Keep orcas in the wild, not in aquaria

July 22, 2013 • 5:55 am

Blackfish is a 2013 documentary movie about captive orcas (killer whales) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. It centers on Tilikum, the infamous orca who killed three people (including two trainers) and is still at SeaWorld.  The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered at Sundance in Utah, and has received a lot of critical acclaim. It gets a 97% from the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site, and Wikipedia says this:

Critical reception for the documentary has been mostly positive, with the Deseret News calling it “a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest”. Twitch Film and The Hollywood Reporter both praised Blackfish, with both review sites arguing that the film gave “a persuasive case against keeping the species – and by extension any wild animal – in captivity for the purposes of human entertainment”. Film School Rejects gave the documentary a rating of B-, writing that it “never really offers anything new, but what it does feature is extremely important” and that it was “slanted in it view [sic]”.

The official site of the movie is here.  It has been picked up by CNN and will be shown there on October 24.

The movie’s thesis is that orcas suffer psychological damage, debilitation, and stress in captivity, some of which could have contributed to Tilikum’s rampages. I have to admit that I’m biased in favor of that idea, though my bias comes from more than simply biophilia: I’ve seen large captive sea mammals, such as those in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, showing signs of neurotic behavior, including repetitive swimming back and forth. Animals like seals, orcas, and beluga whales evolved to roam over hundreds of miles of open ocean, and I can’t help but feel that keeping them in captivity, even with medical care and lots of food, is an unfair imprisonment.  After all (and as I’ve said before), a Martian zoologist observing humans in prison would conclude that they’re healthy and well taken care of: a human zoo, so to speak. But none of those men would opt to stay in prison over gaining their freedom with all its uncertainties. Give an orca a path to the sea from its tank, and see if it comes back!

Some aquaria will argue that keeping such animals in captivity helps us better understand their biology, enabling us to conserve them better. But orcas, seals, and belugas are not endangered, and at any rate real refereed scientific publications from large aquaria or sea-mammal emporia are thin on the ground.  Let’s admit it: places like SeaWorld are in business for one reason: to make money, no matter how much they claim to be educational organizations. And yes, I’ll admit that some of the keepers and employees do love and care about their charges, but it doesn’t matter. Those charges should be swimming free in the sea.

But, as the New York Times reports, SeaWorld is fighting back, and might take legal action:

In an unusual pre-emptive strike on the documentary “Blackfish,” set for release on Friday in New York and Los Angeles by Magnolia Pictures, SeaWorld Entertainment startled the film world last weekend by sending a detailed critique of the movie to about 50 critics who were presumably about to review it. It was among the first steps in an aggressive public pushback against the film, which makes the case, sometimes with disturbing film, that orca whales in captivity suffer physical and mental distress because of confinement.

Magnolia and the film’s director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, shot back with a point-by-point rebuttal in defense of the movie.

The exchange is now promising to test just how far a business can, or should, go in trying to disrupt the powerful negative imagery that comes with the rollout of documentary exposés. That kind of dilemma has surfaced with previous documentaries like “The Queen of Versailles,” which last year portrayed the lavish lifestyle of the real estate moguls Jackie and David Siegel, and even with narrative films like “The Social Network,” which took an unflattering look at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.

Businesses accused of wrongdoing in films often choose to lie low, hoping the issues will remain out of the public mainstream and eventually fade away without much fuss. That’s especially true of documentaries, which generally have small audiences.

SeaWorld, advised by the communications firm 42West, which is better known for promoting films than punching back at them, is taking the opposite approach. By midweek, the company was providing top executives and animal caretakers for interviews about the movie and its purported flaws.

It was also deliberating possible further moves, which might conceivably include informational advertising, a Web-based countercampaign or perhaps a request for some sort of access to CNN, which picked up television rights to “Blackfish” through its CNN Films unit and plans to broadcast the movie on Oct. 24.

