The Whisker Chronicles

Whiskers are also known as vibrissa, from the latin vibrare "to vibrate". Vibrissa are the specialized hairs on mammals and the bristlelike feathers near the mouths of many birds. Their resonant design is symbolic of the energies, good and bad, that are reverberating throughout the natural world. Every living thing is connected and, by birthright, deserves to exist.

Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals (Written for The Ecotone Exchange)

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rehab dolphin tank at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

By Maymie Higgins

The movie Blackfish is set to be released on DVD on Tuesday, November 12.  As much debate as the CNN airings and film festival screenings have prompted, the DVD release will likely create a resurgence of debate, anger, accusations and activism as yet unseen as it pertains to the topic of orcas in captivity, particularly at the Sea World parks.  I have not yet watched the documentary, preferring to wait until I could control the pace of viewing on my home DVD player, allowing for periods of bawling, meditation and sips of chamomile tea.  As an animal advocate and a person whose entire existence revolves around engaging the masses on a plethora of conservation topics, I probably do not have the emotional fortitude the movie requires.  And yet, I already know I will remain a supporter of Sea World even after seeing what I expect will be horrifying, gut-wrenching and panic-inducing images.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued sea turtle at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

The issue of animals in captivity is a sophisticated issue and cannot be easily compartmentalized into easy solutions such as “No Orcas in Captivity!”  Even if there is a movement towards having no orcas in captivity, it will be a long time before the last captive orca has lived out its full life expectancy.  The concept that captive animals, particularly those born in captivity, should be “set free” is an incomplete, poorly thought out concept.  Animals must have hunting, foraging, mating and many other behavioral skills in order to survive in the wild.  Most captive born animals never learned all of those skills.  Many wild born, now captive animals are in zoos and aquariums because they cannot survive in the wild after recovering from injuries.  Did you know that modern zoos and aquariums are often sanctuary for injured animals that would have otherwise been euthanized?

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued manatees at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Sea World has saved far more animals than it has destroyed as they are on the ground, every day, rescuing and rehabilitating dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and dozens of species of birds, to name only a few.  I have personally viewed the rehabilitation facilities in Orlando, Florida.  From my perspective as a Registered Nurse and with some experience in small mammal and passerine wildlife rehabilitation, I was very impressed with the state of the art facilities and loving care provided.  In 2012, more than 24 million guests visited Sea World parks, generating millions of dollars of donations, 100 percent of which are used for the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for wildlife conservation efforts. Then there are the intangible contributions such as all the conservation education activities that Sea World provides both inside and outside their parks, fostering the steward in both young and old.  For orcas in particular, Sea World has conducted a significant amount of published research that has benefitted both captive and wild orcas.  And just to be clear, Sea World has no involvement in capturing wild orcas now.  As is true for many zoos and aquariums, most of their animals were born in captivity.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando.  Photo by Maymie Higgins.

Rescued skate at Sea World Orlando. Photo by Maymie Higgins.

 The response to Blackfish should not be to shun Sea World.  Rather, keep visiting Sea World, make donations to their conservation fund, and support your local zoo and aquarium in their conservation efforts.  Consider this: if zoos and aquariums lose visitors, they lose revenue necessary to provide the best animal care possible.  The zoo and aquarium industry (and yes, it is an industry) is here to stay but that is not necessarily bad news.  For many species, it has already been good news.  For example, the black-footed ferret, red wolf and California condor would all be extinct now were it not for U.S. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.  Therefore, do not punish Sea World for their past sins.  Instead, praise them for their ongoing efforts to improve the way they care for captive animals and their safety measures to protect employees entrusted with animal care.  In all areas of life, it is far more productive to reward good behavior than to punish bad behavior.

6 comments on “Another Perspective on Sea World, Orcas and Captive Animals (Written for The Ecotone Exchange)

  1. Maymie Higgins
    January 11, 2014

    Since writing this blog, I have watched Blackfish, including the full documentary and all the DVD special features. I encourage everyone to watch all the DVD special features which include interviews with several whale experts and an interview with the director of Blackfish.

    There would be no captive animals in a perfect world. The world is not perfect. And humans have held captive animals a very long time. Prior to agricultural development, nomadic people caught young wild animals during the Neolithic era. There is evidence these animals were not intended as food in all cases. Some were objects of play or were killed for body parts while others were used as decoys in hunting. Animals were kept tethered at the edges of camps and possibly provided status to the humans who held them captive. Therefore, it saddens me to tell you that my emotional reaction to Blackfish was not as extreme as I anticipated. I guess I have become tainted and developed a crusty shell that lets me stay on the front line and continue to write and fight for animals. That said, I gasped several times, mostly at images of babies being yanked from their families.

    We all are guilty of killing animals. More wild orcas die from the effects of overfishing, pollution and oil spills than Sea World has even owned. Each of us are guilty of contributing to the declining populations of many animals species. Every time one buys a bottled water and/or tosses it into the trash instead of recycling, for example, you are fighting against the principles of animal advocacy you claim to believe in. And this paradox is what makes it necessary for Sea World and many other zoos and aquariums to engage significantly in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Yes, they have taken from the natural world but they also give back. Who among us can claim that 100 percent of the time?

    I still have the opinion that Sea World does more good than harm. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no shows involving cetaceans of any kind forty years from now. Though Sea World is kicking and screaming, lying and denying about many issues surrounding captive orca husbandry and trainer safety, I can’t help but believe they have gotten the message. Clearly, the era of trainers and orcas doing shows together should come to an end for the well-being of all involved. But the ending of that era should not come at the expense of all the other animals that benefit directly and indirectly from Sea World’s expertise in animal husbandry, rescue and rehabilitation. Boycotting Sea World is not the only way to send the message that you want their practices to change.

    I have no personal or financial interest in advocating for Sea World. My primary concern is for the real truth and the bigger truths to be examined so that in the long run, things improve for all animals in zoos and aquariums….and in the wild. Watching one documentary does not make anyone an expert on the subject of captive animals.


  2. Maymie Higgins
    January 12, 2014

    Here is a link to research publications at SeaWorld


  3. Adam Groves
    January 18, 2014

    They need to stop all breeding programs.


  4. Joey Nguyen-Elizalde
    March 23, 2014

    Seaworld is a profit driven organisation that cares only about their bottom line. They may have done some good, but essentially they are a dolphin prison.


  5. Maymie Higgins
    August 19, 2014

    An interesting opinion to consider as well


  6. Maymie Higgins
    May 28, 2015

    Sea World is sharing their side of the story quite well.


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