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SeaWorld Bogus Critique Of Blackfish

April 14, 2014

Despite insisting that Blackfish is having no impact on its business, SeaWorld continues to invest heavily in a PR counter-attack on Blackfish and the former trainers who appear in the film.

It’s latest minute-by-minute critique of Blackfish was perhaps the most detailed, and most tediously off-base, critique it has issued yet.

Below you will find the Blackfish production team’s rebuttal. What’s notable is that SeaWorld continues to massage and manipulate the facts even as it tries to accuse Blackfish of mis-representing the facts. What’s also notable is that SeaWorld continues to try and distract and divert from the core issues raised in Blackfish about the wisdom and morality of killer whale captivity, without ever directly addressing those issues.

I guess we can keep going round after round on this, but the facts simply are not on SeaWorld’s side. And it seems clear that the public is beginning to understand a very different, more credible, and increasingly troubling version of killer whale captivity than the narrative SeaWorld has been promoting for the past 50 years.

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A Quick Look At The Impact Of Chlorine On Orcas And Trainers

March 17, 2014
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Mucus weep from Morgan’s eye. (Ingrid Visser/Free Morgan Foundation)

Over the weekend, The Dodo posted a short article I put together on how the effort to maintain sparkly, clear water in SeaWorld’s pools can affect the physical well-being of the animals (and the humans who used to swim with them).

It’s not the biggest issue with captivity, but is a perfect example of how every little thing can impact the lives of the orcas and other marine mammals:

It is indeed true that great effort is made to maintain the water at just the right temperature and salinity for the animals. What is not mentioned is all the chlorine that is used to keep the water clear and sparkling (you can’t see Shamu clearly in a murky pool), and free of algae and bacteria. (Don’t even get a killer whale trainer started on what it looks like after a killer whale defecates in the pool, or produces any other bodily emissions.)

A number of former SeaWorld trainers I have spoken with about water quality have noted that captive killer whales routinely have mucus streaming from their eyes — an apparent protective mechanism that is considered “normal” at SeaWorld.

After the article was posted this story (from 1985) came to me via Ceta-Base:

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Morgan’s Fate At Loro Parque

February 23, 2014

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A decision on whether Morgan, the lost young female orca, should remain at Loro Parque is due anytime, and could be released this Wednesday.

The arguments over Morgan have always been based on two completely different, and contradictory, narratives of her life at Loro Parque. Today, over on The Dodo, I took a look at what both sides claim regarding Morgan’s well-being, and how a pregnancy is the big wild card, and would seal her fate if it happens.

Here’s a key part of the story:

Loro Parque, in a statement e-mailed in response to a request for comment, calls Visser’s argument “erroneous and misleading,” as well as “emotionally charged. The statement goes on to try and rebut each of Visser’s claims one by one, and dismisses Visser’s work as an “animal activist opinion piece.” For Morgan, the statement flatly states, “negative welfare conditions do not exist.”

“I’m not an activist. I am a scientist who happens to care about the welfare of animals,” Visser responds. “There is a big difference.” Moreover, Visser’s research and conclusions about Morgan’s life at Loro Parque have won an interesting advocate in Jeff Foster, who spent decades catching killer whales, dolphins, and other animals for SeaWorld and other marine parks. Foster knows a lot about killer whales and how they handle captivity, and is not opposed to captivity for killer whales if they are well-integrated into a stable environment. After observing Loro Parque’s videos of Morgan he was initially skeptical that her experience at Loro Parque was as negative as Visser believes. But based on two trips to observe Morgan (the most recent was last Fall), Foster says he fully agrees that the group of SeaWorld killer whales at Loro Parque is dysfunctional, that Morgan has not been well-integrated, and that Morgan is suffering. “It’s pretty obvious. She’s crying out in distress almost all the time,” Foster says. “You usually don’t hear those vocals from animals unless they are really in distress. The only time I’ve heard them is when we were catching whales and separating them from their families.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Here’s a brief video, showing Morgan’s isolation during a show at Loro Parque earlier this year.

New Zealand Orca Stranding Update

February 19, 2014

Yesterday, I happened to catch up briefly with New Zealand orca scientist Ingrid Visser, and she gave me an update on the nine New Zealand orcas who died after stranding last week

Visser raced to the scene after hearing about the stranding. She has spent decades studying and swimming with local New Zealand orcas, and she feared she was going to know these particular animals. If these killer whales had been from the group Visser studies, it would have meant that 4-5% of New Zealand’s local orca population had stranded and died at one time, a devastating blow.

However, when Visser arrived she didn’t recognize any of the orcas and doesn’t believe any appear in her photo-ID catalogue. In addition, many of the orcas had healed Cookie Cutter shark bites on their dorsals, and worn teeth, which is not typical for the New Zealand coastal orca population that Visser studies.

