To Keep or Not to Keep: Cetacean Captivity Conversation Catches Fire

As recently as five years ago, big corporations doing business with dolphinariums (such as soft drink companies, tourism agencies, or airlines) would never have agreed to openly address the controversy surrounding captive cetacean welfare. That controversy was taking place on the fringes of society and there was no need to acknowledge it. Even more improbable would have been any engagement in the discussion by SeaWorld, the primary facility holding these charismatic marine mammals. SeaWorld would have ignored—not declined, but simply ignored—any request to debate the issue in public.

Fast forward to today and both of these once unlikely events have occurred, four-and-a-half years after the horrific death of veteran orca trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando. Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound captive orca who had killed humans twice before. Her death triggered a chain of events—including the release of the documentary Blackfish—that ushered in a world where the debate on captive orcas at least is now solidly mainstream.

From June 3–4, three entities within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group—Virgin Holidays, Virgin Management, and Virgin Unite (the Group’s charitable arm)—held a stakeholder meeting in Miami to discuss the future of tourism as it relates to facilities displaying captive cetaceans, and Virgin’s role as a leader in responsible business. Earlier this year, Virgin Holidays announced it would ask its suppliers to take a pledge: to no longer capture cetaceans or acquire any wild-captured cetaceans. The meeting in Miami was part of Virgin’s effort to implement this pledge by September 2014.

A SeaWorld representative was at the table, as were representatives of several other dolphinariums. Representatives of five animal protection non-profits were also present. Virgin was not trying to facilitate any kind of agreement among the parties, but rather was seeking input from a range of views to inform its own decisions. AWI is hopeful that this forward-thinking effort by a large, prominent corporate player in the tourism sector will lead to advances in the fight to protect these intelligent, social species currently held in dolphinariums.

One day after this historic meeting in Miami, another historic event took place in San Diego. SeaWorld agreed to a public debate on captive orca welfare. The event was organized by the Voice of San Diego (VOSD), an online non-profit news organization. Dr. Todd Robeck, one of SeaWorld’s veterinarians, and Kristi Burtis, one of its senior trainers, engaged in a two-hour discussion with Dr. Susan G. Davis, author of Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the SeaWorld Experience; Dr. Naomi Rose of AWI; and two VOSD moderators. There were perhaps 350 people in the audience, along with several hundred more watching live online.

During the debate, SeaWorld’s representatives tried to use science to justify what happens to captive orcas. As an example, they referred to two recently published papers on wild orcas with worn teeth, to suggest that the worn and broken teeth of captive orcas are a “natural” phenomenon. Dr. Rose, however, clarified that orcas who eat sharks (whose skin is sandpaper rough) or suction-feed on fish are not comparable to captive orcas, who are hand-fed dead fish without the scales or skin ever coming into contact with the animals’ teeth. Dental health in captive orcas is poor because they neurotically and stereotypically chew on concrete walls and metal gates, not because of the characteristics of their food or feeding habits.

Despite SeaWorld’s standard claim that the majority of Americans still support orca display (a claim countered by national poll results (see, the company must recognize the world is different post-Blackfish—it would not have agreed to participate in the VOSD event otherwise. Change is coming.