Among other things, SeaWorld claims that “Blackfish,” which focuses on the orca Tilikum’s fatal 2010 attack on a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, exceeded the bounds of fair use by incorporating training film and other video shot by the company. The company also contends that Ms. Cowperthwaite positioned some scenes to create what SeaWorld executives see as a false implication of trouble or wrongdoing.

There’s nothing a corporation won’t do to protect its profits. They also make the usual lame excuses for keeping these animals in captivity:

Since 1965, SeaWorld has kept and displayed dozens of orcas in parks here, in Orlando, Fla., and elsewhere. According to Mr. Taylor [SeaWorld’s general counsel] and other executives, at least 10 million people a year view some of the 29 whales now held. SeaWorld executives say that without access to the whales — which are now bred at the parks, rather than captured wild — humans would be denied a connection to large, intelligent animals with which many feel a bond.

“We’re deeply transformed by them, the killer whale is an animal that does that,” said Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, who spoke at the company’s San Diego park on Wednesday.

Dr. Dold, Mr. Taylor and others point out that only one trainer has died in a whale encounter at SeaWorld parks, though Tilikum has been associated with three deaths. One of those was at another park, and one involved a man who somehow wound up in his tank at night.

Yes, we sequester dozens of large, intelligent mammals in captivity so we can be “transformed” by them! (And the coffers of SeaWorld are also transformed in a positive direction.) Is that reason enough to imprison these creatures? Can’t we be “tranformed” by Attenborough-like documentaries that actually show these animals in their natural habitats? Isn’t that actually better than watching these mammals do tricks in large bathtubs?

As I get older and more experienced as a biologist, the less justification I see for zoos and aquaria.  There are some valid reasons to have them: to breed endangered species to reintroduce into the wild, to keep the last few remaining individuals alive in species doomed to extinction (possibly to clone them one day), and the educational benefits of showing living animals to people, though I’m not sure how much this really helps conservation efforts. And, at any rate, those animals must be ones that are not traumatized by captivity, and those species are turning out to be fewer than we thought.

There is no justification for keeping orcas, beluga whales, and other sea mammals in captivity.  They belong in the wild, where they would be if they had a choice, but are simply exploited as cash cows for institutions and corporations.  I urge the readers to stay away from places like SeaWorld, where the animals are even asked to do tricks before a paying audience. It’s ineffably sad, and demeaning to these magnificent creatures.  We are the only species that enslaves other speccies to advance our social position.

I’ll end with an excerpt from the New York Times’s positive review of the film:

Seemingly supported by chilling video and the oral testimonies of two witnesses to Tilikum’s first attack in 1991, the trainers accuse SeaWorld of cover-ups and misinformation. Much of the footage is painful to watch: bleeding whales, flanks raked by the teeth of their fellow captives; a trainer crushed between two gigantic beasts with only his wet suit holding him together; another trainer dragged repeatedly to the bottom of a pool until he manages to escape. Providing context for this alarming behavior, researchers describe highly socialized, caring creatures used to living in thousands of miles of ocean and ill suited to theme parks where they may be subjected to repeated overnight confinements in dark concrete pens.

“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” Jane Velez-Mitchell, a CNN anchor, wonders in a clip that’s used in the film. Other signs of mental distress, like severe tooth and stomach problems caused by the whales gnawing on their enclosures, are described. But the film’s most harrowing moment occurs not while addressing Tilikum’s 2010 mutilation and killing of a senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the park in Orlando, Fla., but in a face-to-face with a former whale hunter, the diver John Crowe. Tearfully recalling his traumatic capture of whale calves four decades ago in Puget Sound while their mothers howled pitifully (“We were only after the little ones”), Mr. Crowe seems haunted to this day by the unearthly sound of the animals’ apparent grieving.

Calmly and methodically countering SeaWorld’s contention that whales benefit from captivity — the Web site “Orcas in Captivity” places the current total at 45 — Ms. Cowperthwaite questions the advisability of exploiting mammals whose brains, the neuroscientist Lori Marino suggests, may be more complex than our own.

