opinion about the practices of Seaworld and other oceanariums

From: Howard Garrett (tokitae@pugetsound.net)
Date: Wed May 16 2001 - 19:50:56 EDT

Dear Mr. Garrett,
Hi! How are you? My name is Catherine, and I am a 19 year old sophomore
studying Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida. I am really
interested in pursuing a career involved in the study of marine mammals.
...my ultimate goal is to have a career
studying orcas and other whales. In fact, I have always wanted to be a
trainer at Seaworld, in order to be able to work up close with such
fascinating animals. I realize now, however, from reading up a little on the
cases of Lolita and Corky, that captivity may not be the best plan of action
when it comes to the study of whales. As an experienced scientist, what is
your opinion about the practices of Seaworld and other oceanariums, and why
do you feel this way? Also, aside from that issue, what would be the best
way for me to get some experience in the marine mammal field?...

Catherine Barnett

what is your opinion about the practices of Seaworld and other oceanariums...

        Of course you've touched upon a controversial topic, because Seaworld,
like any large corporation, employs a great many people who are loyal to
its practices, and Seaworld is especially involved in influencing public
opinion to support its operations. But you asked, and I respect your quest
for information. In my humble opinion, Seaworld performed a valuable
service to humanity and to marine life in the context of our understanding
of whales and marine habitats of thirty years ago. Orcas were feared and
despised and were routinely shot by military personnel and any individual
who had the opportunity. To this day it is common for fishermen from Norway
and Japan and other nations to eradicate orcas as competitors for fish.
Just a few weeks ago four orcas from a pod of six were reportedly killed by
a fisherman in St. Vincent in the Caribbean.

        By 1965 the first trained captive orcas, Namu and Shamu, showed the world
how personable and cooperative they can be. Almost thirty years ago field
studies began that soon showed how tightly bonded orca families are and how
highly developed and complex their social systems are. Now we know there
are many orca cultures worldwide, exhibiting a wide variety of social
adaptations, as well as diets, habitat usage and even languages, though I
realize such a claim calls for scientific support, which there is not time
or space for here.

        At any rate, as a society we have learned a great deal about orcas and
other dolphins in the past 30 years that gives us a new context by which to
judge the animals, and an appreciation and respect for their highly evolved
lifestyles. Given this new understanding, the marine park setting, in which
they are considered commodities separate from their habitat and social and
family identities, in which they are required to perform show routines and
shipped around the world to maximize ticket sales, seems anachronistic,
thoughtless and even cruel, once we conceptually allow that the animals are
self-aware and feel emotional bonds toward their family members.
        The marine park industry has not evolved in its perceptions along with the
rest of society. Instead, as a lucrative and authoritative industry, it has
attempted to put a lid on the public's growing understanding of the
animals, to hold our image of orcas to 1970 levels, by means of a variety
of controls over the media, legislative processes, and the scientific
community. Seaworld practices advanced techniques to solve the problems of
maintaining a viable "collection" of performing animals in captivity in
spite of significantly higher mortality rates in captivity and the
political impossibility of further captures. The recent success in
artificial insemination at Seaworld San Antonio is an example. But in terms
of interpreting the accumulating body of scientific knowledge of Orcinus
orca, Seaworld is desperately trying to hold back the clock. If you should
choose to work for Seaworld, simply be advised that there is much you will
not be allowed to learn.

...and why do you feel this way?

        Because that's where the evidence leads, and because I believe we have a
moral obligation to appreciate and respect the natural history of marine
life and other life as revealed by science.

what would be the best way for me to get some experience in the marine
mammal field?

        First, educate yourself in any way possible. One of the most knowledgable
field researchers for the Center for Whale Research, conducting demographic
studies of the Southern Resident orca community, had virtually memorized
nearly every word and photograph in the early edition of Killer Whales, by
Bigg, Ford, Ellis and Balcomb, before he ever saw a whale. In addition to
the obvious, like marine biology, learn about conservation ecology and
bioaccoustics, along with anthropology, sociology or linguistics, to equip
yourself for scientific inquiries to come. With comprehensive knowledge you
become valuable to researchers. Then it's a matter of reaching out and
finding opportunities to get to work. If possible, attend the biennial
conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy in Vancouver in November,
2001, to get a sense of the projects now underway. I wish you the best of luck.

Howard Garrett
Orca Conservancy
2403 So. North Bluff Rd.
Greenbank WA 98253
(360) 678-3451

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