In February 2014, Sir Richard Branson, in response to criticism of Virgin Air’s involvement with tourism to marine parks, pledged that Virgin would no longer partner with organizations that take marine mammals from the wild. To develop that pledge, and Virgin’s business strategy going forward in a time of increased debate about the ethics of marine mammal captivity, Virgin convened a two-day summit in Miami, in June, so it could sit down with marine park industry representatives and animal welfare advocates to explore all the issues around marine mammal captivity.
It is rare for advocates on both sides of this issue to sit down face-to-face, and it is a reflection of Virgin’s weight and importance that it happened at all. It must have been been a very, shall we say, interesting discussion. And Virgin has just released a fascinating summary of the discussion.
How Virgin proceeds from the summit in refining and implementing Sir Richard Branson’s pledge will help set a standard for other businesses that are connected to the marine mammal captivity industry.
For now, and for the record, here are some of the key points and discussions from the Summit (highlights are mine):
John Racanelli (Balitmore’s National Aquarium): In an effort to understand the future “customer,” the National Aquarium was part of a larger consortium of U.S. Universities, zoological institutions, and government agencies that commissioned a nationwide study to understand public attitudes, perceptions and beliefs in the U.S.A. regarding aquariums. The ongoing survey has collected data over
eight years with annual sample sizes of up to 32,000 and asks respondents nationwide to rank levels of agreement with
a range of statements. The data are not publicly available, but John Racanelli did share some of the findings. The data
indicate a shift in attitudes, perceptions and beliefs regarding the value and appropriateness of holding cetaceans in
captivity and it becomes particularly pronounced for the Millennial generation, where the survey observed a material decline in the desire to see cetaceans in any kind of captive setting.
I’ve got a new post up at The Dodo, examining the set of documents from activist Russ Rector’s FOIA haul that relate to SeaWorld’s application to move Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld in January 1992 on an emergency basis. The documents (and some additional commentary I solicited from Steve Huxter, who managed SeaWorld’s killer whales at the time) add many troubling details to what we know about Tilikum’s sad experience at Sealand–most notably that before he was shipped to SeaWorld he was confined to Sealand’s tiny module for 17 days, with a noticeable impact on his health and mental attitude.
From the post, here is how Steve Huxter described what he observed:
In all his years at Sealand, I had never seen [Tilikum] so immobile in the module; he was listless at the surface all of the time. He floated for hours on the surface at the gate and facing the pool that held Haida, her calf, and Nootka. He seldom moved around and primarily only when he was offered food. For the first few days he ate well but his appetite seemed to fade and there were times when we would give him food and he would simply let it slide out of his mouth and let it sink to the bottom of the module pool.
Read the full Dodo post here. I’ve embedded the full set of documents below, or you can read them here. They are worth reviewing because they contain lots of additional information about SeaWorld, Sealand and Tilikum.
Okay, this is only for people who are deep, deep in the weeds. Every once in a while I get an email asking me for the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools. And I have never really had rock-solid information on the dimensions. So, apart from the insights into SeaWorld’s thinking about Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka contained in Russ Rector’s FOIA’d documents, I was glad to see that SeaWorld’s 1991 application to import and display Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand included…..very detailed pool dimensions. So I have posted them below (I have left SeaWorld Ohio out since that is now closed).
One thing that jumped out at me from this section of SeaWorld;’s application is just how few killer whales SeaWorld had in 1991 (12, including Ohio), compared to the 29 they keep today (23 at SeaWorld parks, and 6 at Loro Parque).
So, for the record, here are the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools in 1991:
After years of persistent FOIA appeals, dolphin advocate Russ Rector has managed the very worthwhile feat of getting NOAA to release more than 1000 pages of documents related to SeaWorld’s purchase of Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand Of The Pacific. I am going through them and posting some of the details and insights that the documents contain.
My first post, about the back and forth SeaWorld and NOAA had over how SeaWorld planned to deal with the fact that the three killer whales it was purchasing from Sealand had killed a trainer, is up at The Dodo.
SeaWorld’s take on whether Tilikum, Haida and Nootka’s behavior was normal, and whether SeaWorld was set to handle the three whales in the aftermath of Keltie Byrne’s death, doesn’t look so great in light of what followed with Tilikum’s life at SeaWorld. NOAA, which gets credit for pressing SeaWorld on the question of how it might deal with killer whales that had killed, was clearly not that impressed by SeaWorld’s complacency. Nevertheless, they ended up granting the permit.
You can download the full set of permit-related documents here, and I’ve also embedded them below:
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.
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.
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.