68 thoughts on “Keep orcas in the wild, not in aquaria

  1. I gave up on zoos many years ago, for this reason. I couldn’t stand the sight of all those bored, confined animals in their ersatz habitats, their stage sets. Big cats pacing, pacing. Gorillas looking sick of being stared and mugged at. Predators with nothing to hunt and kill. Herd animals with no place to run. I get depressed just remembering.

  2. You mention briefly in this post how you are seeing less need for zoos than you used to and that we are finding out that fewer animals can live in captivity without being traumatized.

    As someone who loves going to the zoo, what would you say about visiting zoos for the average family? Does the educational value (and the experience, particularly for youth) balance at all with the evils of keeping animals in captivity? Do you urge people to keep away from zoos and strongly as SeaWorld (or are they one and the same for you?)

    While I would definitely agree that there are some good justifications in terms of the endangered species and animals that could use rehab, what about all of the others?

    I find myself trying to justify my love of going to zoos against what I know is not a very good practice.

    As much as I love watching documentaries (especially Attenborough, of course!), seeing them in person is a bit different. Particularly for people who are unable to see the vast majority of these animals in the wild. I would imagine most people fall into that category. (That sounds like a poor excuse, doesn’t it?)

    Still, I find it harder and harder to look at the animals without seeing the fences, without seeing them hiding in a corner away from prying eyes, without noticing how absurdly limited their living space is.

    The zoo I go to most is in Columbus, OH. It *seems* like a clean, sensible facility. They seem to take care of the animals and do what they can for the welfare of all animals. Still, they are a business at the end of the day, right? While a good business is one that should look at more than just its profits… it doesn’t often work out that way.

    With SeaWorld, I am perfectly happy never going there again. I’ve just seen so much of the problem with that particular place.

    I think the core of my inability to put zoos like The Columbus Zoo and SeaWorld in the same box is that I’ve never really seen documentaries come out and criticize zoos that way. Zoos rarely get a bunch of negative spotlight.

    I guess I need to search for some literature that covers this. I’ve been planning a trip to the zoo for this summer and now… not so sure.

    1. Still, they are a business at the end of the day, right?

      Actually, no. The Columbus Zoo, like many (most?) zoos, is operated by a nonprofit foundation, not a profit-oriented corporation. For such organizations, so-called earned revenue (ticket sales, concessions, etc.) accounts for perhaps half of their overall budget; the rest comes from government grants, memberships, and private donations.

  3. “SeaWorld, advised by the communications firm 42West, which is better known for promoting films than punching back at them, is taking the opposite approach. …

    There’s nothing a corporation won’t do to protect its profits.”

    While I am NOT disagreeing with your position on orca’s and other captive animals (primarily because as a biologist, I presume you know what your are talking about), I should comment on the wording above. Documentaries are often anything but objective, and are typically produced by people with an axe to grind (consider the anti-vax documentaries). There is nothing inherently evil in standing up to critics. Never trust a zealot.

    1. Entertainment, perhaps. Profit, not so much. The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is owned by the city and is subsidized by both city and county as well as by private donors. Only about half of its revenue comes from ticket sales and other earned income.

      As far as I can tell this is pretty typical of zoo finances and management. They’re not profit-making theme parks; they’re nonprofit community assets.

      So whatever their crimes may be, they’re generally not doing it out of greed.

      1. We’re simply using different definitions of the word profit. Inflated salaries of zoo directors are an accounting expense, yes. Nevertheless management profits.

        Furthermore, there is no question, in my mind, that the predominant reason people patronize zoos is for entertainment. I believe surveys indicate that zoo goers retain little, if anything, educational subsequent to their visits.

