SeaWorld’s (Slippery) Support Of The Virgin Pledge

SeaWorld has released a statement supporting the Virgin Pledge:

SeaWorld welcomed the opportunity to participate, along with similarly accredited organizations, in the six-month stakeholder engagement process on marine mammals conducted by Virgin Unite. We have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective and science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in professionally operated zoological institutions.

SeaWorld has supported efforts to protect and conserve our oceans for future generations since we first opened our gates 50 years ago. We were pleased to share this commitment with Virgin Holidays, and fully support their pledge concerning the collection of whales and dolphins from the wild — something SeaWorld hasn’t done in decades. The millions of guests who come through our gates each year are not only inspired and educated by what our parks offer, but also are key contributors to the important conservation and research we do that helps protect wildlife and wild places. We thank Virgin for recognizing the vital role zoological facilities can play in ocean preservation and conservation and look forward to working with them on these efforts in the future.

I highlighted the section about wild captures because it makes two questions pop into my head:

1) How does this statement lauding SeaWorld’s restraint regarding wild captures square with the fact that SeaWorld was part of a consortium led by Georgia Aquarium that in the past few years both captured 18 wild belugas and tried to import them into the United States?

The import permit was denied (Georgia Aquarium is appealing), which I suppose allows SeaWorld to stay technically consistent with the Virgin Pledge. Though to the extent that SeaWorld was part of the consortium that captured the belugas (even if Georgia Aquarium was acting as the umbrella for the group) I don’t think they can honestly say they haven’t “collected” from the wild in decades.

2) If protecting and conserving our oceans is linked to refraining from wild dolphin and whale captures, why stop with those species? Why not help protect and conserve our oceans by refraining from all wild captures?

Both those questions posed, I do credit SeaWorld for taking the Virgin Pledge. I also think it will have positive implications going forward, implications that SeaWorld may or may not have thought through. Having signed the pledge, plenty of people (like me) will keep an eye on the extent to which SeaWorld remains true to the spirit and letter of the pledge. And that could constrain how they pursue their marine mammal entertainment business.

For example, what if Georgia Aquarium wins its appeal regarding the wild beluga import? Will SeaWorld take its allotment of 11 belugas, and say “oh well, never mind” with regard to the Virgin Pledge? Or will it make a painfully self-interested argument that the beluga import is about conserving a wild species (even though belugas are not listed as endangered by the IUCN)? Or will it say “Hey, those belugas were caught before February 2014, so stop hassling us?”

No matter what option it chose, SeaWorld’s choice would come under extra-detailed scrutiny because it has signed the Virgin Pledge. Is it even conceivable that SeaWorld would take a look at how bringing in 11 wild belugas would look in light of changing public opinion about captivity and their support of the  Virgin Pledge, and take a pass on the wild belugas? Unlikely, I know. But these days it seems like almost anything is possible.

I can also forsee other choices SeaWorld might have to make in the future that will get extra scrutiny, and may even be constrained, thanks to SeaWorld’s commitment to the Virgin Pledge (even if the action comports with a very lawyerly, narrow reading of the words of the pledge).What about engaging in breeding loans with captive facilities that violate the Virgin Pledge? Or keeping future rescue animals for SeaWorld shows? Or breeding wild caught rescue animals, like Morgan, to increase SeaWorld’s killer whale holdings and benefit its bottom line?

That sort of analysis against the Virgin Pledge will be a very good thing. And while enthusiastically signing onto the Virgin Pledge today might yield a quick PR bump, I wonder if SeaWorld may come to regret taking the pledge down the road.

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. 

Continue reading “Interesting Notes From The Virgin Captivity Summit”

Aquariums Split Over Wild Beluga Import

This is a very interesting, and potentially important, development: two major players in the aquarium world are opposing the proposed Georgia Aquarium import of wild Russian belugas.

Over the past decades, marine parks and aquariums have mostly stayed united on issues related to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the display of whales and dolphins. For the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres to take a different view of the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import wild belugas and distribute many of them on breeding loans to SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, and Mystic Aquarium is a big deal. And it’s an encouraging sign that some aquariums–given what we now know about the intelligence, awareness and sociability of small whales and dolphins–see the possibility of a different model for education and display than the model that has dominated the industry since its inception.

Here is the National Aquarium letter to NMFS, outlining its opposition. One thing that really catches my eye is the National Aquarium’s statement that it wants to review the Marine Mammal Protection Act along with other institutions and outline a new model for display that reflects all that we have learned about marine mammals since the MMPA was put in place in 1972. That is desperately needed, I think:

Here is the Sea Life Centres letter:

And here is a press release from Whale And Dolphin Conservation applauding the position of the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres:

The stand that the National Aquarium and Sea Life Centres are taking will no doubt cause some heartburn in the industry. But any reform of the MMPA and how marine mammals are treated and displayed around the world is much likelier to make progress with some industry support. So kudos to these two organizations for taking a big and brave step forward.

Nightly Reader: November 1, 2012

1) If Only: I’m always wary of stories that turn on the phrase “according to a recent study.” But when the study suggests that vegetarians and vegans live an average of eight years longer than the meat-eating general population, I am happy to propagate it without too much scrutiny. Plus, of course, you have these folks. Even meat-eaters who don’t care about animal suffering or the environment can get behind living longer.

