Pinnipeds in Captivity


Because cetaceans are the most popular and beloved animals at marine parks, they often take the spotlight as the welfare of the pinnipeds is overlooked. What many patrons don’t know is that most pinnipeds in captivity live in small cages and pools behind the show’s theatrical set. They are often kept in small, chain link cages indoors and are occasionally allowed to swim in small tanks. This may pose a problem as sea lions have a difficult time controlling their body temperature in warmer climates and require regular dips in the sea (or in said tanks) to regulate their body temperature.

Facilities often rotate their animals throughout the park to avoid overcrowded exhibits. Some parks like SeaWorld may keep up to 30 animals behind the scenes using only a few in the daily shows. The transfer of these animals is stressful and most often

Pinnipeds behind the scenes at SeaWorld

includes sedation or placing bags over the animal’s heads and herding them into cages and boxes via wooden “herding boards” or nets.

Like many captive animals, pinnipeds suffer stereotypic behavior as they are deprived of a dynamic environment. (clicking on the “small cages” link above will take you to a video depicting a pinniped caged in what appears to be a jail cell, repeatedly dipping its head in a water bucket.) They also have been shown to habitually rub their bodies on the pool walls causing raw patches of skin. Many parks have designed their pinniped enclosures to have an irregular shape to discourage stereotypic pattern swimming.

Treating and preventing pinniped eye issues in captivity.

Captive pinnipeds have been shown to suffer many ocular conditions and diseases that are a result of the over exposure to UV light, possibly due to the reflective light blue paint which tends to be on the pool walls, and display cages which are often designed to be “in-ground” so that guests may look down into the exhibit. The animals being displayed are forced to look up out of the cage and into the sun which may cause eye problems. The design of the exhibit also increases the possibility that foreign objects be dropped by guests and ingested by the pinnipeds who often suffer sickness and even death as a result. Water quality, chlorination and temperature has also been associated with a number of diseases in captive pinnipeds including fur loss, skin issues, ocular conditions and consistent vomiting. Larry, a harbor seal at Marineland of Canada went blind after repeatedly being exposed to unhealthy water conditions and is one of six Marineland pinnipeds with eye problems. Smooshie, Marineland Canada’s walrus suffered an inflamed chemical burn on his flipper, also due to chemicals in his pool water.

The diet of all marine mammals in captivity, is of vital importance. The law requires that trainers offer fish to pinnipeds twice a day, by using free feeding (where the pinniped is not required to work for food,) or session feeding (where the pinniped is required to work for food). Unfortunately, thiamine, salt and vitamin E are depleted in fish storage which results in deficiencies for the animals and even poisoning. All captive marine mammals are  in need of extra supplementation. This usually comes in the form of a vitamin called “sea tabs” which are inserted into the gills of the fish and offer nutrients that the fish has lost through the freezing and storing processes. The tabs also increase sexual behavior. “Indeed, all the successful major breeding programs for killer whales, dolphins, seals and penguins in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe have used Sea Tabs.”

In the wild, pinnipeds spend their lives taking part in a variety of activities. From socializing, to hunting, sunbathing to exploring – their lifestyle is as dynamic as their oceanic environment. In a static environment, such as a pool or cage, this is not so. Wild sea lions may live up to 30 years old, but in captivity their max lifespan is only about 23 years – cut by nearly a decade. While most species of pinnipeds are naturally gregarious, they may find themselves living independently in captivity. Mothers are also separated from pups who are often forced to be weaned earlier than naturally occurs in the wild, so that they may be transferred to other exhibits, sold, or trained to perform as early as possible.

In terms of iconic circus-themed imagery, seal and sea lion shows take the cake. In the past, both SeaWorld and Marineland of the Pacific had circus-themed shows featuring pinnipeds. Today, SeaWorld and other marine park pinniped shows offer anthropomorphic, decontextualized and exaggerated circus-like stunts and comedic skits. The animals may be dressed up, given human voice-overs, or take part in goofy antics alongside human actors. The audience will laugh as the trainers make fools of the animals. Little to no education is offered for the public attending such displays and captive pinnipeds are not accepted as subjects of study on their species by the scientific community (according to a 2006 study by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.) The captivity of pinnipeds offers no benefit to the animals, no benefit to science, and no educational value. The imprisonment of pinnipeds seems to be nothing but mere entertainment for the humans who can pay to see them perform.

“Long-term captive and rehabilitation animals are not ideal subjects for any model of a wild population because significant differences in many aspects of the biology of these animals have been experimentally verified. Movement and exercise, feeding behavior, body mass, body condition, reproductive behavior, endocrinology of stress, health, and reproduction, as well as clinical chemistry panels may differ substantially between captive and wild populations.” – UA-Fairbanks study

Wild pinniped capture and hunting is an ongoing practice, especially in areas where they are deemed to be a nuisance due to their predation of fish which may be threatened. In Spring of 2008, SeaWorld obtained California sea lions through an unplanned capture at Bonneville Dam, Oregon. The capture involved herding the animals into traps using painful hazing methods which involve shooting the seals with rubber buckshot or the usage of “seal bombs”to deter the animals. 15 sea lions were initially caught. 1 died while

Sea lions who eat fish targeted by fisheries are hazed and either branded and released, or captured and sold to marine parks.

under anesthesia, 4 died while in the traps, 4 were branded and released, and the remaining 6 were dispersed to SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio for a life of permanent captivity.

Because seals and sea lions are less high-profile at zoos, aquariums and theme parks, pinniped  inventories  are not of much interest, and it is easy for the industry to gloss over its methods of acquisition of these animals. They die and are easily replaced without the public’s knowledge, and certainly without any fuss by the media. It is important not to forget about the pinnipeds who are suffering behind the scenes in the captivity industry, and those who are suffering in the wild. The source for much of the information within this article comes from this handbook.

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3 thoughts on “Pinnipeds in Captivity

  1. This is not all completely correct. There are a lot of places who do research on their pinnipeds, including mine. Our animals are rescues and they also don’t do circus like tricks. We do have interactions, but before you must have 45 minutes of sea lion education.

    • At my facility we have never put anything over any animals head. They live in a lagoon where they can catch fish if they want as well. And btw a VERY HIGH proportion of sea lions in the wild have eye cataracts and eye issues. It is a known problem.

  2. Pingback: Pinnipeds in Captivity | Oceans and Wildlife | ...

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