The horribly tragic death of an animal trainer at Sea World in Florida has seemingly brought every "Free Willy" activist out of the woodwork today. Including Dr. Naomi Rose, HSUS's resident marine mammal scientist.
Here's Naomi, in an HSUS press release:
Tillikum, the SeaWorld orca, has now been involved in the deaths of three people. Using these animals in entertainment is not good for animals or people. Sadly, we've seen evidence of that again today. Whales and dolphins are … unsuited to permanent confinement, often exhibiting neurotic behaviors in these settings. Capture methods are also inhumane, and often not adequately managed or overseen."
On the other side of the debate is … well, pretty much everyone who goes to Sea World, the veterinarians who work there, and parents everywhere who want their kids to see what killer whales look like without paying for a pleasure cruise to the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in British Columbia (to name one of very few places you could go…)
Dr. Jim McBain and Brad Andrews, both of Sea World, gave an interview to PBS's Frontline in 1997. It's not clear which of them is speaking here, but their point resonates with us:
I think that as our population becomes more and more crowded, more people are urbanized, if you will, there's less natural contact with animals living in the wild. I don't think that it's rational for us to assume that people are going to be able to get experiences with wild animals by all going into the wild, there's too many of us, we'll destroy what little habitat is left by trying to do that.
I actually calculated once how many boat trips it would take to take all the Sea World guests that come to Sea World each year out to sea killer whales at Robson Bight, and it was over two thousand boat trips a day [that] would have to go out of Robson Bight. Well that would be ludicrous.
So I think the mandate for the future , if want a public that's knowledgeable about wild animals and has some sensitivity about them, if we want our children to have a chance to see many of these animals, it's gonna have to be in places like Sea World and the rest of the zoos in the world. These are gonna be the places where people are gonna be able to get in touch with nature without destroying habitat.
We've been informed today by a marine biologist who prefers to remain anonymous that until killer whales were studied in captivity, scientists didn't know basic things like the length of their gestation periods, the structure of their gross anatomy, and the behavior of mating pairs. For one thing, we imagine knowing how long a killer whale's pregnancy lasts would be pretty crucial if you're trying to figure out how to maintain a sustainable population in the wild.
As people, we're saddened by the loss of life at Sea World today. But we hope that the next generation—and their kids after that—will be able to see "Shamu" in the future. It's easy to overreact to a statistical anomaly and believe (incorrectly) that every captive killer whale poses a danger to every marine mammal trainer. Going that route is like arguing for the abolition of airline travel every time there's a plane crash. Or lowering the speed limit to 10 miles per hour every time an SUV flips over on the freeway. Or … we think you get the idea.
And if you think we're dismissing the whole "animal liberation" argument, that's because we are.
Let's just say every killer whale in captivity were released back into the ocean. Here's what would happen next:
Doesn't HSUS complain when people kill seals? Why aren't the activists pestering the killer whales? It's not like no one knows where they live. And they're not going anywhere.