Pink, SeaWorld Battle Over Killer Whale Captivity
Pink has weighed in on the polarizing debate involving SeaWorld and its housing of killer whales, with the singer and animal rights activist e-mailing the company: “When will SeaWorld transfer its orcas and other marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries to save them – and itself?”
The pop star sent the letter to SeaWorld CEO John Reilly on behalf of the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In the past, Jessica Biel, Pamela Anderson and Gillian Anderson have all attended SeaWorld meetings on behalf of PETA.
Pink’s question includes a passionate plea for the marine life that she claims the theme parks abuse. “The last thing I would want to teach my kids is that ‘might makes right’ or that it’s OK to bully and exploit someone just because they look different from us,” she writes. “But that’s exactly what SeaWorld does by locking up animals, who, in their ocean homes, would swim [dozens of] miles a day, dive to great depths, cooperate with their pods to find food, communicate in their own dialects and transmit their own culture from generation to generation. At SeaWorld, all these animals are able to do is swim in endless circles. Some are so frustrated that they break their teeth by gnawing on the concrete corners and metal bars of their tiny tanks.” She asks the company to release the animals to refuges, “where they can live a more natural life and receive care for as long as they need it.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, the company refuted Pink’s claims of animal abuse. “The animals at our parks – and the tens of thousands we’ve rescued – receive world-class care from some of the foremost veterinary and animal-care experts,” spokesman Travis Claytor says. “That standard of care is illustrated through our accreditations from the world’s leading zoological organizations, including American Humane, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and others.
“When will SeaWorld transfer its orcas and other marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries to save them – and itself?” – Pink
“Our dedicated team of marine biologists, veterinarians and animal-care experts has looked into the issue of sea cages and has determined, along with many third-party marine life experts, that these enclosures can pose very real health risks to killer whales,” he continues, using the phrase “sea cage” for the aforementioned sanctuaries. “In fact, the only whale ever relocated to a sea cage, at the behest of activists, ultimately died. SeaWorld’s deep commitment to animal care is why we can’t, with good conscience, move our killer whales to sea cages and put them at risk. We stand behind our commitment that it’s best for our whales to continue receiving daily expert veterinary care at our parks.”
The orca in question that died was Keiko, the star of the movie Free Willy that was captured in 1979 in Iceland and sold to a marine park. After activists pushed for him to be free, he was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and then brought back to Iceland in 1998, according to the Associated Press. People taught him to catch live fish and prepared him for living in the wild at a cost of about $500,000 a month. He was released from Iceland in 2002 and swam 870 miles to Norway; the AP speculates he was searching for human friendship. He lived in a bay where keepers fed him and took him on “walks” around the fjords. He died of pneumonia in December 2003 at the age of 27; wild orcas live 35 years on average.
SeaWorld directed Rolling Stone to Mark Simmons, the director of husbandry on the “Keiko release project.” Simmons was a SeaWorld employee from 1987 to 1996 but has no business with the organization now. He said that the sea pen was temporary and “far more logistically difficult, dangerous (both for animal and caregivers), unpredictable and in many cases inhumane” than what the animal would be used to otherwise. “[Keiko] never succeeded in foraging, navigating or avoiding natural or manmade hazards, and he sought out human contact at every opportunity,” he says via e-mail. “For the vast majority of his time in Iceland, he was inside the sea pen. During many storm surges (heavy underwater currents caused by regional storms and/or sea bottom fault line events) the entire weighted bottom of the sea pen would come to the surface causing … damage.” Maintenance cost more than $12 million over five years, and Keiko suffered malnourishment and various illnesses. “It was not a pretty sight to witness,” Simmons says.
The company also referred Rolling Stone to American Humane (not to be confused with the Human Society of the United States) to discuss its practices. Its chief veterinary officer, Dr. Kwane Stewart, said that the organization conducted a 48-day audit of the parks and found that SeaWorld’s animals are “afforded good welfare.”
PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, shot back at SeaWorld in her own statement. “PETA wants SeaWorld to construct seaside sanctuaries that would allow the orcas to thrive in an enriched and natural environment and be able to feel, smell and swim in the ocean while still receiving care and veterinary support,” she writes. “The company is desperately working to create a false narrative by referring to seaside sanctuaries as ‘sea cages,'” she continued. “These sanctuaries – which have been endorsed by marine-protection organizations – are certainly not ‘cages,’ a term far more appropriate for describing the concrete cells in which SeaWorld currently confines orcas.”
“We stand behind our commitment that it’s best for our whales to continue receiving daily expert veterinary care at our parks.” – A rep for SeaWorld
Dr. Les Kaufman is a professor of biology for Boston University’s renowned marine program who has worked at the New England Aquarium and has previously functioned as a spokesperson for an aquarium that housed marine mammals. Upon reviewing Pink’s, PETA’s and SeaWorld’s commentary, he tells Rolling Stone that while he’s an advocate for aquariums, he does not condone the company ‘s keeping of cetaceans, the order that include orcas. “The evidence, though not definitive, is very strong that cetaceans in the wild live socially complex, rich lives,” he says, “and that at least some cetacean species are likely self-aware and … in general are able to experience excitement and joy, pain and distress.” He adds, “Orcas should never have been kept in small enclosures in captivity.”
