Thoughts on Captive Carnivores

I want to start by saying I have been to SeaWorld twice in my life, once as a child and once as an adult (last spring). I have seen the show and the environment but am by no means an expert on whale behavior so please keep that in mind.

That being said, for years now (since 2003, in fact) I have volunteered with and worked for a number of organizations who deal with animals and large carnivores in particular, so I do have some experience in that department.

By now the whole world knows that a trainer was killed at SeaWorld Orlando. It’s tragic, yes, but not entirely unexpected. I have heard it said on the news that the whale had a “violent history” (quoted from an AP article) and people keep repeating how “violent” this animal is and talking about how he is a “12,000 pound carnivore” who “has killed before.” This bothers me because it makes it sound like this whole thing was the whale’s fault. On the flip side, you have the contingency of (mostly unspecified) “animal rights activists” who are already using this as reasons why animals, in particular large animals and especially carnivores, should never be kept in captivity.

Both of these are knee-jerk reactions to a tragedy, which is understandable, but we need to look at the bigger picture here. The main question is “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?

Answers to this question I have heard today on the news:
1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!)
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal?

Okay, so all of these might seem like valid points, but I want to offer you a few scenarios to think about.

As someone who has worked with conservation groups (non-profits mostly) and for two zoos, I often find I have to defend myself to each group against the others. Zoos and aquariums are often the target of backlash when anything happens to an animal anywhere in the world, and often in an unfair light. Sometimes things just happen. Animals get old and they die. Animals also get sick and sometimes die. They’re less likely to die in captivity if they receive veterinary care, but it still happens. And then there are accidents, where an animal falls and can’t get itself upright again (think hoofstock like giraffe and zebra) or when natural behaviors take over and a mother kills her offspring. This is nature. It happens. Should it happen all the time? No. And should animals be in a situation where they can’t receive veterinary care or be in an unsafe environment? No. This is where the AZA comes into the picture (and I will point out here that I only support AZA accredited zoos and aquariums). SeaWorld Orlando is listed on the AZA website as being accredited. The AZA is supposed to make sure that animals in accredited facilities are treated correctly. This includes things like as natural an exhibit as possible (notice I didn’t say “cage”– if you’re at an AZA facility, you’re almost guaranteed to see open spaces and room for the animals to move and behave in a natural way); encouraging natural behaviors like foraging, climbing, grooming, etc; proper veterinary care; and proper genetic maintenance. I’ll come back to this last one, but the other three are tied together in this whole SeaWorld incident.

Let’s compare the 12,000 pound carnivore with a “violent history” to your average captive elephant. Similarities are more than you might think: each weigh about 8,000 to 14,000 pounds, each is considered to be highly intelligent, and each likes to live in social groups. Furthermore, each has been used for entertainment, doing tricks with trainers in front of an audience. Elephants are a usual species at AZA zoos. Why? Well, the AZA has strict guidelines about keeping elephants, including everything from how much contact they have with keepers to the amount of space they are provided. The main thing about elephants, however, is that you are supposed to have at least three of them. This is because elephants form very strong social bonds and will even mourn their dead. If you only have two elephants and one dies, the other will be at risk for depression and may die as well. If you have a third elephant, the two remaining will comfort one another and then continue. Zoos with elephants do many things to help the elephants use their natural behaviors, from providing hidden food for foraging, to hay and other browse that they can reach for to get out of “trees” to watering holes for them to make mud to put on their backs; this is called “enrichment.” Most importantly, elephants in AZA zoos do not do tricks. They are taught certain behaviors that help with veterinary care (such as putting a foot forward for a keeper to examine) but they aren’t doing tricks– there is no repetition and it is not being done for entertainment value.

Now let’s look at the orcas at SeaWorld and at other, similar theme parks. Orcas also live in large family groups in the wild, are intelligent (hence, why they are able to be trained), and take up a lot of space. While the training done with the whales probably does give them mental stimulation (or “enrichment”), they are not exhibiting natural behaviors when they have humans riding around on them. They do the same tricks over and over. This whale in particular was isolated from the other whales (again, see the AP article), so had no other orca interaction.

