of the whales at SeaWorld San Diego, grabbed her trainer and held him underwater, breaking his foot in the process.  And there is a rather splendid video of the original Shamu chomping a trainee keeper.  The beast was eventually persuaded to relinquish her prey, and close inspection of the video reveals that Shamu didn’t even break the skin.  Just a fit of pique, rather than true agression?  Then what are we to make of Kandu’s death in 1989, following a “collision” with Corky that severed an artery?

The history of marine mammals in captivity makes for grim reading.  PT Barnum held a Beluga whale in a “small box filled with water” as a sideshow at his circus.  And the process of aquisition is an equally brutal affair.  Ted Griffin, captor of the original Shamu, was unremorseful that he had harpooned and drowned her mother in the process.  In an interview with KGTV San Diego, he confesses to being “interested in the whales, and interested in making a good profit in selling [them]”.  Shamu netted Griffin $100,000.

Griffin and his partner, Don Goldsberry, earned themselves a ban from Washington waters for hunting killer whales with explosives while in the employ of SeaWorld.  On one expedition in the summer of 1970, having apparently cornered almost the entire Puget Sound population in an inlet, four whales became entangled in nets and drowned.  With the help of some divers, they slit open the bellies of the dead whales, filled them with ballast, tied anchor chain around their tail flukes, and sank their carcasses in the ocean.  “If I have dead whales, I’m going to conceal it from the public, which is what I did,” Griffin told KGTV.  We might never have known, had the sea not given up her dead some weeks later.

SeaWorld mounted a robust defence (105KB PDF) of the KGTV investigation, pointing out that they have not collected a killer whale from the wild since 1978; they have the most successful breeding programme in the zoological community; and, today, their focus is not only the welfare of the animals in their care, but that of every distressed marine mammal in their purview.

Moreover, the recent amelioration of humanity’s relationship with the species is almost solely to their credit.  It was once common practice among fishermen to slaughter killer whales on sight.  As late as 1960, military pilots used them for target practice.  Even Linnaeus’ name for the genus, Orcinus, drew on an ancient hatred: this was the fish from hell.  Largely thanks to men like Griffin and places like SeaWorld, we know significantly more about these animals than we did in those more primitive ages.

Killer whales are now divided into two principal groups: the “Resident” population that lives in the North West Pacific, and the “Transient” population that lives further out to sea.  The Resident whales live in close-knit groups, with males keeping company with their mothers throughout their adult life, only leaving the pod to mate with females from other groups.  Residents live almost exclusively on a diet of fish.  Transient whales, meanwhile, do not exhibit the same level of social sophistication, and eat other marine mammals, including larger whales.  Genetic evidence suggests the two populations have not interbred for over 10,000 years.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is speciation taking place before our very eyes.

Since almost all captive orcas belong to the Resident type, and are therefore pescitarian, it is perhaps less of a surprise that no SeaWorld employee has gone the way of Jonah.  If Griffin had captured a Transient killer whale, things might have been very different.

So we may count ourselves duly educated.  The exhibits, we are told, “inspire visitors to conserve our valuable natural resources by increasing awareness for the interrelationships of humans and the marine environment.  Inspiring and engagement through education are the first steps in conservation.”  For the three hundred million people that have walked through the gates of SeaWorld, Believe really is “as real as it gets”.  Few, if any, will see a killer whale in the wild.  But since the IUCN lists Orcinus orca among its “least threatened” species, it is difficult to believe conservation is justification enough to keep them captive.  Perhaps the dolphinaria really do belong among the menageries and circuses of the past.

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6 Responses to SeaWorld: aquarium or circus?

  1. Tim Stevens says:

    I recall my early years as a professional cat-herder/milkmaid – does this count? Do I get my Believe medallion for being the first to say “welcome to the blogosphere, O Hedge”?

    Interesting about the speciation business. I assume that means there will come a point when dolphinaria and the like are utterly unrepresentative of most of the animals they claim to be ‘raising awareness of &c’. That goes beyond the 10,000 years of exclusive breeding already noted. Will the ‘Resident’ population become merely a stock from which display animals are culled. I’m thinking dogs and wolves here.

  2. Chris says:

    The wolf-dog spectrum is an apposite analogue; one of the old names for killer whale is “sea wolf”, apparently.

    In June 2006, an article in New Scientist reported some research into the doggy genome. It suggested that the removal of selective pressure from the grey wolf allowed even disadvantageous mutations to persist. This provided later breeders with a genetic palette from which they painted everything between Yorkshire Terrier and Argentine Mastiff. Amazingly, given the right equipment (e.g. a step-ladder), a Chihuahua and a Great Dane can produce fertile offspring. The full letter is at Genome Research.

    Unfortunately captivity does not seem to have removed selective pressure from killer whales, if these statistics are anything to go by.

  3. […] not clear what proportion of Britain’s outraged populace have been to SeaWorld without the least twinge of guilt. However, the UK has been free of captive cetaceans since the […]

  4. […] has previously been the subject intense scrutiny, including mine, and this latest incident has already renewed calls for a moratorium on killer whale captivity. […]

  5. lauraleellbp says:

    I suppose I am just more interested by what’s inside the tank than the tank itself.

  6. emily says:

    Love browsing your site, always learn random interesting facts.
    Emily R. from Training Huskies

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