        1. Perhaps we’re using different definitions of “inflated” as well. A bit quick Googling suggests that typical zoo director salaries are in the $100,000-$150,000 range. That’s in line with other nonprofits, and orders of magnitude less than the tens of millions pulled down by corporate CEOs. So I’d think you’d have trouble making a case that zoos exist to line the pockets of their directors.

          1. Yes, and I’m suggesting that it is a $100,000 – $150,000 job that should not exist at all. A prison warden for prisoners who have committed no crimes, prisoners who are jailed primarily for the entertainment of humans. That is all.

  4. As I get older and more experienced as a biologist, the less justification I see for zoos and aquaria.

    I really hate to be “that guy,” but… how do you reconcile this with all the photos you post of delicious-looking meat dishes?

    1. Your point is salient, but can we temporarily suspend that discussion and focus on zoos and aquaria?

    2. There is a substantial difference between farming domesticated animals for food (food being a necessity for life) and containing wild animals for entertainment purposes only.

      You can certainly make arguments that certain farming practices are inhumane and unnecessarily cruel and ought to be strictly regulated, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

      Trying to crow-bar the “We should all be vegetarian” argument in here is rather like those discussions on the horrors of FGM where some dude feels the need to start wailing about his dick by comment number #2.

    3. No, you don’t hate being “that guy” because you were that guy. But in response all I can say is that I am not perfect, and in an ideal world anyone opposed to captive animals would be a vegetarian. But there is a difference between animals as food and entertainment, and I also try to eat meat that has been humanely raised. I do see that my position isn’t 100% philosophically consistent, but it’s better to fight for some good things than fight for nothing.

      At any rate, I agree with Glenn Below; this is a post about zoos and aquaria, not vegetarianism, so let’s drop the latter, please.

  5. Related:

    • India Bans Captive Dolphin Shows as ‘Morally Unacceptable’ – 20 May (Note: “Croatia, Cyprus and Slovenia … prohibit the keeping of cetaceans in captivity for commercial purposes.”)

    I’m still undecided about this issue in principle. Hypothesis: Seeing cetaceans in captivity motivates more people to care about their plight in the wild. Thus, it is a net good.

    But we’ve visited SeaWorld (San Diego) once, and were completely put off by how exploitative it was (of the animals and the guests).


    1. “Hypothesis: Seeing cetaceans in captivity motivates more people to care about their plight in the wild. Thus, it is a net good. ”

      I doubt it. I think they start to see them more and more as pets and not as animals that supposed to live in the wild, outside of the cage zoo-visitors are used to see them in.

      1. Not that it justifies their captivity, but I don’t doubt it at all. You may be right that many of the people will see them more as pets than animals that should be left alone in the wild. But even if that is true I think the salient point here is that more people will be sympathetic towards these animals in any situation regarding their welfare. Even if they think of them as cute fuzzy little pets. You may have trouble convincing them that a particular thing is bad for the animals welfare, like the Seaworld type parks that engendered their sympathetic attitudes towards the animals in the first place, but in my admittedly unscientific opinion these types of parks do make people more sympathetic towards these animals.

        But, I don’t think Seaworld type parks are necessary for doing that. Raising awareness and sympathy for these animals could be done without such parks.

        1. I have no evidence for it, but I think they just see them as pets and nothing else. They don’t care about what happens to these animals outside of the zoo. They don’t see them outside the zoo, so they are of little use (entertainment) to them. Just put them in a basin where they can be watched on the day out. For most people, as long as they look OK, it fine. (just my experience)

          1. That’s quaintly cynical, but since you seem to want to paint with a broad brush, I’ll tell you that my own kids alone put the lie to your doubt. The trip we took to San Diego and all three parks was illuminating to them. And all three of them were acutely aware of the difference between the Wild Animal Park, which of the three is the most animal friendly, and both Sea World and the SD Zoo.

            I still think zoos are not a “net good” by any means. But I do think your doubt is more a statement of what you believe of zoos rather than how close contact with animals affects young visitors.

