Prompted by the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was drowned by SeaWorld’s Orca whale Tillikum, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans, and Wildlife, held a hearing on Tuesday on Marine Mammals in Captivity: What Constitutes Meaningful Public Education?
Voices on both sides of the debate were heard on whether there’s any actual educational advantage to keeping whales and dolphins in tanks.
There are approximately 200 zoos and aquariums currently licensed to keep and show marine mammals. Facilities need to prove that they offer education or conservation programs based on industry standards in order to be eligible for a license.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which issues the permits, has never issued specific rules that define the standards, does not review the facility for compliance once the permit is issued and has never revoked a permit from such parks,
The problem with that is that there is no independent oversight for what constitutes these programs, leaving the industry to self-regulate. Most of these facilities are run for a profit, making for an interesting conflict of interest. “Our programs bring in a lot of money. Eh hem, I mean of course our programs are educational.”
That was the stance taken by those in support of keeping these shows running, including SeaWorld’s curator Julie Scardina, who stated that “are designed to inspire visitors to conserve our valuable natural resources by increasing awareness of the interrelationships between humans and the environment.”
What defines our relationship with these mammals? Is it to exploit them for our own interests? Or should the lessons of these educational efforts foster a respect of their place in the environment and respect of their needs to be wild and free in their natural habitat.
The other side of the debate argued that aside from the cruelty of confining these animals to tanks these educational programs aren’t even accurate.
Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for Humane Society International.cited mistakes in SeaWorld educational materials, including the life expectancy of killer whales. In a teacher’s manual, SeaWorld had said the animals live “25 to 35 years,” she said, when in fact males live up to 60 years in the wild and females up to 80 years.
“It is irresponsible of those in the captivity industry to compare orcas and dolphins to playful happy pets who do tricks for food when it serves to entertain an audience, and then compare them to wild predatory animals when they need an explanation for extreme and abberrant behavior. From dolphin collisions to orca attacks, the question is not whether but when the next tragedy for marine mammals in captivity will occur,” said Louie Psihoyos Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society and Director of The Cove.
Psihoyos also notes in his testimony that there has never been a reported case of an Orca killing a human in the wild, whereas Dawn Brancheau was Tillikum’s third victim. He adds that the “educational benefit of these unfortunate facts should be to alert everyone involved in marine mammal captivity that they are in fact responsible for inducing abnormal behavior.”
For more info, check out The Case Against Captivity.