Comment: Criticism of SeaWorld is more philosophical than scientific

Peta should campaign to protect natural habitats, says Attraction Tickets Direct chief executive Oliver Brendon

BA Holidays, Virgin Holidays, TripAdvisor (Viator) have all recently announced they will no longer be selling SeaWorld tickets.  Before them, Thomas Cook adopted this policy. No doubt, all these companies were under pressure to do so from organisations such as PETA and The Born Free Foundation – as is my own company at the moment.

The objectives of those organisations are sound and something that all right-minded people can support, namely that all wild animals, whether living in captivity or in the wild, should be treated with compassion and respect. Some of their campaigns, such as exposing the horrific practices of the fur industry in Russia and the illegal trade in rare, wild animals, have been successful and justified.

Moreover, I think the pressure they helped put on SeaWorld to stop its orca breeding programme and expose its practice of taking whales from the wild in the 1970s were also justified. One must bear in mind that attitudes towards the environment and animal welfare were very different forty and fifty years ago.

In the 1960s for example, The Canadian Fisheries Service settled on the solution of mounting machine guns on fishing boats to alleviate troublesome killer whales from competing for their catch.

The current debate about whether SeaWorld could or should re-locate dolphins and orcas to ‘sanctuaries’ and whether companies such as mine should stop selling SeaWorld tickets is multi-layered and complex.

The debate is often fuelled by emotion rather than information and there is a tendency for consumers, and companies, to jump on the latest eco bandwagon without due consideration or an understanding of unintended consequences and without gathering all necessary facts.

With all this in mind, I visited SeaWorld and met their chief zoological officer and head of rescue to learn more about their animal welfare work and animal rescue policies and to ask about some of the accusations PETA has made.

SeaWorld rescues injured animals 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They never say no to a rescue, whatever the cost. In total, they have rescued over 36,000 animals, including 706 manatees and more than 500 dolphins. All the rescued manatees, and many of the rescued dolphins, have been successfully released back into the wild. Indeed, the population of wild manatees in Florida is currently over 6,000 and has nearly doubled over the last decade due in large part to SeaWorld’s dedicated rescue and release work.

Eighty percent of their dolphin interventions in the wild end with the dolphin being released on site.  The day before my visit, the SeaWorld team rescued and released a mother and baby dolphin caught in fishing line who would have otherwise have died.

Despite speculation in the press, SeaWorld do not rescue animals from the wild to use for entertainment purposes. I witnessed baby, orphaned manatees which SeaWorld will nurse for three years before releasing back into the wild.  The baby manatees require feeding every three hours and the passionate SeaWorld carers work through the night to ensure the manatees survive and thrive. They have developed a milk formula that is a 98 per cent match to natural manatee mothers’ milk.

As you might imagine, this isn’t a cheap exercise. Each dolphin rescue and release costs $250,000, for example. It is the revenue from the commercial arm of SeaWorld Parks that pays for the rescue and rehabilitation programmes.

How does SeaWorld carry out its rescue and rehabilitation work so successfully? Partly through observation of, and interaction with, the animals born and kept in captivity. Knowledge helps rescue; the animals in captivity are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. The scientific research on marine mammals SeaWorld has conducted over the last fifty years has helped them rescue and rehabilitate wild animals and to lobby the fishing industry to be more dolphin friendly. Ironically, that research is used by the likes of PETA as evidence to attack SeaWorld.

SeaWorld receives accreditation from and is a member of every zoological and marine mammal governing body – EAAM, AZA, WAZA and AMMPA.  Fewer than 10% of zoos and aquariums in the US receive this level of accreditation.  SeaWorld also opts-in to inspections from American Humane which has been committed to animal welfare since 1877.

After recent criticism from Peta about dolphin welfare, SeaWorld invited American Humane to inspect the welfare of their dolphins and the report stated that they were a hundred per cent healthy, extremely well treated and on a par with wild dolphins.

