Interesting Notes From The Virgin Captivity Summit

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. 

Ingrid Visser: On the issue of breeding, Visser shared her perspective that breeding should be stopped entirely and the roundtable should consider that the animals are not less sentient for being born into captivity. From her perspective, the current breeding practices happen at too young an age for orcas and there is a difference between being sexually and socially/culturally mature. In the wild, females have calves every 3-4 years, but in some captivity cases, females have been bred three months after calving. Of additional concern to her is hybrid breeding between different geographical cultures of orca – Iceland, Argentina and Pacific Northwest, for example. These different groups of orca would not breed in the wild given their geographical isolation. According to Visser, rescue animals should never be bred as it encourages the animals to be kept for breeding stock, rather than being rehabilitated and released. She also stressed that Virgin’s definition of “wild” will be central to the Pledge. She said she would consider it unacceptable to “acquire” wild-caught animals from other facilities and also unacceptable to “acquire” offspring of a wild-caught animal. Lastly, Visser appealed to marine parks to be more transparent about trainer and veterinary records.

Chris Dold (SeaWorld vet): According to Dold, these animals are highly adaptive and can thrive in a multitude of environments, including under human care and animal health professionals take an active approach to the care of cetaceans, rooted in compassion and respect for the animals. Enrichment is essential and trainers are central to that enrichment. Dold stated that captive orca lifespans are now on par with those of wild orca. He further argued that the genetic pools for both bottlenose dolphins and orcas are robust enough for at least 100 years of successful breeding and that there are programs that focus on maximizing the captive gene pool. Dold offered that reproduction (the physiology, the behaviors and the resulting offspring) are part of an animal’s natural behavior and suggested that any welfare program include a reproduction program both for the animal’s individual welfare, as well as that of the population. He additionally shared his perspective that wild animals will benefit from what is learned by the research and breeding programs.

Some General Discussion:

Welfare – mental. The roundtable further discussed whether captive environments could ever be adequate given
current knowledge of cetacean social complexity, intelligence and their requirements for space. Specifically noted and discussed was susceptibility to stress due to social factors and environmental noise. Some suggested that there is sufficient knowledge to merit a change in approach to cetaceans in captivity. Others stated that knowledge is
insufficient and that zoos, aquariums and parks have a unique ability to complement research conducted in the wild. Welfare – physical and space. The roundtable participants further discussed the possibility of improving captive environments by increasing space and introducing dynamic water, haloclines, etc. Participants broadly acknowledged that care and maintenance regulations related to space have not been updated since 1984 in the United States. It was also shared that a transcript is being prepared for submission to a peer-reviewed journal that challenges the view that that captive orca lifespans are on par with their wild counterparts.

Educational quality. A participant suggested that while welfare is important, for some a greater concern is what they
consider poor educational quality at the facilities. Comments centered on information presented related to the longevity of orcas, collapsed dorsal fins and breeding ages. While there was disagreement concerning the accuracy of information at different facilities, most agreed there was room for improvement in terms of educational messaging and inspiring conservation actions. Some participants argued that every effort was needed to inspire conservation actions to dispel the notion that marine attractions are simply interested in profits.

Courtney Vail on retirement and release: Courtney Vail (WDC) shared that there had been a number of successful releases of
cetaceans. She stressed that each case needs to be evaluated to determine if release is possible and then carefully
tailored to the individual. Where that is not possible, Vail explained that an alternative future for captive cetaceans can mean a variety of things and along a continuum away from confinement in concrete pools strictly for entertainment purposes. She further
stressed that the question where such a facility might be located and what it might look like, including those
distinguishing features that would separate it completely from other captive facilities, is a current subject of discussion
within industry, scientific and animal advocacy circles. There doesn’t seem to be disagreement among these sectors
regarding the possibility of developing such facilities, but there are distinct ideas about what those facilities might look like, including levels of interaction or enrichment activities for the dolphins involved; public access; research activities; and whether rescue and rehabilitation should be integrated into such a facility. As Vail explained, whether captive cetaceans should be retired and/or released is a matter of continuing ethical, philosophical, and scientific debate and