          2. Well, your kids are biased. They have parents that already care for animals or are at least interested in biology. (certainly one of them is 😉 ) You have a good influence on them. Unfortunately,most kids lack that influence.
            Again, that’s my experience.

          3. Luckily they do.
            The problem is that lots of them don’t the best example. And they tend to pick up on that too.
            As with religion, better education helps.

        2. I tend to think that the majority of people are there for entertainment and don’t really care to learn more about the animal. I think extending empathy to animals in general can be accomplished with other animals that are easier to care for in captivity and can be accommodated without stress.

          Either way, there has to be ethical consideration between using an animal for whatever outcome and its stress with the more weight being put on minimizing the animal’s stress. Animals really don’t owe humans and shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their well being for us.

      2. I don’t doubt that “normalising” animal captivity amongst some people is one outcome. But given the comments here, and the publicity and action around this issue globally, not everyone has been so influenced — seemingly a minority.


    1. This makes me think of the taxidermic displays in natural history museums. Why do the animals need to be alive if they barely move or try to hide from view at the zoo? I tend to enjoy these more than looking at a living depressed animal.

  6. I have to agree that these large mammals should not be in captivity. Even as a child I remember going to the zoo and seeing a polar bear pace back and forth and I knew even then that it was disturbed while some parents gleefully told their kids it was “dancing”.

    You can still have zoos with animals that can stand the captivity because the facilities are large enough to house them and the conditions are acceptable year round for that animal to live in.

    I also saw elephants performing tricks once & I thought if I were them I’d rampage regularly because it’s so humiliating!

    And no, the animals don’t owe us entertainment and education. You can go see whales in the wild in many places.

  7. It really just boils down to being humane. I don’t think zoos should disappear, even if their sole purpose is entertainment, as long as we can provide for an environment in which the animals can live a life worth living. For many animals this becomes economically unfeasible. But many others, it’s perfectly achievable. For example with orcas, if someone wanted to build a 200 acre aquarium to house a whole pod of them, I would say that that might offer enough space and social interaction for humane captivity.

  8. I am not sure I can completely swear off zoos entirely, it would depend a lot on the conditions for the animals, which really need a case by case look for both the zoos and the animals in question. Animals in such captivity are completely freed from the suffering of hunger and starvation, and largely freed from the discomforts of disease as well. Even the dangers and suffering of injury are mitigated. I think there can even be humane training techniques that could make entertainment permissible. I doubt many people consider domestic dog training categorically inhumane, provided the techniques are not too harsh. Certainly some animals are not trainable by compassionate means, but it does not seem to be so across the spectrum of all species. Clearly many for profit institutions ignore compassion in the pursuit of profit, but I am not sure that is always the case.

    Mental health can be a difficult thing to asses for humans, much less specimens of other species. Even if we are to say an animal “appears depressed”, we are likely doing so from a human perspective. Even so, self-inflicted injury seems to fall pretty far across the line of normal behavior, so for the whales discussed here at least the case for inhumane conditions is pretty solid. There is always the problem of informed consent with animals being impossible, but we generally ignore that in the case of domestic animals. It is a tricky moral question, the existence of zoos, but I don’t think they are fundamentally cruel or immoral in all cases.

    1. The difference with training dogs is 1) training has come far from the last few decades where it is now based on reward (you actually do get better results from reward over punishment) and correction which is never cruel. 2) dogs are domesticated and like not living in the wild 3) dogs usually like the training.

      There are exceptions: people who are cruel or field trial there animal harshly but this is not the norm.

      I think also you can tell when an animal is stressed, especially if you are in charge of that animal because you will quickly notice the signs. You could say that people in prison are looked after too (medical care, regular meals) but it’s not nice to be in captivity for them and they are unhappy there.