Peta’s main question is asking why SeaWorld doesn’t now release the marine mammals. The answer is another question: ‘release them where?’. It is accepted by all animal welfare organisations (including Peta) that dolphins and orcas born in captivity cannot be released into the wild. They would not survive because there is too much pollution (including plastic in the ocean) and sea temperatures are unpredictable (thanks to global warming). Plus, they do not have the skills to hunt fish.

Even if they did, there is a severe shortage of fish in the sea due to over-fishing. Sanctuaries are touted as the best viable option.  Some do exist but calling them all ‘sanctuaries’ creates an image of large open spaces which is false. ‘Pens’ would be more accurate. In these pens, marine mammals would still be in captivity but exposed to pollution and erratic sea temperatures, and often without the necessary ongoing care animals born in captivity require.

There is a new sanctuary in Klettsvik Bay, Iceland, that has been developed by SeaLife where two whales from the Shanghai aquarium were flown and driven to – a huge ordeal itself. After concerns about the sea temperature, the whales are currently in tanks that are smaller than those in which they were being held in Shanghai. It is not clear whether the whales have ever made it into the bay but there are no first-hand reports of any sightings.

The same bay was previously home to the orca Keiko from the Free Willy franchise who was released in 2002 but died of pneumonia 18 months later. Moving orcas born in captivity to pens or sanctuaries has potential but is untested both in terms of animal welfare and cost. Who is going to maintain and pay for these sanctuaries for 50 years or more? Tourism and whale watching can – in theory – help to fund the sanctuaries, but that virtually takes us back to the current position of tourists viewing whales in captivity.

Viewing whales in the wild is often seen as the more ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to accredited aquariums such as SeaWorld, but the majority of whale watching tours do not keep the required 200 metres or 500 metres from orca pods and can do enormous harm by encroaching on them. The Vancouver Sun reported in March 2019 about a pod of orcas that were “mobbed like celebrities, with an average of 20 boats tracking them at any given moment… making it difficult for them to feed when they are literally starving.”

When looked at in detail, the arguments against SeaWorld and recommendations for the relocation of captive orcas and dolphins are more philosophical than scientific. The main reason for not supporting the attack on SeaWorld, or any other regulated and compassionate zoo or marine park, is that the criticism, in terms of focus, effort and cost, is mis-directed.

Organisations such as PETA should be campaigning to protect and improve natural habitats since the current wildlife annihilation rate suggests the only place where we’ll be able to see wild animals in the future will be in the zoos and aquariums they are campaigning to shut down.

The Living Planet Index produced for the WWF by the Zoological Society of London estimates that wildlife populations fell by 60% between 1970 and 2014. The world has begun its sixth mass extinction, the first to be caused by a species – homo sapiens.  Humankind has destroyed 83% of all mammals, and half of plants, since the dawn of civilisation. Environmental and animal welfare campaigning needs to focus on these problems.

There is real urgency for worldwide regulation to reduce single-use plastic, dissuade people from buying single-wear clothing, convince people to eat less meat and to reduce their carbon footprint. In comparison to these mammoth and urgent challenges like plastic in the ocean, the disappearing Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon burning, campaigning for companies such as mine to stop selling SeaWorld tickets is misplaced, misinformed and misguided.

If people from PETA don’t want to see marine mammals in captivity at SeaWorld, that is, of course, their choice as it is everyone’s. But their campaigns, essentially telling organisations such as mine that ‘if you sell SeaWorld or work for SeaWorld, you do not care for animals’, is simply wrong.

In 2017, my company spent four months auditing the products we sell and evaluating suppliers to adopt a balanced animal welfare policy which we review regularly.

If I were going to criticise SeaWorld for anything, it certainly wouldn’t be for animal welfare. Quite the opposite actually, as their work in animal rescue is quite remarkable. Could they improve their reliance on single-use plastic? Yes.  Could they reduce their carbon footprint? Yes. We all could, and we all should in order to protect the natural environment for wild animals.

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