I’ve always been critical of places where large, captive animals are displayed to the public as entertainment, and aquaria that house large cetaceans (or mammals like sea otters) are a prime offender. For me, SeaWorld is the most egregious of these, and I’ve posted about it, and about the recent movie “Blackfish,” made about its orcas (killer whales) here.
As I wrote at the time:
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.
. . . 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 species to entertain and enrich ourselves. [Last sentence modified from earlier post]
These captive animals often appear stressed to me, engaging in repetitive, neurotic behaviors that bespeak some type of mental distress. You’ve all seen this in zoos, with bears or tigers neurotically pacing back and forth in their cages. And it always breaks my heart. I no longer go to zoos or aquaria.
It turns out that aquaria recognize this distress, but apparently have chosen, in at least one case, to relieve it with—wait for it—tranquilizers. And that place is SeaWorld
According to a story in ZME Science and an article in BuzzFeed, this information emerged during a dispute between SeaWorld and Marineland (the latter a theme park and aquarium in Niagara Falls, Canada) over the transfer of an orca. During a deposition that took place during the dispute, a veterinarian found out that an aggressive orca at SeaWorld had been given benzodiazepine, a sedative and tranquilizer (Valium is one form) to prevent it from hurting other whales. The testimony, which is at the BuzzFeed site, includes the statement below:
A spokesperson for SeaWorld Fred Jacobs defended the medication in an emailed statement.
“Benzodiazepines are sometimes used in veterinary medicine for the care and treatment of animals, both domestic and in a zoological setting,” Jacobs said. “These medications can be used for sedation for medical procedures, premedication prior to general anesthesia, and for the control of seizures. The use of benzodiazepines is regulated, and these medications are only prescribed to animals by a veterinarian. Their use for cetacean healthcare, including killer whales, is limited, infrequent, and only as clinically indicated based on the assessment of the attending veterinarian. There is no higher priority for SeaWorld than the health and well-being of the animals in its care.”
The questions about the drugs given to the whales, which also include a range of antibiotics, come as SeaWorld is reeling from a critical documentary. Blackfish tells the story of a killer whale named Tilikum, who’s been accused of killing three people but is still retained by SeaWorld. Tilikum’s genes are found in 54% of the whales in SeaWorld’s current whale collection, and has fathered at least 21 whales from artificial insemination.
The founder of the Orca Research Trust, Ingrid Visser, said the drugs are likely treating a condition caused by captivity, and that their violence is the result of stress, not native aggression.
“They do not cope with being kept in these tanks. They survive to some degree, but they don’t thrive to any degree,” Visser said. “They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank, and there isn’t a single orca living in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors, and in many of them you see multiple examples of these behaviors.”
Yes, I’ve seen those behaviors, and I’ve seen them here in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium. When I described the incident to aquarium officials (I believe it was a seal, but it could have been an otter, swimming stereotypically and repetitively in a very narrow tank), my complaint was ignored.
PETA has made a characteristically over-the-top criticism, but really, read it. The animals are indeed kept to do what I see as stupid tricks, though I have no idea whether they are, as PETA maintains, “full of psychotropic drugs”:
PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, accused SeaWorld of “pump[ing] these marine slaves full of psychotropic drugs in order to force them to perform stupid tricks.”
Once again I reiterate my plea—which will be ignored—to stop confining large, free-roaming mammals in small aquaria, especially for public entertainment. The educational benefits are minimal, especially when compared to the distress of the animals. Some people defend this practice, saying that, “Well, the animals seem healthy and content,” but a Martian, observing human prisoners in a jail, would say the same thing. Like the human prisoners, the animals, if given a choice, wouldn’t be there. (And, of course, there are those abnormal behaviors. . )
I want them set free, but that won’t happen so long as there is money to be made. In my view, these animals are confined against their will to entertain the public and enrich the owners. It’s a bad business all around.