It's incredibly telling that Sea World declined to be interviewed in the film, or by CNN the week of its airing. They would only allow CNN to submit five questions over email, thus making it impossible for CNN reporters to respond to Sea World's responses. Their responses can be read at this link: SeaWorld responds to questions about captive orcas, 'Blackfish' film - CNN.com
Dr. Naomi Rose responded to those responses in the comments section:
Originally Posted by Naomi Rose, PhD
SeaWorld: Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues.
NR>>Reporting on a newsworthy event is not exploitation. Also, SeaWorld was invited to be interviewed for the film and declined – complaining of unbalanced treatment after the fact therefore seems disingenuous.
SW: To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld -- among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research. Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld's commitmenqt to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company's continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau.
NR>>That SeaWorld is committed “to the safety of its team members and guests and the care and welfare of its animals” is not a fact – it is an opinion. The film explores SeaWorld’s commitment to safety and welfare and concludes that overall its level of commitment is not adequate to protect its trainers’ safety or its orcas’ welfare. This too is an opinion, but one supported by the facts presented in the film. People need to decide for themselves.
CNN: SeaWorld declined CNN's requests to be interviewed on camera however Vice President of Communications Fred Jacobs agreed to answer some questions about the controversy over the film and about keeping orcas in captivity.
NR>>SeaWorld’s refusal to participate in any forum where there is an opportunity to question or rebut its comments on the spot (or for that matter, where a representative might misspeak) is telling. The only manner in which the company agrees to be questioned is in static written formats where there is no give or take. This need to control every aspect of its responses displays a lack of confidence in its ability to defend its practices.
CNN: In your statement, SeaWorld notes that Blackfish "withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld," including that SeaWorld has rescued, rehabilitated, and returned to the wild hundreds of wild animals: do any of those animals include orcas?
SeaWorld: Yes, though killer whales do not beach with the same frequency as other species and when they do it is typically a last ditch effort at survival. Killer whales, like all stranded marine mammals, are generally gravely ill, injured, malnourished, dehydrated, very old or very young, and do not survive long on shore. Nonetheless, we've assisted whales many times, including killer whales. The largest whale to ever be rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the wild -- J.J. the orphaned gray whale calf -- was part of our rescue program. (See the attached paper from a biologist at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (PDF).)
NR>>JJ lost her tags within three days of her release and was never seen again. She may well have died within days or weeks of her release, which would overall be considered a failure. This release cannot be hailed as a success (or vilified as a failure) given the complete lack of information on JJ’s fate.
SW: You can read about our role in rescuing killer whales from Barnes Lake in Alaska here and our role in rescuing a killer whale named Springer here. We also assisted our colleagues at Dolfinarium in Holland with veterinary care and husbandry for an orphaned and hearing-impaired juvenile killer whale they rescued. SeaWorld was part of the team to help Luna, as well as a young killer whale stranded near Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. We also are regularly called upon to do pathology on beached whales that do not survive.
NR>>If this question was meant to include orcas that have been brought into a facility for rehabilitation and then returned to the wild, then to clarify, there are no examples of such whales. The fate of the whales mentioned in SeaWorld’s response above is as follows:
NR>>SeaWorld can legitimately claim to have participated in the Barnes Lake rescue and even assisting with Springer (although it was not a key player in that effort). None of these whales were brought to a SeaWorld facility before being returned to the wild – they were rescued ‘in situ.’
NR>>Morgan (the whale in Holland) was not released, although she could have been (a release plan was formulated by a team of experts). She is currently the target of a legal effort to secure her return to the wild in Norway. It is interesting that SeaWorld does not mention here that the company now claims to own Morgan, as she was moved from Holland to a facility in the Canary Islands, where several other SeaWorld whales on loan currently reside.
NR>>SeaWorld fails to clarify that Luna, not too long after he was separated from his pod in British Columbia, was killed by a tugboat propeller because stakeholders could not agree on how to handle his situation.
NR>>As for Pascuala, the orca in Mexico, she died even as SeaWorld was preparing to transport her to San Diego, claiming she was too young when she stranded to be returned to the wild.
NR>>So to summarize: The Barnes Lake whales and Springer never left the ocean – indeed Springer is alive and well today and has successfully given birth. Luna and Pascuala died. Morgan is still in captivity and the facility in the Canary Islands has no intention of ever returning her to the wild.
