During the '60s and '70s, orca hunters Ted Griffin and partner Don Goldsberry, director of animal collection for SeaWorld, violently snatched nearly an entire generation's worth of southern resident killer whale (SRKW) calves from their mothers, using underwater explosives in the process.
In 1976, after the duo reduced the already-scarce population of SRKWs to numbers that flirted with extinction, lawmakers stepped in and banned the capture of orcas in Washington state waters. However, dozens of already captured young were sent to marine mammal parks across the nation. Among the collected orcas were SeaWorld's original Shamu and the Miami Seaquarium's Lolita, who as of 2015 is the only surviving captive southern resident killer whale.
The immediate loss of nearly 50 orca calves made the return to healthy numbers difficult for the southern residents, whose population before the roundups modestly exceeded 100 members. Since the roundups, the orcas have failed to significantly recover, and because of their pitifully low numbers, NOAA listed them as endangered in 2005. Now, NOAA estimates there are fewer than 80 of them left in the world. The government agency says their propagation has been further impeded by threats such as prey depletion and polluted, boat-infested waters.
Though SeaWorld has not collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years (it breeds its orcas now), it is with this history in originally obtaining orcas that SeaWorld announced yesterday that it has teamed up with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) in creating the Killer Whale Research and Fish and Conservation Program. The famous marine park has committed $1.5 million to the initiative — which will be matched by the NFWF through public and private donations— as part of its $10 million pledge to protect killer whales in the wild. "The largest private commitment of its kind," the company boasts.
The program will help protect wild orcas, particularly SRKWs, by funding "crucial" research and supporting projects that will aid in improving their habitat quality and in increasing the availability of Chinook salmon (the orcas meal of choice).
SeaWorld already funds extensive research on its own killer whales, such as on orca milk composition, which the company believes may help scientists better understand the nutritional requirements for mothers and their calves, and also funds research that looks into how killer whales metabolize toxins, which may enlighten conservation efforts for killer whales living in polluted habitats.
However, animal advocates dismiss it as SeaWorld's latest PR stunt to distract the public from the "real issue" of the park mistreating its captive killer whales.
"There's been a long, dedicated conservation effort for decades, and those activists and scientists deserve our praise," said Matt Liebman, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund who is involved in lawsuits regarding captive orcas. "SeaWorld's late attempt to join that effort is long overdue, and if it thinks coopting the conservationist message will whitewash its image, it's wrong. In light of their ongoing mistreatment of these animals, one comes to the likely conclusion that this is a deliberate pitch to rehabilitate its irreparably tarnished public image."
Liebman's concerns are echoed by Robin Jewell, an animal rights activist who organized a nationwide demonstration earlier this month to retire Lolita from performing tricks.
"I feel the conservation effort is the least SeaWorld can do after causing [the orcas] to be endangered in the first place. The capture and deaths of the young took a toll on the pods of the southern resident population," she says. "I am less-than-impressed because they have not stopped the practice of enslaving [orcas] to make themselves rich. This program on the surface would mean a lot to the southern resident killer whales that are still endangered... I feel this is an attempt to show people that they are doing something positive, [but] you can spray shit with perfume and you can still see it's shit."
Despite her criticism, Jewell believes the majority of animal advocates do not want to end SeaWorld but that its company should eliminate the captivity of orcas for show purposes and focus on its rather exemplary rehabilitation programs, which have helped rescue thousands of animals. Indeed, some activists believe it would be "wonderful" if SeaWorld helped bring SRKWs off the Endangered Species List through this new conservation effort.
Still, Jewell will not be happy until SeaWorld's captive orcas are rehabilitated and replaced by laser lookalikes in shows. "I cannot admire SeaWorld for anything until they release the hostages," she protested. "I would be the first one buying a ticket for the hologram show."
SeaWorld's zoological experts say its captives are healthy, receiving "world-class medical care," and are constantly stimulated, both physically and socially (the company owns 30 orcas). SeaWorld also shows no signs of changing its business model anytime soon, hiring lobbyists to stop bills banning the display of cetaceans from becoming law and developing new habitats for its killer whales.
SeaWorld officials claim the orcas serve as "animal ambassadors" of their wild counterparts and inspire the public to care about marine mammal conservation efforts.
"Killer whales at SeaWorld are without question animal ambassadors. Consider that most people would never have the opportunity to ever see a killer whale were it not for accredited zoological institutions like SeaWorld. We see positive aspects every day, in ways large and small, particularly among children," said Fred Jacobs, the vice president of corporate communications for SeaWorld. "Kids see, learn about, and learn to care about animals like killer whales at SeaWorld. Many marine scientists, veterinarians and conservationists were first inspired as children by experiences in zoos and aquariums."
However, those against captivity could not possibly disagree more. They believe SeaWorld has made the conservation of orcas harder, some believing the captive orcas have demonized killer whales in the eyes of people because of their attacks on trainers, while other "anti-cap" animal advocates are more concerned that keeping the orcas in captivity leads people to believe orca populations are plentiful when in fact, some groups are endangered.
"It is the public display and forced performances at SeaWorld that harms conservation efforts," says Jared Goodman, director of animal law for PETA. "It is well-established that seeing an animal perform unnatural tricks leads to erroneous public perceptions of the animals' nature and that their populations in the wild are stable and healthy."
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Goodman is skeptical of SeaWorld's claims that its captives are well-adapted to their tanks, saying the killer whales are best-suited for the ocean, where they swim 100 miles per day (and where the species evolved over millions of years).
He tells New Times that the orcas at SeaWorld should be retired from performing due to concerns of trainer safety since the animals are placed under significant stress in captivity, which causes them to act
crazy aggressively erratically. According to records, there are more than 100 incidents at SeaWorld in which orcas bit, rammed, lunged at, pulled, pinned, or swam aggressively with the trainers.
"It is highly irresponsible to allow direct contact between trainers and orcas forced to perform unnatural tricks in their woefully inadequate tanks," Goodman says. "It presents a life-threatening danger to trainers and harms conservation efforts."
UPDATE: In response to these concerns by PETA on trainers being attacked, Jacobs told New Times that SeaWorld's trainers have not been in the water for killer whale shows in more than five years. "The only in-water interaction that occurs is safety desensitization training," he said. "As far as whales attacking humans in the wild, I don't believe [it is common], but people do not routinely enter the water in places where killer whales are commonly found. Nor should they; killer whales are apex predators. They kill and eat a remarkable variety of fish, seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, birds and even deer and moose."