“Whale catchers and oceanariums keep pounding the public relations drum, taking the position that one of the big reasons the killer whale is taken is for scientific reasons. Some marine biologists don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that …suggestion. They point out that what little work is done is actually physiological, aimed at keeping the killer whale alive in a tank which keeps the exhibitor alive at the box office.” – Don McGaffin TV Reporter
Why did SeaWorld and other marine parks, stop capturing wild animals? After all, their motive for stopping capture is as important as the fact that they have put an end to this practice in their facilities. The answer to this question is actually quite simple: U.S. marine parks were prohibited from capturing wild cetaceans after it became illegal and the marine mammal protection act was passed. SeaWorld in particular was banned specifically from capturing orcas in Washington State waters. This was a result of cruel methods used by their animal collectors — the two most well-known orca cowboys: Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry. Their massive captures of Southern Resident orca pods on behalf of marine parks everywhere involved helicopters, speed boats and explosives. This ended in the decimation of Southern Resident orcas, and landed SeaWorld in court where they fought tooth and nail for their “right” to wild capture. Thankfully they lost. But the Southern Residents are still suffering the consequences of a reckless and inconsiderate industry (that oddly enough, prides itself on its care for these animals.)
While many pro-captivity activists speak as though SeaWorld and other marine parks suddenly had a change of heart and decided to end the wild captures because they gained a new respect and care for cetaceans, capture of cetaceans ceased in the U.S. for one simple reason: it became illegal. That along with public protests and a heightened awareness of the violent nature of the captures (minutes 12:00 and 19:00 portray the capture process) created a detrimental situation for large marine parks like SeaWorld. The law is the only thing that has stopped U.S. marine parks from capturing to this day. And even then, it has not succeeded in stopping them from capturing wild animals through other means that are not domestic.
What was the response from marine parks after the ban on wild capture in the U.S? They had no other choice but to encourage breeding methods in captivity and start their own captive breeding programs. Of course these programs are not designed to last forever and a bottle-necking of the captive orca population is a very real threat in the near future as places like SeaWorld have already been the host of inbred calves and unnatural hybrids, which would be taboo in the wild. But marine parks do not breed with regard to the animal’s natural lifestyle and reproductive tendencies. (You can read more about all the dirty little secrets of captive breeding here.) This puts marine parks back to square one: how to get around the laws that prohibit wild capture? The only solution to the problem of limited diversity in the captive population, is to refresh it with new genes from wild orcas, and the only way to obtain those genes is to find loopholes in the system, or to form relationships with foreign facilities in order to buy their captive orca sperm, thus subsidizing their activities which may be highly abusive to the animals. (SeaWorld has also obtained sperm from dead animals for their breeding program, claiming that it is for “scientific purposes.”)
Marine parks have quickly taken to the first solution: finding loopholes in the system. Now, the animals most in danger of having their freedom ripped from them are stranded cetaceans. We saw this in the case of the orca Morgan, and recently in the case of the baby beluga which was stranded just last week. The calf was found alone, deemed unreleasable, and it was quickly announced that the calf would be sent to an aquarium. Georgia Aquarium, who just last month lost a baby beluga when it was born in critical condition, jumped on the opportunity and four other U.S. marine parks followed suit – sending staff to help rehabilitate the calf (likely in hopes of being the government’s first pick when determining the baby’s permanent “home.”) It was recently revealed that Georgia Aquarium has also initiated a capture of 18 wild Russian beluga and are attempting to import them to U.S. marine parks for their breeding programs. Last year, Ocean Park in Hong Kong (who has close relations with SeaWorld Corp.) also planned on capturing and importing belugas to their new exhibit which was focused on spreading the message of climate change. Due to public outcry the plans were scrapped. Some parks will even go so far as to forcibly strand animals and claim they were “rescued.” Several cetaceans including the orca Kshamenk at Mundo Marino in Argentina (which is subsidized by SeaWorld Corp.) have been victims of this deceptive method of capture.
All the while, marine park supporters have been floundering over excuses to justify the clear cruelty of wild capture.
One of these excuses happens to be conservation. Of course capturing wild animals only succeeds in ripping animals from their families, taking their freedom and possibly decimating numbers. Unless the animals will be bred in captivity and then released to supplement wild populations – their capture cannot be considered “conservation.”
“We must be knowledgeable of something before we can care for it, and by no means are people picking up books or visiting museums or seeking to educate their children the way we used to. “ – Taylor Arnold, SeaWorld trainer
Education is the second most prominent excuse used to justify wild capture and captivity of cetaceans. I, and many anti-captivity activists are skeptical as to whether or not education is a viable excuse for captivity. After all, if Mr. Arnold’s statement is true, then we ought to be capturing endangered animals like tigers, caging them up and making them perform tricks as well…all in the name of “education.” The fact that this argument can be used to justify atrocities like the circus illustrates how faulty this logic is.
To be fair, almost all pro-captivity activists are against wild capture of cetaceans. It is often dismissed as a less than ideal event in the captivity industry’s past, while simultaneously praised as being necessary to bring the public into a state of appreciation for cetaceans. Almost all pro-captivity activists are also huge fans of SeaWorld, so when the topic of wild capture emerges, “That was in the past! SeaWorld doesn’t do that anymore!” is bound to be stated. What some people may not know is that SeaWorld, being the largest and most beloved marine park in the industry, is highly inter-connected with other parks including many foreign parks that participate in wild capture. In fact, for most of the captivity industry, the business of capturing wild cetaceans is still thriving. Most parks rely on these methods to obtain and upkeep their collection. Throughout the 90′s and into the 00′s, cetaceans (including orcas) were captured worldwide. And because this is a very prevalent practice, it is virtually impossible to support the captivity industry (especially the giants such as SeaWorld) without also supporting wild capture. People who help fund SeaWorld ought to ask themselves who they are indirectly funding when they hand over their hard-earned money.
It is very important to remember that the wild capture of cetaceans is not just a thing of the past, but is still taking place in an industry that continuously walks a fine line in regards to animal abuse, and some believe, has already crossed it.