Orca Welfare Act is Morally Appropriate

by Joshua Marxen
Rebuttal by John Ayers-Mann

In the wake of the controversial documentary film Blackfish, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom has proposed a ban on the use of captive Orca whales for entertainment purposes. While it is hard to deny that SeaWorld Orca shows have been responsible for much of what scientists and the public have learned about Orcas in general, and for the enthusiasm around these animals, this knowledge ironically leads us to the conclusion that SeaWorld has no legitimate reason to hold these Orcas in their current conditions of captivity.

I hope the reader will agree with me that it is morally wrong to cause unnecessary suffering, even to animals. You may have trouble extending empathy to fish, reptiles, and insects, but you should not have the same trouble extending it to Orcas. After all, the fundamental commonalities we have with Orcas – the fact that they’re intelligent, that they’re social, that they live in families and clans (pods) like us – are the main attractions SeaWorld provides to customers in hosting Orca shows. The proof is in the profit. So there are two questions we have to ask. First, are Orcas in SeaWorld’s custody worse off than their wild counterparts? And second, if this is the case, are these conditions justified and necessary?

According to the available evidence, captive Orcas fare worse than Orcas in the wild. While Orca life-spans in captivity have been improving over the past 50 years, the average captive Orca’s life is still significantly shorter than the average wild Orca’s. In the wild, male Orca’s live 30 years on average, and females live 50. In captivity, however, males live 25 years, and females live 35, on average.

Besides a drop in average life-span, Orcas in captivity exhibit increased aggression compared to Orcas in the wild. While one could argue that the type of aggression displayed by Orcas (to other whales and to their trainers) in the Blackfish documentary is rare, it is rarer still to see wild Orcas attack humans. There have been fewer than ten documented wild Orca attacks on humans since 1910, while captive Orcas have attacked their trainers 40 times since the first Orca was held in captivity in 1968. Furthermore, none of the wild attacks on humans have been fatal or known to cause serious injury, whereas Blackfish shows indisputably that incidents of captive Orca aggression have caused both crippling injury and death. It is not unreasonable to speculate that a significant amount of the reported aggression between captive Orcas might not have occurred if they had space to escape from each other.

Perhaps another indicator of captive Orcas’ diminished welfare is the ubiquitous but unexplained occurrence of dorsal fin collapse among captive male Orcas. In the wild, this phenomenon is rare, occurring in less than 1% of wild Orcas. (Some wild pods exhibit an unusually high rate of dorsal fin collapse, but only a fraction of the population is affected, as opposed to the entire male population.) Even if this has no obvious detrimental effects on the health of the whales, the fact that only speculation exists as to why captive Orcas exhibit this condition indicates that there is still a lot we don’t know about the animal’s natural needs. Captive whales are clearly missing physiological and psychological benefits that their wild habitat could provide for them.

I think this evidence demonstrates that despite what might be good intentions on the part of SeaWorld, captive Orcas are worse off than wild ones. So now we have to move on to the question of whether this suffering is necessary. Are the benefits that SeaWorld offers by hosting Orca shows necessary, and is there no way to provide those benefits without subjecting Orcas to these conditions?

The first benefit SeaWorld provides is economic stimulus in the cities and states they operate in. They draw tourism and provide jobs. In our own back yard, SeaWorld at San Diego draws about 4.4 million guests a year, and employs 4,500 people. Banning SeaWorld from holding Orca shows will doubtlessly decrease its revenue, at least at first. If SeaWorld is really dedicated to education and welfare around marine life, it will supplement Orca shows with whale-watching trips. But this alternative may not be as popular as the Orca shows due to the fact that it requires customers to actually get on a boat and get out of their element to interact with whales that might not even turn out to be the iconic Orcas that SeaWorld is famous for. Furthermore, forcing it to develop the infrastructure and train its employees to reintegrate captive Orcas into the wild, as Bloom’s bill does, will be expensive. Together, this will decrease the economic benefit that San Diego and other communities hosting SeaWorld currently receive.

But to say that these effects are valid reasons for throwing out the ban is the same as saying that the economic benefits justify the unsatisfactory conditions we place Orcas in. Can we really say 4,500 people are entitled to jobs predicated on animal suffering? (And not all of those people will lose their jobs – only, possibly, those whose jobs are tied to the success of Orca shows.) Do people really deserve the benefits of tourism predicated on animal suffering? There are probably better ways to employ and entertain people.

And as for our scientific knowledge about whales, SeaWorld certainly has a role to play, and has probably had a net positive impact on this front over the course of its existence. But holding them in tanks for the purpose of performing shows does not seem to be necessary for advancing scientific knowledge of whales. The proposed sea enclosures that SeaWorld would be required to transfer the Orcas to would allow researchers to observe whale behavior and gain biological data while providing it with a more spacious and natural habitat. With some creativity, these could also be turned into tourist attractions.

All that said, activists and advocates for the bill should remember that there are limits to what can be realistically be expected to succeed when attempting to reintegrate captive-born whales into the wild. The most famous attempt to reintegrate an Orca into the wild happened in response to the success of the movie Free Willy, who’s cetacean star Keiko was released into the the open ocean after more than 20 years in captivity. The result was that six months later, Keiko was found on the coast of Norway giving rides to children at the beach, presumably hoping for a food reward.

This scenario is to be expected for any kind of animal that has been held in captivity for too long. (Indeed, all of the arguments above apply to a number of animals we keep in captivity.) It is likely that full integration of whales currently in captivity will not be possible. Fortunately, the current version of the bill provides for a more gradual strategy of transferring current Orcas to sea enclosures, as discussed before. Perhaps their children can be adopted by wild pods, but it is too early for that discussion be meaningful.

In conclusion, all of the benefits that SeaWorld provides for us and for Orcas can be had without subjecting them to the conditions that come with being held in captivity for entertainment. While reintegrating them completely is impossible, we can do better for them without a significant loss of economic benefit, entertainment, and scientific opportunity. And that small loss is greatly outweighed by the obligation we have to these creatures, who we identify as fellow conscious beings with as much capacity for joy and suffering as we have, and who therefore share as much a natural right to freedom as we do.

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