Vail stressed that, these solutions are more easily envisioned and articulated than they are implemented, but that a real commitment to improving the individual lives confined within captive facilities has resulted in successful releases worldwide. Although there have been numerous successful releases from rescue and rehabilitation centers and temporary release facilities (such as floating sea pens), there has to date not been the construction of a permanent retirement sanctuary in line with that afforded to terrestrial counterparts (e.g., elephants, great apes and other species) which would sustain a more natural quality of life for the duration of an individual captive cetacean’s lifespan. 

Components for sanctuaries. Several participants are actively engaged in exploring the feasibility and practical
considerations of sanctuaries, and how they might be operationalized for the purposes of maximizing welfare,
addressing conservation concerns, and commercialization. In the cases discussed, the current vision is that: 1) a
sanctuary would need to be in the ocean or a bay, versus an enclosed land-based pool, though there may be hybrid
options that enhance animal choice and control to move between more traditional “inside” facilities that provide portals to netted bays in the ocean; 2) animals would have the opportunity to forage for food and/or have food provisioned; 3) animals would not be bred; 4) animals would have choice and control regarding enrichment activities and interaction with trainers and observers; 5) there would be continued animal care and relationships between animal care professionals and cetaceans; 6) tourists would be able to view the animals, either remotely and/or from viewing areas. Those actively engaged in examining this pathway were clear that sanctuaries did not mean “taking them off display” but rather were seeking to re-think what “display” might look like given their views on scientific information about the animals and also changing societal views about captivity and cetaceans.

Definition of “wild” as defined by the Pledge. Some participants indicated their view that the Pledge should embrace the concept that wild=wild, regardless of when the animal was taken from the ocean. If after the February 27, 2014 (the date cited by Richard Branson) a supplier obtains an animal that was taken from the sea at any time (by permit, illegal capture, or by importing captive animals that were originally acquired from the wild at some point in the past) it would be considered in violation of the Pledge. Others suggested the Pledge would apply only to any new wild acquisitions occurring after February 27, 2014. There was discussion that there should be the flexibility to move wild caught animals already at facilities who could have better care if transferred.

The belugas covered by the Georgia permit were discussed directly with some participants suggesting that pending permits should be grandfathered in, while others stating that because the cetaceans are not yet acquired, they are subject to the Pledge. Several cited data reported at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in May 2014 that demand for belugas has resulted in additional operators and increased beluga deaths as operators seek to capture the whales. A participant clarified that for the belugas covered by the Georgia Aquarium permit application, there were no kills during that collection. It was articulated that the issue of the Russian belugas would be problematic for a number of aquaria and parks which are AMMPA members.

Rescue animals. There was a great deal of discussion about the regulations governing rescue animals and particularly in who and how an animal is determined “non-releasable.” While some had great confidence in the system and the intentions of the professionals involved, some voiced concern that too often animals that could possibly be released are deemed un-releasable and then as captive cetaceans they are highly valued for their genetic diversity in breeding programs and/or used for tourism and entertainment A participant suggested that in order to decrease incentives for misuse, the intention should always be to release rescued animals back to the wild and short of that; rescued animals deemed non-releasable should never be bred and should not be used for entertainment. Others suggested that to deny animals the act of breeding was unnatural and not in the best interest of the animal’s health. Some suggested that if the Pledge were to include rescue animals it would be hugely detrimental to individual animals that are presently housed and cared for by small institutions, at their own cost.

2 thoughts on “Interesting Notes From The Virgin Captivity Summit”

  1. This is progress. Yes there is so much more to be done, but dialogue is happening. A few years ago – even this much change in attitude was thought impossible. I am very encouraged by this step (small as it is) toward the goal of “freeing the whales”.

  2. Where does California AB2140 stand now after SeaWorld’s announced expansion of their killer whale habitats?

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