SeaWorld should retire orcas

Story highlights

  • Carl Safina says SeaWorld has evolved with the public
  • A few years ago, Safina -- an ecologist -- didn't have strong view on orcas in captivity
  • Safina: Let's devise an intelligent plan for orca retirement

Carl Safina is an ecologist and author. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he runs the Safina Center. His most recent book is "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel."

(CNN)SeaWorld is evolving. Responding to public pressure, SeaWorld is no longer doing big flashy killer whale shows at its San Diego facility. And it has just announced that it will no longer breed killer whales, often called orcas, in captivity.

Carl Safina
I'm evolving, too. About a decade ago I responded to a friendly invitation from a SeaWorld employee to visit one of the company's facilities. The employee had enjoyed something I wrote and wanted to meet. There was no agenda. I was delighted by the various creatures — especially the flamingoes' surprising friendliness — and I didn't have strong feelings about the captive orcas. It all seemed interesting. It seemed clear to me that the folks who trained killer whales had deep respect and empathy. But the basis of captivity is rooted in, at best, a compromise: our interests over theirs.
    Not long ago while researching my book "Beyond Words," about animals' capacities for thought and emotion, I spent time with free-living killer whales. My views on their captivity changed. I came to believe that orcas should never be held captive. Their natural social groups, the lifelong bonds between mothers and offspring, and their prodigious daily travels — 75 miles in a day is routine — are just too far from anything we can offer in captivity. It's not that keepers don't love them, or are unkind. It's just that whales, their lives, and their minds are too big for captivity.
    My feelings about that came to include captive breeding, a topic about which SeaWorld's management and I disagreed, until I got their announcement that they were in fact ending captive breeding of their orcas.
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    SeaWorld still has about three dozen captive killer whales. Many were born in captivity. Even most people who would love to see them all let go (as I would) realize that you can't simply release huge predators who have never learned to catch fish or hunt seals, who have lived in scattered facilities and so have formed no social grouping, who have learned no migration routes. They have in a real sense been severed from the world.
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    The one captive killer whale who was released, Keiko of "Free Willy" fame, proved that such a whale could find food and travel hundreds of miles. He followed, but never joined, groups of wild whales. But in under two years he was dead.
    Though he died of an infection, I think his aloneness was likely a major factor in his death. In the wild, killer whales always live in families. They help each other hunt and they share food. There is no such thing as a lone killer whale in nature. So we'd want a better way.
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    But what could a better way be? What would "retirement" look like? I and some others would like to see orcas retired to net pens in natural waters. This would be analogous to retirement sanctuaries for elephants and chimpanzees.
    But there are barriers. No one knows whether a group of captives could form family-like bonds sufficient to give them a good chance of free-living success. And learning how to succeed is sure to be expensive; just feeding and caring for killer whales is expensive and they can live 80 years.
    But those are details. Fact is, those who hold killer whales captive are themselves captive to the killer whales they hold. In response to withering criticism, SeaWorld has announced the end of captive breeding. Because they no longer capture orcas, this is really an announcement that they are getting out of the orca business a few decades from now when their captive population dies of old age.
    But why wait, and why engage in a long process of slow attrition? Let us now devise a realistic, humane, properly funded long-term plan for retirement, with the possibility of eventual release for North America's captive killer whales.
    We do owe the era of captivity a debt of gratitude for showing us that, contrary to prior belief, killer whales are in fact highly intelligent, psychologically rich beings. Now let's repay them with what they deserve: life more as they were each made to live it.
    I hope that the humane and conservation and research communities will work with SeaWorld and vice-versa, not as opponents but as partners in a plan to phase out killer whale captivity and open the door to a sensible future. Dear SeaWorld, please join with the conservation community to create a new era for the whales and a new way you can help us appreciate them.