Tag Archives: aquarium

Unexpected Good News is the Best News

I wanted to write about something happy. Something hopeful and uplifting. But for the last couple months, it’s been hard not to feel cynical. What with all the political news, the hate and xenophobia that has infested and captivated all of us whether we’re for it or against it. Even here, on Hanson Island. I quit social media cold turkey for a few days. Every time I logged on I got mad, frustrated, defeated.

But not today. Not tomorrow, probably not for the rest of the week. I needed good news, needed a victory, something to reinstall my faith in humanity. It was SeaWorld of all places, that delivered it. Yesterday the aquarium giant announced an end to the breeding of captive Orcas and “circus style” performances. The finish line is still in the distant future, but at least it’s now visible.

There is of course, a PR spin on this, pivoting around the tenants of “world class care” and “more natural encounters.” We can peruse and scrutinize this is we want, but it’s been clear since the moment that Tilikum grabbed Dawn Brancheau’s ponytail, that SeaWorld couldn’t continue in its current state. Ever since it’s been a gradual slide. From the proposed ending of the circus shows in San Diego, to the “Blue World” proposal. Yesterday, SeaWorld in a way, admitted defeat. Though they’ll never come out and say it, announcing an end to captive breeding and by association, an end to Orca’s in captivity is admitting what animal activists have been saying for years. There is no ethical or conceivable way to keep a massive and intelligent animal in captivity.

Tilikum’s pending death may have had something to do with the announcement. The loss of one of their few breeding males would make the genetic logistics of their breeding program even more difficult and SeaWorld may have been planning for such an announcement. This is all speculation of course. Maybe they looked at their plummeting stocks, attendance records, and a new generation raised on Free Willy and realized there was no future.

But today, I’m not concerned with why SeaWorld is doing what they’re doing, or what their motives were. Today is one of celebration with potential domino effects sweeping across the globe. The end of breeding includes SeaWorld subsidiary Lolo Parque, home to four other Orcas and puts added pressure on the Miami Seaquarium, a small aquarium that is home to  Lolita, a southern Resident who has been in captivity nearly as long as Corky of the northern Residents. Without big brother to hide behind, the spotlight falls more brightly on Miami to, if nothing else, end their performance shows.

With SeaWorld’s focus on low adrenaline and educational shows, the door remains cracked for Corky to come home. After more than 45-years in captivity the prospect of Corky rejoining the A5s and swimming a hundred miles a day seems daunting. But just west of OrcaLab is a long, deep cove called Dong Chong Bay. It was here that Springer, an orphaned and lost Orca was successfully reintroduced to the wild. It would be both poetic and fitting for Corky to live out her days in the bay, chasing wild fish, hearing and associating with her family under the excellent care and attention that SeaWorld has touted for years.

As we celebrate, it’s important to remember the war is not over. Dolphins, Sea Lions, otters, penguins, and polar bears remain large parts of the SeaWorld empire. And while Orcas have deserved the lion’s share of the activism and spotlight, the time has come to tell them that more can be done. The dolphin trade remains one of the more despicable and darker aspects of human kind, with the dolphins life in captivity no better than the Orcas.

I never thought this day would come. I assumed SeaWorld would go down with the ship, beating the drum of education and quality care until they disappeared from existence. But, out of nowhere, they did the right thing. And for that they need to be applauded, commended, and encouraged to do more.

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Envisioning a Happy Ending for Lolita

For the past few days my facebook feed has been inundated with posts concerning the protest on the behalf of Lolita, the imprisoned southern Resident orca at the Miami Seaquarium. The activism and awareness spurred from the documentary Blackfish continues to gain momentum and the pressure continues to mount on those that guard the tanks.

The scene of Lolita breaching in cold north pacific waters surrounded by her family, the San Juan islands in the background is certainly a powerful, and romantic one. An image and ending almost too good to be true. Yet we are many steps away from that reality, and on borrowed time.

The conversation unfortunately begins and ends with those that, for legal purposes, “own” Lolita. The proposals seem to be gravitating toward the idea of the aquarium deciding that the time has come to retire Lolita from the show business as a way of thanking her for her decades as a forced laborer. Some have suggested the positive media coverage would offset the loss of those that attend the aquarium solely to see the orca. It would be an incredible gesture, and sadly, a dramatic change in philosophy. She remains a massive source of income for them and it seems unlikely they would willingly part with her.

Just last year a U.S district judge threw out a case proposed by the orca network, PETA, and others protesting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) renewal of the aquarium’s license. Claiming that the marine parks tank was too small and in violation of the USDAs standards. The case was dismissed as the judge determined the animal welfare act (AMA) did not specify requirements for those already holding USDA permits. It is a frustrating and despicable minefield of red tape and bureaucracy that now seems firmly on the aquarium’s side. There appears to be no hope in the near future of government intervention forcing the release of Lolita.

Meanwhile National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is proposing Lolita be included in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since she remains a member of the Southern Resident Population. Public comment closes on the 24th of this month, if she does indeed qualify as a protected member of the population, the hope is that she would no longer be allowed to be used as a revenue stream. Should the motion pass, I’m confident the aquarium would fight tooth and nail to ensure that she remains where she is. A long legal battle would probably ensue, where, as we know, the system moves very slowly. The courts have already sided with the aquarium once for much flimsier reasons and I’m hesitant to believe that they would redeem themselves this time. I pray I’m wrong.

Which leads us back to the aquarium doing it on their own. Yes, Sea World stock is plummeting, marine park public opinion is at an all time low, and yet, Sea World’s response seems to be to throw more money at the problem and I imagine Miami’s response would be the same. It continues to confound me what my fellow man will do for profit but it is most likely the only voice that they will answer to. We must continue to ensure that revenue continues to fall, in hopes that they realize they must cut their losses and salvage what public opinion they can. They must reach a point however, where the cost of keeping Lolita is higher than what she brings in. It feels so taboo, dishonorable to make Lolilta’s case come down to money, but I fear it’s the only outcome with a happy ending.

So we will protest, we will hold signs and picket. Give copies of Blackfish to our friends that continue to attend the parks. Support animal advocacy groups, volunteer, and write our congressmen. Real change is happening and I pray that it comes before it is too late for Lolita, Corky, and the others.

The best case scenario may be a net pen, the waters of Juan de Fuca on her skin. After forty years of swimming in slow circles, it would be a miracle to see her travel hundreds of miles with her natal pod. She could hear the calls of her family, her relatives, and maybe remember what it means to be a wild whale after all these years. It’s hard to admit that she may have changed irrevocably, who wouldn’t after all those years alone. I may never buy a ticket to an aquarium, but would happily hand over my money to stand on the shore and see her in a cove, on the open water. No corny music, no tricks, no bleachers, no applause. Just a whale trying to be a whale again, chasing fish, and vocalizing without fear of the calls echoing off concrete walls. And know that the age of captivity, is coming to an end.