      1. I could certainly read my now deceased and much missed dog Sophie’s mental state without difficulty. I’m glad you think training methods are improving. Sophie and I had to drop out of puppy training school because the trainers tried to pressure me into literally hanging her from her leash with her paws off the ground. This was supposed to cure her of nipping!?
        I’m not sure where I stand on zoos and aquaria but I don’t think we should be keeping humans in captivity for any length of time unless they are too dangerous to contain any other way. Community sanctions should be sufficient for most offenders. Sorry – I digress 🙂

        1. Yes. I think the attitude of what is good training has change in a large sense. Of course this doesn’t mean there are bad trainers out there but the technique you described wasn’t frowned upon at all a few decades ago.

          My dog is giant and dominant. Shelves people but she will boss around anyone she doesn’t think will stop her. I’m a smallish human that wouldn’t ( able to control her if I had not trained her well and she did not trust me. I trained her at a good place that gives rewards for desired behavior (treats, praise games) until it is learned. My dog always comes when called (though I have her leashes in public) and she will not shove her way out of a car or house without being told it is ok (she will wait to be given permission). She will also go lay down and not bother me with her big snout on command. It took a couple years but it was worth it And the training was positive reinforcement not negative.

          It would seem this method follows how kids are reared as well. I know growing up spanking was common and encouragement was little. That seems to have changed too.

          1. She sounds like a wonderful dog. Sophie never achieved your dog’s obedience but she had a wonderful temperament. I admire your dedication to the training regimen. Good to know that positive reinforcement was so effective.

          2. Diana,

            I have had similar experiences with my own and friends & relative’s dogs. Training has come a long way, mainly (IMO) by using the animals’ own signals etc. to communicate with them. Having a caring and trusting relationship is very important as well.

            There are some dog breeds (e.g. sled dogs) that will try to “alpha dog” you and will do it if you let them. These require some significant physical correction (that need not be cruel in any way — again, use their signals, for example lying on top of the dog, scruff shake). I have seen this repeatedly and often repeated every 6 months or so by the same dog. (In this case, being large helps.)

  9. “Tearfully recalling his traumatic capture of whale calves four decades ago in Puget Sound while their mothers howled pitifully (“We were only after the little ones”), Mr. Crowe seems haunted to this day by the unearthly sound of the animals’ apparent grieving.”

    That is heartbreaking, and disturbing. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to carry on and I can understand why this person is still distressed after 4 decades.

    My desire to have a close personal experience with such a magnificent animal does not justify keeping them captive. But that kind of desire is one of the things that makes convincing people to not support places like Seaworld difficult. The thing is, though places like Seaworld promise they can give you that moment of connection with such a magnificent creature, they can’t. At least not for the vast majority of people. It is false advertising.

    I have been to Seaworld and I loved seeing the whales up close. But afterwords what I came away with was a sense of sadness and the realization that I was extremely unlikely to ever have “a moment” with a whale at a place like that. Even on an exorbitantly priced Dolphin Encounter. Romanticism meets reality.

  10. Not that the analogy is crucial to your argument, Jerry, but “But none of those men would opt to stay in prison over gaining their freedom with all its uncertainties” just isn’t true. Almost all, maybe. But there are exceptions (albeit a woman in this case). (I recollect, but couldn’t find, quickly, studies of prisoners who’d rather stay in jail.)


  11. Exploiting Tilikum for entertainment and profit is the primary reason that trainer Dawn Brancheau was violently killed. A needless, savage death in the mouth of a hapless, neurotic orca.

    Captive whales are not essential for education nor are they essential for public support of species conservation.

    Dawn Brancheau was dragged to her death in February 2010. SeaWorld spent $600,000 on Capitol Hill lobbyists in the first six months of 2010. Draw your own conclusions. Executives of SeaWorld must deny the facts and fabricate elaborate rationalizations to continue collecting their paychecks. Meanwhile our intelligent, sentient cousins suffer the cruel consequences.

    1. “Executives of SeaWorld must deny the facts and fabricate elaborate rationalizations to continue collecting their paychecks.