Can you see the differences?

“But he’s a carnivore! Elephants aren’t!” Okay, then let’s look at another large carnivore in captivity. Let’s talk about tigers, shall we?

Tigers, relatively speaking, weigh much less than any orca, ranging from about 200 to 600 pounds. They are, however, the largest species of cat on the planet. They aren’t exactly social, and they’re not too high up on the known intelligence scale, but they are big and can be deadly. They are also highly endangered. There are so few tigers left in the wild that the estimates range from only 10 to 20 years’ time for them to exist outside of captivity. So why do we keep them in captivity? For the same reasons AZA zoos keep many other animals in captivity– to preserve the species. When you have an endangered animal, not just one that is endangered in a specific region, but genuinely almost completely gone from the wild (think of elephants again), zoos provide a safe haven for the animal to continue even when the wild population stops existing. There is even a registry called the SSP (Species Survival Plan) that monitors this to make sure there aren’t too many of them in captivity and that the species stays strong genetically. The SSP has allowed species to even be returned to the wild, which is the eventual goal of the program. Many animals from elephants and rhinoceroses to bats and even pink pigeons are included.

What does this have to do with orcas? Orcas are not about to disappear from the planet. While their populations aren’t as large in some places due to overfishing, they are found in all of the world’s oceans and can be observed and studied there. They are not commonly found in aquariums looking to help sustain a population. Besides that, it is almost impossible to provide a large enough enclosure for an animal that must constantly swim. Large animals like elephants can wander, or stand still, or wade in ponds, but orcas must keep moving. A facility like SeaWorld, while providing a 36 foot deep pool for them, can still only allow them to do laps for their whole lives.

All of that being said, I think the important thing to keep in mind here is the message being sent. SeaWorld’s orca show sends a message that these animals can be treated almost like pets, and that they are here for our entertainment and to do tricks. AZA facilities are supposed to send a message of conservation (in the true sense– preserving the animals and their habitats for the future) and respect.

So let’s look at the answers to my original question, “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?”

1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them. Well, kind of. There isn’t as much studying going on of orcas as there is of, say, chimpanzees and elephants.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!) Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, but AZA animals are not supposed to be. They (should) have large enclosures and be exhibiting natural behavior. You also run into a problem with animals who have to learn survival behavior from their parents– they won’t know how to take care of themselves in the wild. It wouldn’t be fair to suddenly cut them off from all human care when they don’t know how to survive without.
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them. This is true, if what people are learning is actual information about the animal and its behavior. The more people understand something, the more they care about that thing and the more passionate they will be about it. My long winded-ness here should be evidence of that.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them. This is also true; again, it’s the message being sent that matters here. While they need some stimulation, doing “tricks” for an audience isn’t anywhere near the best way to accomplish this.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last incident. No one should have to die for a show.

Two things to think about at the end of this very, VERY long soapbox of mine. One, wild animals do not, not ever make good pets. Any show that encourages cuddling or playing with a large carnivore, even while stressing how much training the people do it have, isn’t sending a good message. Two, SeaWorld sends entirely mixed messages and it needs to decide which way it’s going to go.

SeaWorld itself supports conservation of animals and their habitats. They aren’t the pure evil corporation they will be made out to be in the media. They have a program (which J and I toured when we visited the Orlando park last year) where they take injured sea turtles and manatees, rehabilitate them, and return them to the wild. This is a very good thing! I mean, look at all the things they are able to fund through their profits. The problem on their hands is that they are sending two messages. On the one hand, they are promoting orcas simply for their entertainment value in a situation in which the animals are agitated (just read all the accounts of what happened yesterday and the one consistent thing is that something was bothering them). On the other hand, SeaWorld does a lot to help other species that really need it.

It is time to choose your message, SeaWorld. Choose wisely.

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