CNN: What kind of rehabilitation and rescue efforts does SeaWorld provide for orcas?
SeaWorld: See the answer above. I should stress that the goal of our rescue program is the rehabilitation of an animal in need so that it can be successfully reintroduced to the wild.
NR>>SeaWorld opined at the time that Luna should have been captured and sent to a captive facility for “rehabilitation,” even though he was not ill or injured (at the time) and was feeding himself. It was going to transport Pascuala to a lifetime in captivity. It opposed any effort to return Morgan to the wild and now claims to own her, along with the other SeaWorld whales at the facility in the Canary Islands. These outcomes do not support this claim.
NR>>If a stranded cetacean is brought into a SeaWorld facility for rehabilitation and survives (which is actually rare in the first place – as SeaWorld noted above, beached cetaceans usually die and even if one lives long enough to be sent alive to a facility for rehab, it often dies), then it is highly unlikely ever to be released back into the wild. It does occasionally happen, as noted below regarding a common dolphin stranding in California, but very rarely. I also note that common
dolphins do not generally fare well in captivity, which I suspect played a role in the decision to return this animal to the wild.
SW: That occurs hundreds of times each year.
NR>>SeaWorld can make this claim because it is including sea turtles in this number. This number also includes manatees in Florida and seals and sea lions in California, but these mammals strand at most in the dozens each year, not hundreds. SeaWorld is part of a major sea turtle stranding network in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico and it does rescue, rehab, and release hundreds a year. But the implication of this statement is that SeaWorld is returning hundreds of mammals to the wild each year, which is not accurate.
SW: Just this week we released a beached common dolphin that was rescued and rehabilitated by our park in San Diego. There are few organizations in the world that rescue more animals than we do: more than 23,000 since the program's inception.
NR>>Again, this number is so large primarily because of sea turtle rescues. I am not downplaying the importance of rescuing sea turtles (let alone pinnipeds or
manatees and the occasional cetacean and sea bird – sea animal rescue is indeed a positive activity by SeaWorld, but keeping orcas captive is not essential for the company to continue this activity), but this reply seems to imply that this entire number refers to marine mammals, which it does not.
CNN: What are the benefits to keeping orcas in captivity?
SeaWorld: The primary benefits are identical for any species in any accredited zoological institution: education and science. At SeaWorld more than 11 million people each year (hundreds of millions since our first park opened its gates in 1964) have experienced killer whales in a way that is personal, enriching and inspirational. Learn more here. It is our hope that every person who has visited SeaWorld leaves with a greater understanding of and appreciation for all the animals we display, including killer whales. I have attached two documents that outline some of our peer-reviewed contributions to the scientific understanding of killer whales. Note that this is just killer whales. We have similar bibliographies for many of the species living at SeaWorld.
NR>>Many of the peer reviewed contributions SeaWorld staff have made to the scientific literature on orcas relate to captive husbandry (i.e., work that would not be necessary if orcas weren’t in captivity in the first place), including artificial insemination technology. This science has no benefit to wild whales (orcas face threats less to their reproductive output than to their habitat – not to mention that
applying AI techniques to wild whales is a distant – if not impossible – dream).
CNN: Many marine biologists and animal ethicists believe that orcas should not be kept in captivity because they are designed to travel hundreds of miles each day: do you think the exposure that SeaWorld provides to millions of people who might not otherwise see a orca outweighs these concerns about impact of captivity on orcas?
SeaWorld: While a killer whale can and occasionally might travel as much as 100 miles in a day, it should be said that swimming that distance is not integral to a whale's health and well-being.
NR>>This statement is incorrect. There is a considerable body of evidence, including results on annual survivorship rates in orcas to be presented at a marine mammal scientific conference in December 2013, that disputes it. Indeed, it is only logical to conclude that being allowed to range as nature intended is integral to the health and well-being of any wide-ranging species, including orcas (see below). A peer-reviewed publication by two researchers in England evaluated such wide-ranging predators and found their longevity and reproductive success in captivity to be poor.
SW: It is likely foraging behavior.