      Heck, now that Seaworld has gone public (they did last year), they would likely get sued by some of their stockholders if they didn’t. Not to worry though. Now that Seaworld has gone public we can be sure that the omniscient, omnibenevolent Invisible Hand will sort things out the way they should be.

  12. I read today that India has declared dolphins to be non-human persons and are accordingly to have human rights to life and liberty.
    Philosophically, that’s very interesting and could cause an identity crisis or two but I’m guessing that declaring them persons is just an easy way to confer certain rights.

    The move was based on assessments of cetacean intelligence but I’d argue that intelligence is not necessarily a significant consideration since all animals have significant degrees of self and space awareness.

  13. Jerry, that was an excellent, well thought out piece. I think these water parks have to go. There’s nothing educational about watching animals perform. Zoos maybe a different matter, although I am not sold on them.

    Around the lake from where I live there is a place in Niagara Falls called Marineland and it was in the news a lot about 6 months ago for abusing their animals. It was very offensive. I remember going there as a kid and thinking something was wrong about it.

    1. You mean happiness isn’t Marineland? 😉 That song will be in my head all day now.

      I like Aquariums that showcase appropriate things like Monterey’s. I think Boston’s doesn’t have large mammals either – that’s where I saw two cuttlefish hook their tentacles and get into a tug of war but then stop fighting because they were getting fed. It looked pretty funny as they stopped as quickly as they started!

  14. I would be wary of a blanket indictment of zoos. While many suffer from the issues raised here, some handle those issues humanely.

    A local zoo that gets milk from me for orphans keeps primarily injured animals that have been rehabbed but can’t be released back into the wild because they are acclimated to humans. They also keep predators like bears and mountain lions that have had dangerous interactions with people and would otherwise have to be euthanized (these are released/relocated when possible). They also have some that have been rehabbed but are still too lame to survive on their own.

    Many of these animals, since they have been hand-raised, are trained to stock trailers, and are taken to schools and events such as fairs for educational presentations.

    The facility is large enough that the animals have plenty of room in their habitats, too, so there’s not a lot of “pacing” type behavior.

    The zoo in Albuquerque is also well-run and humane.

    As far as a need for education, please keep in mind that not everyone has the money to travel the world to see creatures in their natural habitats.

    To me, it boils down to quality of life (even with food animals). L

  15. I wonder what inspired Jerry to become a biologist? Was watching TV nature shows plus observing whatever bugs inhabited his backyard enough to fire his interest? Or was seeing actual living large animals in zoos an important source of inspiration?

    A few years back, I was able to swim with dolphins in a pool in Mexico. I was very mindful of the fact that this was an exploitation of the animals. I looked as carefully as I could for evidence the animals were mistreated or bored and saw none. I do imagine that if the ‘fins were able to escape they would have, but I, and more importantly, the several kids in our group had an amazing experience. I hope the kids were inspired by this to care more deeply for sea life and perhaps become biologists themselves. So I think that keeping some members of a species as involuntary ambassadors (always as humanely as possible) might actually be beneficial for the species as a whole.

    Orcas are a quite different matter, and I think I agree with Jerry that holding them imprisoned just to do tricks is a cruelty that cannot be justified. But I am not so sure that a blanket ban on all captive sea mammals is the best answer.

    1. Amazing experiences can be obtained in one’s back yard. Last week I observed a brown-headed cowbird fledgling, tweeting vehemently and flapping vigorously, as its half-sized, foster parents—of unknown species—frantically stuffed more insects into its beak. Amazing back yard experiences require patience, observation, and native plants. Perhaps if we quit bulldozing and replacing native vegetation with exotics, we would have more native insects and increase the biodiversity of our back yards and our suburbs.

      In the U.S. we have altered more than 95% of the landscape. If we don’t start to plant native vegetation where we live, we can expect a precipitous decline in the number of species we observe at home. If we increase biodiversity at home, perhaps we won’t need to take our children to zoos to inspire love, respect, and fascination for wildlife.

