Secrets and Lies: Can You Trust Marine Parks?

According to the Animal Welfare Act, facilities that keep captive dolphins must provide education to the public. Because of this, all U.S. aquariums and marine parks pay lip service to educational efforts. According to Dr. Marino a scientist of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy: “Saying that something is educational is not the same as something actually being educational.” 

This can be illustrated in the form of a video which shows a Dine with Shamu performance in which the trainer blatantly lies to the crowd. After an audience member asks how long orcas live for, the trainer responds, “The average for a killer whale is about 25-30, but they can live more or less, but there is a whale up in San Diego and he is 45-50, so he’s getting up there”

The average age for a male killer whale in the wild is 31, and for females it is 46. For captive orcas these are not average ages, but maximum ages, as most captive killer whales will die in their teens or 20’s. The whale the trainer mentioned in San Diego is of course Corky, who is not a male but a female and is estimated to be about 46 years old.

This is blatant miseducation on the part of SeaWorld and is certainly not the first time a marine park employee has made a mistake on their facts. This summer, 2012, I talked to an educator hired to answer the public’s questions at SeaWorld Orlando’s dolphin nursery. When questioned about the orcas, the educator could not correctly pronounce the name “Tilikum.” One is forced to question whether or not the employees at marine parks are even qualified to give information to the public when they are not educated themselves.

From SeaWorld’s website. If children walk away from the parks calling beluga wha

les “giant ice creatures” you may want to re-think your educational content!

Another instance of miseducation in the captivity industry comes from an informative new article written by Candace Calloway Whiting. The article profiles belugas at Mystic Aquarium and includes several videos depicting the belugas jaw-popping at guests who are often seen banging on or standing close to the glass wall of the tank. In one video, a guest asks a trainer what the behavior means. With a bit of hesitation and an uncomfortable giggle, she explains: “Yeah it’s called jaw popping so what he’s trying to do is be like ‘I’m the king of this pool’, so when people are trying to make motion he’s like ‘no!’” As you can tell, this response is less educational and more  sugar-coated, fake, and almost childish. Why?

“An employee[of Mystic Aquarium] told me in confidence that they keep it a secret that the whale reaction is aggressive, because it can be interpreted as playful by someone who doesn’t know.” In other words, the facts are sugar-coated and childish to preserve the Disney-like atmosphere of aquariums and marine parks. A SeaWorld educator confirms this, and further states (quite arrogantly), that assumed ignorance of the public encourages dumbed-down responses from educators, and the use of buzzwords to cover up negative connotations.

“The problem with using some perfectly logical and scientifically valid terms on the microphone is that many guests hear bits and pieces of a narration and friggin’ RUN WITH IT in the entirely wrong direction. Because, as we know, ignorance is common. You can’t individually explain to thousands of people what you meant (and for some you gotta speak pretty slow). It’s best to keep it simple, stupid…As much as one might love being blunt and straightforward, you don’t want to encourage negative thoughts. You want people to like these animals and be inspired to protect them. It’s pathetic, but you do have to sugar-coat some things.”SeaWorld Educator

It seems as though one has to go searching for science at an aquarium or marine park. Facts are often located on plaques around exhibits which are often passed over by tourists. The dolphin shows certainly do not contain any information themselves. In fact, the industry is moving away from educational content in favor of theatrics. “The goal was to really move from an educational presentation/show to a 100% theatrical show. In a support to change the way to act with the animals and the change from animal trainer to actor, we hired Precision Behavior.” — Marten Foppen MBA, General Manager | Dolfinarium, Harderwijk, Netherlands.

Thad Lacinak is the man who founded Precision Behavior and was responsible for eliminating the education in Dolphinarium Harderwijk’s dolphin show. He was the head of animal training at SeaWorld and was instrumental in extinguishing education in their shows by developing the first entirely entertainment themed orca show at SeaWorld: Believe.

Do people actually walk away from marine parks like SeaWorld with new information? SeaWorld guests were asked in this 2001 poll, what facts they had learned at the park. “That dolphins do not learn their tricks” was a more popular response than “How smart dolphins are.” Of course the park has evolved since then, but according to guests, the shows’ contents, and even captivity supporters, it is now less educational than ever! Education that guests take the time to seek out involve facts about how much the animals love to do their tricks and dance for audiences. This shows that very little of what SeaWorld teaches is scientific and can be applied to wild cetaceans.

Not only can miseducation be guaranteed at marine parks, but so can outright censorship of information. Guests on certain VIP tours at SeaWorld are told not to take photos behind the scenes. A photographer filming Halyn’s birth claims: “while I was at SW Texas, I was asked to film Halyn’s birth w/ my own camera, but because Kayla tried to kill her, SW confiscated my tape…”  It is also speculated that SeaWorld turned off their live “Shamu Cam” to keep the public in the dark regarding Nakai’s recent injury. Marine park supporters often embrace this kind of censorship, and close themselves off to any anti-captivity information (perhaps out of fear that it may damage their perception of marine parks.) They often openly speak out against industry secrets being leaked. An instance of this was the release of the book “Death at SeaWorld” which sparked so much hostility in the pro-captivity community, that petitions were being formed to ban and burn the book.

“Determining (or thinking we can determine) what the public can and cannot handle at the very least smacks of elitism…I feel if we hold things back, keep secrets, have locked back rooms beyond those necessary for security, we are really looking for trouble. We are public institutions and if we do not want to serve the public, then we should close the doors and call ourselves a laboratory…If we are public institutions then we must be public.” – Roger Caras 18th president of the ASPCA on the topic of Zoos and Aquariums.

Are aquarium educators to blame for the misinformation in the industry? Hardly! In fact, employees of the captivity industry are also victims of secret-keeping. As guests, the public is allowed to ask questions about the animals, but the industry seems to be more intolerant to questions by insiders. According to her friend, Cathy, a former Discovery Cove employee reported that, “no one was allowed to talk with the trainers about the animals and if they did they would be fired.” I can say from my experience volunteering at an aquarium, questions about where animals come from, how they feel about captivity, how they are cared for, etc. are quickly shut down. I was told on more than one occasion that the husbandry department was “like the CIA.” In other words, it was all top secret and confidential information that would not be released even to the educators in charge of providing facts to the public.

Mr. Caras is correct. If a public facility is going to claim to be educational (and it must legally be educational), then it cannot expect to keep secrets concealed behind the scenes, and it certainly should not propagate misinformation or lies in an attempt to preserve its pleasant image.


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