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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative


Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

SeaWorld and Blackfish: Part 7

The claim that captive orcas benefit wild ones

Published 03/10/14

The following blog series is a point-by-point rebuttal to SeaWorld, following SeaWorld's critical reaction to the controversial 2013 documentary, Blackfish. Each blog entry will present an argument made by SeaWorld and a rebuttal by Barry MacKay.

The claim that captive orcas benefit wild ones:

SeaWorld has claimed that captive orcas somehow benefit the species in the wild. Since captive orcas at SeaWorld and wild orcas have no contact with each other, clearly captive animals cannot directly benefit wild ones. So, what is meant by SeaWorld’s claim is that scientists can access captive living orcas up close much more easily than they can access wild ones, and can more easily observe certain traits and behaviors.

It is worth noting, in that context, something that SeaWorld fails to mention, even though it is a core message of the film, Blackfish (that they seek to discredit): captive orcas (and other wildlife) often display behavior not seen in the wild. For example, as Blackfish accurately documents, captive orcas sometimes kill humans. Wild orcas have been known to briefly go after humans in wetsuits (the most often-seen theory is that the humans are mistaken for seals or sea lions, which can be natural prey species), but there is no record of them actually killing a human, and they have never been seen to hold a human under water long enough to drown, or cause massive trauma to a human. But, captive orcas have done all of these things.

After stating that some orca populations are endangered, SeaWorld says that it is possible to conduct “controlled research and study” that is simply not possible in the wild. But, SeaWorld then states that research “has significant real-world benefits” to wild orcas. It does not name these benefits, let alone explain why they are “significant.”

SeaWorld states: “Some populations of wild killer whales have been classified as endangered or threatened, demonstrating the potential (sic) critical nature of these research opportunities.” What does that mean? At best, it is just poor grammar, since the conservation status of a population does not “demonstrate” anything about research, per se. Obviously, when a population of wild fauna or flora is endangered, if it is to be protected or hopes to recover, we need knowledge of the species. But, SeaWorld apologists indicate no area of research involving captive orcas that tells us how to reverse or mitigate known activities that lead to threats or endangerment of orca populations (including the oceanic fishing industry, which SeaWorld’s activities help to profit). Nowhere is it explained what can be learned from a captive orca that will help the survival of its species (which is not endangered) or some populations (which may indeed be threatened) that cannot be better learned from studies of wild orcas.

There are two possible caveats we can think of. First, it has been 37 years since the movie Orca threatened to do to the reputation and public perceptions of orcas what the movie Jaws did two years earlier to the reputation and public perceptions of great white sharks, painting them as vengeful creatures seeking human blood. The reputations and public perceptions of orcas (and, to a lesser degree, great white sharks) have changed. And, in part, public perception of orcas has been modified as a result of orcas being kept captive.

We now know that orcas don’t normally attack or hunt down humans. We think, in part, the early years of keeping orcas in captivity contributed a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, these animals as intelligent, sociable apex predators. However, that function has not only long been served, but the pendulum has swung far past a reasoned understanding of the orca. It has become, in the minds of many, a gentle, loving, panda-colored creature who enjoys entertaining us, doing silly tricks and stunts, and serving human interests as a modern-day jester whose pool-side antics can elicit shrieks of surprise, laughter, and applause. “YOU’RE GONNA GET WET!” None of this teaches us much about orcas, or the world in which they truly belong, or how to protect them or their habitats from their greatest threat: us.

Those of us in the business of caring about individual wild animals and the integrity of their environment have also learned that captivity does not work for these animals, and that it creates enormous stress in them that manifests itself in aberrant actions such as self-mutilation, stereotypic behavior, and attacks on their trainers.

It is as if SeaWorld’s collective knowledge of orcas was frozen in time, to when we thought that they could be “tamed,” trained, and made to essentially survive in captivity—and even be dominated by humans—without learning how hostile captivity was to them, and the threat it posed to the employees (who, like the animals, are put at risk in the name of profit).

And now, in ‘blame the messenger’ mode, SeaWorld tries to denigrate the movie that broached concerns many of us have had for years, together in one eminently accessible vehicle: Blackfish.

The second caveat: While we know that cetaceans echolocate (like bats and even some birds and other fauna), it may very well be that the degree to which studies of echolocation in captive animals had enhanced understanding of the phenomenon, true conservationists may be able to use a little of the data from captive cetaceans in fighting aural disturbances to wild populations. We doubt that the information is of much value in that regard, but we struggle to find a basis in fact that would support SeaWorld’s allegations—since SeaWorld itself, in the documents we have seen, fails to do so.

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