Visser and others worked pre-dawn to post-dusk collecting samples from the orcas, with the cooperation and support of the local Maori people. In addition to blubber and organ samples, Visser said the heads from all nine orcas were collected. The heads and tissue samples will be analyzed in an effort to better understand why the orcas stranded and died. Visser says that there were no obvious indications of what might have driven the orcas ashore. No obvious trauma, and no blood from the eyes, ears or anus, which can indicate acoustical trauma. None of the orcas was pregnant. 

“we’ll do more studies later,” Visser concludes. “At this stage there is nothing that we can tell immediately, and nothing that we could tell might have triggered the stranding.”

 

Are The Two Moscow Orcas Hidden In These Tanks?

February 13, 2014

Giving the word “tank” a bad name….

It is often said that it is hard to hide an orca. But (perhaps not surprisingly) the Russians seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence that that the big new Moscow Dolphinarium and Aquarium at the All-Russian Exhibition Center, currently being built, plans to put two orcas on display. In an interview, God Nisanov Year Nisanova, a billionaire and one of the financial backers, says that 17 dolphins have been purchased in Japan, that they will be displayed in multiple pools (a number of which will be used in therapy programs), and that the project has also caught beluga and killer whales for display (even if photos of the captured whales made him sad). And this air transport report indicates that two orcas (a 5-meter, 2700 kg female, believed to be the orca dubbed Narnia; and a 1700 kg male) were flown to Moscow in late November or early December (a 10-hour journey in crates).

Yet no one seems to know for sure where the two orcas are right now, creating a minor mystery. The location that appears to be the most likely temporary home for them (and presumably any other whales or dolphins the Moscow Dolphinarium flies in) is the two large tanks pictured above. The tanks have since been covered by an inflatable bubble. And according to this Russian blog, the facility, which measures about 37 x 68 meters, was put together last October, and was said to be a temporary shelter, and acclimatization stop, for animals being brought in for the dolphinarium. Here are some pictures the Russian blogger posted (and there are more here, plus a video):

As far as I can tell, no one has managed to get inside and confirm there are two orcas swimming around in these tanks. But if there are it is a crude and no doubt extremely discombobulating introduction to their life as show animals in captivity. Not that there is any nice way to make that transition.

Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

February 12, 2014

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.

Blackfish Effect At Work: Southwest Airlines

February 12, 2014

It has been amazing to see all the Blackfish-inspired efforts to campaign for changes in the way we see and think about SeaWorld and the captive display of orcas. There have been a multitude of grassroots petitions urging musical acts to avoid playing at SeaWorld. There have also been grassroots efforts to inspire SeaWorld’s corporate partners to revisit their relationship with a business that displays orcas. For example, this Change.org petition to Southwest Airlines.

The response from singers and bands has been impressive. But getting corporate partners to move on from longstanding relationships is a bigger challenge, and multiple approaches are possible. That’s why I wanted to flag Kimberly Ventre’s quiet and respectful effort to engage Southwest about its relationship with SeaWorld. Instead of rallying thousands of potential fliers to petition Southwest, it is based on a strategy of trying to engage Southwest’s leadership in a thoughtful conversation about SeaWorld and captivity (and included offers to screen Blackfish and have some of the former SeaWorld trainers who featured in Blackfish meet with Southwest executives; Ventre is former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre’s sister, and a devoted Southwest flier).

Southwest has been open and responsive, but also hasn’t accepted Ventre’s offer for further engagement and discussion. They did send her a Southwest thumb drive, but I suspect that won’t be enough to deter her from her goal of having Southwest revisit its SeaWorld partnership.

It will be interesting to see whether this alternative approach to the Blackfish Effect will succeed. And whether it can be a good model for change. So, for the record, I am posting a summary from Ventre regarding her Southwest campaign, as well as the letters that have gone back and forth.

Here’s Ventre:

When is the last time you wrote an airline and they responded right away? This is why I love Southwest. They are different. They are thoughtful. They listen.

Recently, I sent a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly (and four other executives) expressing my concern over their on-going partnership with SeaWorld. I explained a group of scientists, filmmakers, and authors were willing to come present the facts surrounding orcas and captivity. Shortly thereafter, I received an encouraging response.

Southwest’s leadership team said their eyes and ears are not closed and vowed to “remain transparent and open in their desire to learn and educate (them)selves.” Remarkably, they confirmed they had seen Blackfish and said they would read Death at SeaWorld as well as the other articles I provided.

Their transparency, willingness to engage in dialogue and commitment to do their due diligence are all hallmarks of great global brands. Their partner SeaWorld could learn a lot from them.

Southwest asked for patience as they move through their learning process. As they begin to understand the real story of Shamu, they will reach the same conclusion millions around the globe already have. What was once popular is now seen as an inhumane. I believe Southwest will evolve and choose to be on the right side of history.

See my letter to Southwest and their response.

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