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There were loud, petulant hecklers. There were binders full of killer whale charts. There was an extended sidebar on orca feces. Basically all the ingredients for a solid night weighing SeaWorld’s footprint in San Diego, and its treatment of the whales that have catapulted from center stage at the park to the center stage of a tense political showdown.
On Thursday night, Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis and I sat down with SeaWorld killer whale trainer Kristi Burtis and Todd Robeck, head of the company’s breeding program, plus Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute and professor Susan Gray Davis, who’s researched the park’s business model.
SeaWorld has mostly sidestepped big public discussions of the critical film “Blackfish” or its business practices so our event provided a rare chance to navigate the fallout from the movie and the big questions surrounding it. The audience – particularly those critical of SeaWorld – chimed in repeatedly throughout the event too, some outbursts more respectful than others.
SeaWorld itself is a visual spectacle, so maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when Robeck brought a thick binder on stage, and pulled out at least three oversized charts to display some of SeaWorld’s killer whale research.
He used two large charts to compare the life cycles of SeaWorld’s killer whales with that of those in the wild.
“Their longevity has been worse in the past, absolutely, but we have shown a steady increase in longevity of captive killer whales,” Robeck said. He said SeaWorld’s survival rates for its orcas now are at least as good as those in the wild.
Rose said the evolution reflected early deaths that never should have happened.
“This is an experiment and those are your experimental results and they are improving and that’s to be lauded but the fact is that that curve represents a lot of animals that have died that should not have died,” she said.
Robeck called Rose’s characterization “a little rough” and noted that survival rate improvements take years to manifest.
Killer whales live long lives in the wild, Rose replied, and if captive killer whales aren’t surviving at least as long or longer then orca captivity clearly hasn’t succeeded.
“This has been 50 years’ worth of work,” Rose said.
One of the most visible differences between killer whales in the wild and those in captivity are the collapsed dorsal fins that many orcas at SeaWorld have developed.
Early in the night, Rose claimed SeaWorld’s explanation of the condition is misleading.
Robeck and Rose spent plenty of time quibbling over the research, and how it’s been cited, but they agreed on one thing: The collapsed dorsal fin isn’t a health issue. It’s a result of the differences between life in captivity and life in the wild.
“It has to do with the way adult males get huge dorsal fins and their lifestyle is really what we’re talking about,” Robeck said. “I mean, in zoos and aquariums their lifestyle is not the same that they’re going to have in the wild. There’s absolutely no way that you could replicate that.”
Robeck repeatedly argued that SeaWorld’s killer whales provide invaluable data that researchers can use to help orcas in the wild.
“This population is one of the only populations that can provide information that can benefit the animals in the wild, and as Dr. Rose mentioned earlier, the wild is not pretty. It’s getting worse all the time,” he said. “What’s gonna happen if we need to answer questions that maybe we don’t even know right now?”
For instance, Robeck said, researchers are collecting orca feces and studying their hormone levels. “Wouldn’t it be great if you had an animal you could collect feces from and actually measure, and look repeatedly, at what’s going on from a serum, from a blood sample standpoint and correlate it with the feces?” he said. “What a great way to benefit wild animals.”
The SeaWorld panelists hailed the advantages of holding orcas in captivity, so I asked Rose if she saw any.
Turns out she does – sort of.
“Oh absolutely. Back in the ’60s the situation was pretty grim for these animals. They were being shot at by fishermen … They were believed to be, you know, sort of ruthless, mindless killers. There was a situation up where I did my dissertation work where they were gonna set up a machine gun and take ’em out.”
(Yes, this actually was discussed in 1960 after some British Columbians decided orcas in the area were eating too much salmon.)
So captivity helped people see that killer whales were social, friendly creates, Rose said.
But she believes those benefits have faded.
“I don’t deny that there was a value initially but I think very rapidly the work in the wild caught up and we recognized things about their natural history and their culture and their physiology that by the ’90s led us to believe as biologists that there were costs, heavy costs welfare costs to having them in captivity and now 20 years from then a lot of my colleagues are realizing it’s time to stop this because, again, 50 years is plenty enough time to decide whether you can do this,” Rose said.
Robeck teared up as he gave his closing remarks.
“We are truly the advocates of these animals. Everyone that works there is dedicated to them,” Robeck said, pausing as he choked up with emotion.
Some audience members accused Robeck of putting on a show. One called out, “Dr. Rose dedicates her life too!”
“Absolutely. Absolutely Dr. Rose does too,” Robeck responded. “She’s as passionate as I am. We just have a difference of opinion, OK? Everybody that works at SeaWorld is the advocate of an animal that is part of their family and these animals are doing well. And I can guarantee you, if they weren’t doing well, you would have a mass exodus of veterinarians, animal trainers, activists … they would be with Dr. Rose but they’re not.”