2) Beluga Basics: A(nother) deep dive into the arguments, politics, and economics of the Georgia Aquarium’s proposed import of 18 wild Russian belugas. I don’t expect it, but it will be an amazing reversal if NOAA denies the permit.

3) A Man And A Walrus: Former Marineland trainer Phil Demers tells the story of his relationship with Smooshi, and how concern for her well-being drove him to speak out against the conditions she lives in.

BONUS VIDEO: Here’s Smooshi in action.

Deep Dive Into Belugas

Felicity Barringer, who wrote yesterday’s New York Times article about the controversy over whether the Georgia Aquarium should be allowed to import wild belugas from Russia, takes to the NYT’s Green blog to go much deeper into the ethical, moral and scientific arguments over the question of beluga captivity.

Partly because, apparently, this song was in her head the entire time she was reporting the story:

Anyhow, her post is a great example of how online space can add insight to a story in the printed newspaper and it’s worth reading the whole thing. But here are the questions she is trying to get at:

Therein lies the conundrum built into the decision facing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in coming months. Is the goal of inspiring visitors — and doing research that may help conserve these animals in the wild — worth the price of taking extremely social animals with deep bonds of kinship out of the ocean, teaching them crowd-pleasing tricks and putting them on display in an aquarium?

Should animals that migrate hundreds of miles between their ice-clogged Arctic habitats and the estuaries at the mouths of rivers like Russia’s Amur or Canada’s St. Lawrence, that dive hundreds of yards deep to forage on the ocean floor, be confined to a tank with no more than a handful of other belugas for company?

Should belugas whose range of calls represents one of the most extensive vocabularies in the animal kingdom have to listen to their whistles bouncing off walls?

Unfortunately, these are not the issues NOAA is considering when it weighs the beluga import permit application. Which is why the Marine Mammal Protection Act is outdated and needs to be revisited.

Ocean Park, Hong Kong: A Different Approach To Belugas

BelugaThe New York Times weighs in with a well-reported story about the controversy over the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import 18 wild belugas from Russia.

The story contains an absolutely classic example of the bogus beluga rationale I wrote about the other day, again courtesy of Georgia Aquarium’s William Hurley:

But beyond those legal considerations, said William Hurley, a senior vice president of the Georgia Aquarium, marine institutions need a strong captive population for research that could help safeguard the beluga as its Arctic habitat is transformed by a changing climate.

“If you don’t have enough of these animals in our care and don’t have enough to extend that for more decades,” Mr. Hurley said, the aquarium will be unable to unlock “the secrets these animals hold.”

What the story doesn’t mention is that not all the marine parks that originally set out to research this Russian beluga population, as a step toward importing wild belugas from Russia, are in agreement about displaying belugas.

Ocean Park in Hong Kong was part of the marine park consortium that helped fund the research, and was planning to import some of the belugas for its new Polar Adventure exhibit. But along the way, Ocean Park decided that it would not include belugas in the exhibit, and would not be importing any of the 18 belugas captured in Russia for the consortium.

Beluga SantaOver the summer, I called Allan Zeman, the chairman of Ocean Park’s Board Of Directors to ask why. He was refreshingly forthright and candid about Ocean Park’s decision. And his thinking is an example of how at least one marine park looked at the ethics of displaying belugas and–despite the fact that belugas are popular with the public and generate lots of revenue–decided to go another direction.

Here is what Zeman told me, lightly edited for clarity:

What happened with the belugas is that we originally six years ago talked about doing belugas and other animals. Ocean Park is really about animals. It’s similar to SeaWorld.

Nobody 6 or 7 years ago came out against the idea. Everyone was excited about plan, which even had polar bears. But after we started designing the park–the CEO and myself–we started traveling around to familiarize ourselves with the animals in different parks. Nobody said anything. Most people didn’t know what a beluga was, except for the animal rights people. Continue reading “Ocean Park, Hong Kong: A Different Approach To Belugas”

A Bogus Beluga Rationale

Nicely detailed piece on Wired.com about Georgia Aquarium’s application (on its own behalf, but also fronting for SeaWorld, Shedd, Mystic) to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.

Here’s the set-up:

Controversy is brewing over the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import 18 beluga whales captured off the coast of Russia. If the U.S. government approves the plan, it will mark the first time in nearly two decades that wild-caught cetaceans have been imported into an aquarium in the United States.

According to the aquarium, the whales are needed for research and education. According to animal welfare advocates, that doesn’t justify the trauma inflicted on intelligent, emotional creatures that suffer in captivity.

“If we let them in, it means we’re going to have this issue all the time. It will open up the floodgates,” said Lori Marino, a neurobiologist at Emory University and prominent cetacean rights activist.

Georgia Aquarium trots out the shopworn argument that the belugas will be ambassadors for their species, which is the core rationale marine parks use to justify keeping marine mammals in captivity.

But it’s an analogy that has some problems, I think. Most important, ambassadors are not normally forced into service. My father was an ambassador and he was sent abroad because the United States wanted a representative in the countries he served. In contrast, ambassador to the human world is not a choice any belugas are making. It is a choice humans (profit-seeking humans, I might add) are making FOR the belugas.

Russian Belugas

The Russian Belugas in Ambassador School

Now, you could say belugas need ambassadors because humans are trashing the oceans, and putting the future of wild beluga populations at risk. I think that Continue reading “A Bogus Beluga Rationale”