Tag Archives: captivity

Sea World, Blue World, Where in the World do we Go From Here?

After much posturing, debating, and protesting, the end of Sea World is in sight… kind of. Last week, the California Coastal Commission approved Sea World’s new “Blue World” expansion which would nearly double the size of the orca’s pools at the San Diego location. Approval comes with an enormous catch, Sea World would be forbidden from breeding orcas of wild lineage or housing more than 15 orcas in the new pools. We’ll bypass Sea World’s bleats about depriving the whales of their right to breed as “inhumane and unnatural” (nothing more natural than artificial insemination) to avoid the risk of choking on irony, and discuss where Sea World, and its opponents go from here.

“It’ll all be over in a few decades,” I thought. But rereading the Commissions vague restrictions I had more questions than answers. Sea World can build the tanks, but it cannot be populated with whales containing genetic material from wild whales or whales captured in the wild. Every Sea World orca, at least that I can find, has at least a grandparent of captive origin. The DNA of free whales runs through the veins of every whale in those pools. Technically, no one qualifies for the Blue World pool.

What the commission is implying I believe, is no offspring whose parents were born in the wild can reside in the new enclosure. No sons or daughters of Tillikum or Corky. Second generation, captive born whales would qualify for the new enclosure is my understanding. Which raises even more questions. For example, what does Sea World do with Corky, the northern Resident female from A5 pod who was captured in 1969? If wild caught orcas don’t qualify, Sea World would be looking at transporting her across country to Orlando or San Antonio. As would her tank mates Orkid, Ulises, Kasatka, Nakai, Ikaika, Keet, and Shouka. A massive whale shuffle would be on Sea World’s hands to move captive born animals to San Diego.

But the ruling also prohibits the trade or transfer of whales to and from the park. Does this include transfer of whales between San Diego and the other two locations? No article that I could find specifies. But if you cannot move any whales in or out of the San Diego location, why the stipulation on the genetics? The ruling needs more specificity before Sea World or animal rights activists can truly claim victory.

We have tragically reached a point where most of these whales cannot go home. For many, Sea World is the closest thing they’ll have. A cocktail of Icelandic, Resident, and even Transient have been stirred into the genetic cauldron leaving many of the park’s inhabitants with no identity. Refugees of the natural world. While the argument can rage about how Corky or Tillikum would fare if they were returned, there is no such case for the majority of Sea World’s prisoners. Where does an Icelandic/Resident mix go? And what pod would even consider accepting this man made whale Frankenstein?

The Commissions ruling is a ray of hope. It may not lead to the quick death of orca exploitation, but it’s a step in the right direction. I would love to see a more concise ruling on what Sea World can and cannot do with the additional 4 million gallons of tank they wish to build. If it means that those eleven whales in San Diego are the last ones that have to endure captivity on the west coast, fantastic. Maybe Sea World would even try to save face and agree to a net pen retirement for Corky. But if all it means is that Sea World has to shuffle whales a little more across the country, than little has been done but increase the number of mom and calf separations.

Sea World is slowly fading, but they’ve made it clear that they will not go quietly. An appeal will probably emerge, we’ll hear more about how wonderfully they treat their animals, and ticket sales will continue to drop. Let us continue to diplomatically educate those that buy tickets and boycott those that sponsor them (No Budweiser till Corky’s out!). The animal rights movement has moved at an exponential pace the past few years and I can’t wait to see where it leads next.

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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.

Orcas’ Love the Beatles Too: My First Trip to Hanson Island. Part: 2

Car after car drove slowly by, rolling to a stop at the ticket window, the line slowly growing until at least ten cars were waiting to catch the evening ferry from Port McNeil to Alert Bay. I was consciously aware that any car could have Paul Spong behind the wheel, and my lack of preparation was embarrassing. Briefly I considered just walking up to the counter and asking if they knew the good doctor. But some piece of pride, the same piece that insisted on camping on the ground with hungry cougars prowling about kept my butt firmly on my bag.

I stared into each car, in what I’m sure was a very creepy manner, trying to make out a silhouette, as if he’d be holding a sign to the window announcing: “Dr. Paul Spong! Orca Guy! All lost kids from Alaska please follow me!” I gave up trying to see inside the cars and instead started to wonder, “what sort of car would Paul Spong drive?”

Born in New Zealand, he’d earned a P.H.D in the neurological field at UCLA, and moved to Canada in the 70’s to take a position at the University of British Columbia. Part of the contract involved doing work with Skana, one of the first orcas to be successfully captured and was being kept at the Vancouver Aquarium. Paul devised a simple experiment intended to measure the visual acuity of the giant mammal. But his life changed forever when, after thousands of trials, Skana began to give the wrong answers. Not randomly, but one hundred percent incorrect.

For the first time, Paul found himself the subject or the experiment and he was enthralled. His workload piling up at the lab, he couldn’t pull himself away from the whale. He quickly learned that auditory stimulation was a much greater reward for Skana than food. What came in the following months was a melody of tunes as Paul played everything from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Bach. Skana loved them all. Paul was forced to accept that Skana was much more intelligent than any other terrestrial mammal he’d come in contact with. She was almost certainly, going crazy in her little pool, her calls reverberating and echoing off the concrete walls, with just a few humans for company. Capable of speeds up to 30 knots, Skana was resigned to swimming in slow circles day after day. It was apparent to Paul what needed to be done: Skana needed to go home.

But when he did present his findings, a storm of controversy followed at the aquarium. They didn’t want Skana to be a sentient intelligent being. They wanted the equivalent of an aquatic dog that would do tricks and keep people coming through the turnstiles. Paul was quickly becoming public enemy number one and was finally given an ultimatum: “you can check into a psychiatric ward willingly or not.”Undaunted by his controversial findings (orcas were at the time considered little more than mindless killing machines), Paul walked out the door. Within months, he found what he was looking for. Wild and free orcas to follow and study, in their natural habitat.

Now, 30 years later, he was driving onto the Port McNeil ferry for what to be the thousandth time while I was desperately trying to decipher, what kind of car a pioneer in the world of orca research would drive. Finally an old slightly rusted Subaru looking car pulled onto the pier, every seat save the drivers’ was stuffed with boxes so high, I couldn’t see inside at all. There was something about it though, the character, the age, or just the fact that I couldn’t imagine Paul driving a huge lifted pickup with a bunch of logs in the back that convinced me.

The car stopped thirty feet in front of me. I walked over just as Paul got out to hand his ticket to the teller, “You’re Paul Spong aren’t you?” I asked. He turned and looked up at me.

“He’s shorter than I thought.” Was the first thought that crossed my mind.

“I’m sorry, do I know you,” he asked. For the briefest moment my stomach fell. There’d been a miscommunication, I wasn’t supposed to come, I had the wrong guy, I’d braved Cinnabon, the bus station, and cougars for nothing. But a look of recognition crossed his face, “Oh that’s right, you’re David, yes?” I smiled, and felt the jittery weak kneed feeling you get when you shake the hand of your hero.

“Yea Paul, I’m David, it’s great to meet you. I can’t believe I’m here.”