NR>>Wide-ranging movements in wild predators are almost always tied to prey distribution and hunting needs. That does not mean that, if food is provided, moving this much becomes unnecessary for health and well-being. In fact, once evolution designs a species for some level of activity, if that level of activity is restricted (even if the reason for that activity is removed from the equation), ill health follows. This is a given with human health, where repercussions from lack of exercise abound. Why? Because we were designed for a certain level of exercise when we were hunter-gatherers and now that we are couch potatoes (which is exactly what captive orcas are), we suffer from heart and vascular disease, diabetes, and other illnesses.
NR>>SeaWorld’s claim that “swimming that distance is not integral to a whale’s health and well-being” is scientifically, evolutionarily, and biologically ridiculous.
SW: Given the challenge of finding and killing as much as 300 pounds of prey every day, killer whales in the wild -- like any species -- conserve energy and move only as much as necessary.
NR>>This is true. But when taken to the extreme – becoming virtually sedentary – it poses a serious health risk. Once again, see the human medical literature.
SW: Killer whales living in our parks are given all the food they require. They also exercise, receive veterinary care, live in the company of other members of their species, and receive mental stimulation. They adapt very well to life in a zoological setting. I should also note that the overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in the care of man.
NR>>The whales at SeaWorld do not exercise sufficiently – that is the whole point. They may live in the company of “other members of their species,” but they do not live with family members, as they do in the wild, and they cannot even live with long-term bonded companions, as SeaWorld moves its whales between parks as husbandry demands. As for the last point, the fact that most of SeaWorld’s whales were born in captivity means nothing if those whales do not live full lives. And they do not. The captive-born mortality rate is significantly higher – more than three times as high, as the data to be presented in December show – than the mortality rate of wild whales.
CNN: What specifically have we learned about captive orcas that has benefited marine biology and applies to orcas in the wild?
SeaWorld: Please see the attached bibliographies (Here and here - PDFs). Much of what is known about the killer whale's anatomy, reproductive biology and capacity to learn was learned at SeaWorld and other accredited zoological institutions.
NR>>While this is true, much of what has been learned is not terribly applicable to conservation of wild orcas. In addition, aspects of orca biology such as anatomy are learned and then applied – they do not have to be rediscovered perpetually. Same for reproductive biology (such as gestation period – it is determined once and then applied, not re-determined every year), not to mention that much of what SeaWorld has learned in this regard has application only to captive husbandry. As for the capacity to learn, this is the crux of the matter for many ethicists. We have INDEED learned about this species’ capacity to learn from captive whales – and if WE were as smart as the whales, we would realize these discoveries mean continuing to keep them in captivity is unethical.
NR>>Society – and SeaWorld – did not know enough in 1965, but we do now. It is time to end the captivity of orcas – whether because they are too intelligent, social, and family-bonded, or simply because their lives are cut short. No matter what angle one takes on this question, the answer is the same – orcas do not belong in captivity.
CNN: How's Tilikum doing today? Is he participating in any of SeaWorld's shows?
SeaWorld: He is doing well for a killer whale that is more than 30 years old. He interacts with other whales and our zoological staff and he makes regular public appearances.
NR>>Tilikum is merely middle-aged for a wild male whale. For a captive one, he is pushing the boundaries of longevity – he is the second oldest male orca ever in captivity, which is truly remarkable given his difficult life.
CNN: What are SeaWorld's thoughts on sea pens as an alternative solution where humans can not only study and research orcas, but enjoy them as well?
SeaWorld: Sea pens can be effective for transitioning a rescued animal back to life in the open ocean, but they are not appropriate for long-term care.
NR>>Several facilities that have been displaying dolphins for decades, and are members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, are sea pens. Is SeaWorld claiming that these facilities are inappropriate? Orcas are the largest dolphins and if smaller cousins can be maintained in sea pens, then so can orcas.
SW: Our killer whale habitats are the largest and most sophisticated ever constructed for a marine mammal: 7 million gallons of continually filtered and chilled water. They provide an environment that allows us to properly care for, display and study the animals.
NR>>The main enclosure (the performance tank, the largest in the complex) at SeaWorld is designed for shows, not with the best interests of the animals in mind. The human audience in the stadium needs to see the performance – that was the primary concern of the designers, not whale welfare.
NR>>I apologize for the length of this post, but I felt strongly that the points in this response needed rebuttal. Thank you for your patience!