SeaWorld: Another Perspective on the Fate of Its Whales

The sentience and intelligence of killer whales is profound. This is why the notion of releasing marine park animals into nature or seaside sanctuaries via carefully coordinated soft release efforts, where animals are gradually introduced to the elements, must be carefully considered.

We saw last week, that a noted orca biologist and outspoken critic of SeaWorld has been promoting controversial ecotourism programs, which offer patrons opportunities to interact with wild cetaceans. This further supports what we know about the bonding that can occur between killer whales and humans. If free-ranging marine animals are compelled to interact with humans in any capacity, depriving captive-born cetaceans of the frequent and stimulating human interaction they are used to will be devastating for them. Captive-born and captive-reared individuals of sentient species are the epitome of habituated animals and the bonds established between them and their caretakers is remarkably strong.

Will killer whales raised by humans and used to daily human contact benefit more from being placed in SeaWorld's proposed and expansive 100 million dollar enclosure or will they thrive in a seaside sanctuary exposed to a multitude of nature's elements? It is hard to say, but the provisions SeaWorld's Blue World exhibit will offer its killer whales much more resemble what these animals were offered at birth, as subadults, and as adult animals and I suspect they will much prefer what they are used to.

Nature is both unforgiving and dangerous to a naive immune system, not to mention the dangers of exposure to degraded conditions of marine habitats as they exist today. Contaminants and debris are just a few concerns that may pose risks to these animals, which were cared for under such close supervision their entire lives. And as mentioned, limits with respect to opportunites for human contact and interaction, which are huge reinforcements for the captive-born cetacean and all captive-living marine mammals, will likely be detrimental to these animals.

When I worked on reintroduction and rewildling programs for the largest terrestrial mammal in the the Western Hemisphere--the wood bison--we went to great lengths to prepare the herd for life in the wild. In the case of these large bovids, nature is not far removed from life in captivity. With that stated, and from a soft release standpoint, we can't afford to always be gentle in a reintroduction effort because nature can be quite hostile. So we intentionally challenged animals with stressors that they may encounter in nature to condition them for a release back into the wild.

I contend that SeaWorld would be negligent if they were to place captive-born animals in an ocean enclosure. If history is any indication, the sad demise of Keiko who was ultimately released into the open ocean should be an example for us.

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