      1. The plan for the back yard is a recirculating meandering creek as the anchor for a (mostly) native Sonoran riparian habitat.

        It’ll be a lot of work to set up all the infrastructure up front, but it should be pretty self-sustaining once I’m done. And it’ll hopefully be home to all sorts of critters, including birds and bats and a tortoise and fish and frogs and bees and….

        (The front yard will get a victory garden….)


  16. I think there’s going to be a big difference in response to captivity between species, and the predator species are going to be much less inclined to be happy in captivity than the prey species.

    The ungulates, given a few acres of elbow room and a healthy mix of members of their own species and other compatible species, are likely to think of a good zoo exhibit as paradise.

    A tiger…not so much.

    If zoos keep animals happy to be there for the protection, and if they also keep those animals who don’t like it but who (because of injuries or whatever) wouldn’t survive, and if they also assist in preservation of endangered species, I think letting the public get a thrill from looking at all those animals is a good thing. Especially if it helps pay the bills.

    I don’t see that cetaceans fit especially well into any of those categories.

    I would, however, fully support making select bays as cetacean-friendly as possible and dedicating them to human / cetacean interaction. Boats would be the obvious choice, but there will also be opportunities for swimmers. And if that involves tossing fish to dolphins after they’ve jumped through a hoop, I have no problem with that — but only if the bay is open to the sea.


    1. I have to say, I enjoy that elephants fight back. There are signs up at zoos often that warn people not to throw stuff because they fire it back! Ha! I bet they can whip it pretty good too!

    2. I really like the idea you laid out in your final paragraph, especially since I have often thought of the same basic concept.

      My kids (6 yrs old at the time) came up with something similar also, after I described to them some of the problems with Seaworld type parks and asked them what they thought should be done, if anything. They almost immediately decided Seaworld type parks were bad, but they really didn’t want to give up being able to see the animals. After talking about it between themselves for awhile they came up with a “park” where the animals were free to come and play, and to leave, whenever they wanted to.

      I seem to remember reading of a dolphin encounter operation that is set up like that, where the dolphins are not constrained, not physically anyway, and always have access to the open ocean. If memory serves it was in the Florida Keys. There was one dolphin that chose to participate more or less all the time, and several others that would participate with varying degrees of frequency.

  17. Unabashed brag:

    Just got back from Tanzania: Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Serengeti (including a balloon ride), where the animals roam free. Hundreds of zebras, gazelles (grant’s, Thompson’s), lions, cheetahs, giraffes, one rhino, hundreds of hippos in the river flipping crap on themselves, and more, and birds, some I can’t identify. Up at 6:00am, over miles of washboard dirt roads, back at dark, with drivers-guides with highly trained, fabulous knowledge and skills. 1500 photos.

    Put this on your to-do list.

  18. From my first trip to Marine World in Redwood City as a young boy, it struck me that something must be wrong with keeping them captive – else why would their beautiful dorsal fins go permanently limp?

    I suppose I have mixed feelings like some here, only because being in close proximity to these lovely beings is an experience – but in the end, imprisoning them to give *me* an experience is selfish in the extreme.

  19. Just back from a trip around the US West. We saw many (private, for profit) “bear parks” and we refuse to participate in them for the reasons Jerry outlines above. I refuse to give them my money. Having seen many bears in the wild, I can’t look at them like this. And I don’t want my kids to think it’s OK.

    That said, I’m with Ben above: Some well-run zoos do good work and are OK by me.

    Our local (publicly owned, non-profit) one does a fine job (IMO) and the large predators have huge enclosures (at the expense of viewer convenience – several acres with varied terrain) and do not exhibit pacing, etc. The herbivores also seem OK. And they keep expanding the enclosures and improving them. For example, the gorillas just moved to an even larger enclosure (they seemed quite content in the large one they had.) They do not keep marine mammals anymore, except one sea-lion.

    Probably still best to dispense with them.

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