SeaWorld Makes a Strange Case for Orca Breeding

Science/Environment UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Let's Talk About Whale Sex – and SeaWorld's Fight for Their Right to Have It

Has the government really stuck its nose into the bedrooms of orcas? An investigation. Or deep dive, if you will.

When the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to give SeaWorld its permit for its new Blue World project in San Diego – an expansion of its orca enclosure – it attached some draconian conditions.

If SeaWorld accepted the permit, it had to agree not to breed its killer whales and not to transfer them into the park from other places.

It would set a timer ticking off the years to the end of SeaWorld’s orca program. Its identity for decades – Shamu – would end probably before my children have children of their own.

The company can’t accept that and will sue the Coastal Commission. If it does not prevail, SeaWorld will face an existential crisis unlike anything since “Blackfish” began running relentlessly on CNN.

Leave it to journalists to make this compelling civic drama about sex.

“The Coastal Commission’s dubious decision to ban whale sex at SeaWorld,” read the headline of the U-T’s astonished editorial. The paper didn’t just go with this once, but twice. “Whale sex ban spurs mockery of Coastal Commission,” was CalWatchdog’s version.

I had to check this out. Conservative anti-government rhetoric had itself mated with animal rights passions to produce a new alarmist baby: Government regulators were trying to put chastity belts on these poor, captive animals.

Was it true? Had government really stuck its nose into the bedrooms of orcas?

As I tried to figure it out, I realized the first question I had to answer was different: Are the animals even having sex now?

Turns out, they are.

The last orca calf born at SeaWorld, in fact, is Amaya. She’s the product of sex between her father, Ulises, and mother, Kalia. Ulises and Kalia were a good match, and SeaWorld veterinarians gave them every opportunity to do it. They apparently did do it – a lot.

So, yes “whale sex,” as the U-T put it, is going on.

It’s even happening when the whales don’t want it. The company was so worried Ulises and Kalia wouldn’t get the job done, it got some of Ulises’s sperm and artificially inseminated Kalia just to make sure it worked. Four of the 32 whales born at SeaWorld were the products of artificial insemination. (Though SeaWorld believes Amaya came from actual intercourse.)

Like any zoological entity, SeaWorld already tightly controls breeding. If we were worried about Ulises and Kalia’s freedom to have sex, we should have been worried some time ago – years before the Coastal Commission vote.

SeaWorld cannot let the orcas go with their urges. It has to protect the genetic diversity of its population.

Things can go very wrong when it doesn’t. Here’s how SeaWorld describes one unfortunate occurrence of inbreeding.

We had one instance with a young male, Taku, living with his mother, Katina. Taku had become sexually mature at an unexpectedly early age. While the calf, Nalani, is alive, healthy and thriving at SeaWorld Orlando, this type of rare close breeding doesn’t promote a genetically diverse population.

That’s a long way of saying that Nalani is now living with her mother, who is also her grandmother.

In San Diego, the orca Kasatka has two sons, Nakai and Makani. I would bet they aren’t allowed to be around their mother when she is fertile.

“As part of killer whale management program, we will use short-term separations, approximately five days, when females are in estrus,” wrote David Koontz, SeaWorld’s spokesman, in an email to me.

The company monitors the females’ urine obsessively to keep track of their cycles. It might be fair to say that SeaWorld has already banned females from having sex – at least when they might do it with their sons. Talk about Big Brother.

And, yes, they administer birth control.

“Short term birth control with oral progesterones (similar to those used in horses and other animals) is possible, and our veterinarians will prescribe it for the whales occasionally,” reads an answer at AskSeaWorld.com, an official site for the company’s outreach efforts.

So if they wanted to stop breeding, they could. But then I remembered the first thing SeaWorld sent me when I inquired about this ban on whale sex.

It was the speech that Dr. Hendrik Nollens, a SeaWorld veterinarian, gave to the Coastal Commission.

Nollens said there is no permanent birth control available for the orcas. Long-term oral contraception, he said, has never been used and would be experimental. It’s caused fatal side effects in other species. Also, there is no technology to put the orcas under anesthesia so SeaWorld vets can’t neuter or spay them.

Though a SeaWorld representative said the company already uses birth control and already separates females when they are cycling, they would still have to permanently separate the males and females in order to meet the Coastal Commission’s mandate.

It’s not necessarily a ban on whale sex, then, but SeaWorld says it could result in no whale sex.

But that wasn’t even the main argument for why what the Coastal Commission has done is such a grave injustice. That comes here:

“The whales are thriving because they are reproducing,” Nollens said in his speech. “Those years where a calf is dependent are the years with the closest bond a whale ever experiences. Depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is quite simply inhumane.”

This is a compelling point.

But look at it again: the “right to reproduce.” Of all the arguments SeaWorld could have chosen to make its case that its breeding program in San Diego must continue, it chose an animal rights claim.

Why would a SeaWorld veterinarian single out highly regulated – sometimes forced – reproduction as the one right SeaWorld must protect at all costs?

It might be that this particular right is crucial to the long-term business plan for the company. Other rights – like the freedom to swim for a long distance in a straight line – would be more inconvenient.

SeaWorld may win this battle and prove that the Coastal Commission overstepped its boundaries when it tried to end the breeding program – that it was, indeed, “a dubious decision to ban whale sex.”

But they will lose the war if, to do it, they have to prove that these animals have rights and we keep asking what, exactly, those rights are.

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