On Sunday the San Antonio Express News published a terrific, but immensely sad, story by Richard about the deaths of orcas, dolphins, and other mammals at the SeaWorld parks. What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld? takes a careful look at the statistics of creatures dying at SeaWorld and quotes trainers, SeaWorld employees, research studies, and animal rights activists in an effort to address the care of marine mammals in captivity and whether they are more likely to die than members of their species in the wild.
Infections seem to be a huge problem for marine mammals in captivity. Richard’s story reviewed reports that SeaWorld filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calculated that almost 150 orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and beluga whales have died of infections at SeaWorld since 1986, and five dolphins, whales, and sea lions have died of various infections — such as fungal infections, bacterial infections, and inflammation of the brain — since May 2014.
The big point of contention is whether living in captivity contributes to those deaths, as animal rights advocates contend, or whether the creatures at Sea World are no more prone to infections than members of the species living in the wild. As Richard’s article reports, that’s tough to assess, because there aren’t many reliable studies of the lives of these mammals in their native habitat. Animal rights advocates argue that creatures that have evolved over millennia to range widely over large areas of ocean, hunt their own food, and form relationships in the wild simply aren’t suited to captivity. The advocates believe the orcas become stressed (and show it by breaking their teeth chewing on concrete and metal) and the stress makes them more prone to infection. Richard’s article quotes some former SeaWorld trainers who talk about the constant medication that some of the mammals have received. And while we don’t know the prevalence of infection deaths in the wild, we do know this — orcas, dolphins, and sea lions have somehow survived and thrived in our oceans for centuries without have to be heavily medicated by human beings.
I should note that SeaWorld has criticized Richard’s story, saying on its blog: “The article is unfairly critical of SeaWorld and misleads readers with incomplete sets of facts that are presented in a biased way.” I respectfully disagree. I think the piece is a fair treatment of an important issue that employs the tools of great investigative journalism, like review of public records, getting quotes from people on both sides of the story and experts, and then trying to piece things together. The reality is that the death of the marine mammals in the care of SeaWorld is just an uncomfortable topic for SeaWorld.
I’ve never cared much for zoos or places like SeaWorld. I feel sorry for the animals that are caged, and I think it reflects poorly on us that we keep creatures that are meant to be in the wild penned up for our entertainment. It’s particularly appalling that we confine marine mammals that show clear signs of intelligence, like orcas, and then have to dope them up to try to keep them alive. Richard’s story just heightens that view.