While there is data on how orcas could survive in facilities like SeaWorld’s, he says there is very little information about how they would fare were they to be released into sanctuaries along the open ocean. Kaufman’s “educated guess” would be that the latter option would provide a better quality of life for the animals. “Keeping orcas as they are today already seems like a disaster,” he says. “We can be more certain of these individuals’ safety and longevity under current conditions at SeaWorld, but that just doesn’t seem like a terrific option to settle for when a high-gain alternative is on the table, even if it means much greater uncertainty and unknown levels of risk.”
Dr. Carl Safina, an ecologist and the founder of the Safina Center at Stony Brook University that advocates for wildlife conservation, specializes in behavior, cognition and emotion with an ocean emphasis. He claims that killer whales are the only animals known that never leave their mother in nature and that in the wild they swim dozens of miles a day and use sonar to listen and sense things over miles. “Captivity cannot scale to their social, physical or sensory needs,” he says.
“All of this is misery-making for the creatures involved,” Safina continues. “They, like we, want to stay where they are, avoid capture and be with their social groups in their world. … Longevity in captivity is not a measure of well-being or emotional experience. People can live to old age in prisons and so can dolphins.” Moreover, he likens SeaWorld keeping the animals in captivity to a school shooting that inspires copycats, since, he says, the capture of orcas is on the rise in China.
In his opinion, what needs to change is putting an end to orca breeding (as SeaWorld has) and retiring the animals to coastal sanctuaries. “Where the funding for that will come from is not known at present,” he adds.
SeaWorld has faced extraordinary scrutiny since the release of the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, which told the story of an orca named Tilikum that had killed three people. Experts in the film claimed that keeping the mammals in captivity at parks like SeaWorld was a risk both to themselves and to their trainers. A Rolling Stone review likened it to a horror flick: “Forget The Conjuring, Blackfish may be the scariest movie around.”
Upon its release, SeaWorld issued a statement saying that the film was misleading and biased. “[It] fails to mention SeaWorld’s commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company’s continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of [trainer] Dawn Brancheau,” the company said at the time.
The doc attracted scrutiny from a host of celebrities, including Joan Jett and the band Heart, who issued statements lambasting the parks. Two years after its release, Jackass star Steve-O climbed a crane holding an inflatable Shamu with the words “SeaWorld sucks” emblazoned on it and set off fireworks while up there. Many other artists, including Harry Styles, Willie Nelson and Ariana Grande, among others, have also spoken out against the theme parks since the release of Blackfish.
Tilikum died in 2017 at SeaWorld Orlando at the age of 35 after spending 25 years there. The company said it would not replace him.
In 2015, SeaWorld’s San Diego park announced it would no longer host killer-whale shows. Instead, it launched a “new orca experience” – SeaWorld’s own documentary about the animals along with orcas splashing the audience (but without the tricks) – in 2017. Other SeaWorld locations have continued to do orca shows, but the parks in Florida and Texas intend to end the spectacles in 2019.
In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed killer whales. In doing so, it partnered with the Humane Society of the United States. A year later, SeaWorld’s CEO, Joel Manby, resigned as attendance faltered.
Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, who has long been outspoken against SeaWorld and its alleged practices, tells Rolling Stone he supports Pink and her question for the board of directors. For him, it comes down to the freedom of choice he has exercised to live the way he does versus what a killer whale goes through and offered more allegations of animal abuse at SeaWorld.
“I totally agree with Pink’s statement,” he says. “These orcas should go to seaside sanctuaries, where they can live more natural lives and still get human care and possibly have some freedom in the ocean.
“I spent many years taking drugs and performing for crowds, but I chose that lifestyle,” he continues. “The orcas at SeaWorld are held in tiny tanks, drugged up to cope with stress, boredom, and sickness, and forced to perform tricks day in and day out. It’s a sad life for such a cool animal.”
Pink’s Question for SeaWorld’s Board of Directors
Hello. My name is Pink, and I have a question to ask on behalf of PETA. As a mother, I would never take my kids anywhere that keeps intelligent, sensitive beings in intensive confinement. Children are impressionable, and the last thing I would want to teach my kids is that “might makes right” or that it’s OK to bully and exploit someone just because they look different from us. But that’s exactly what SeaWorld does by locking up animals who, in their ocean homes, would swim up to 140 miles a day, dive to great depths, cooperate with their pods to find food, communicate in their own dialects, and transmit their own culture from generation to generation. At SeaWorld, all these animals are able to do is swim in endless circles. Some are so frustrated that they break their teeth by gnawing on the concrete corners and metal bars of their tiny tanks.
But you have a chance to change all that – and do right by orcas and other animals – by sending them to sanctuaries, where they can live a more natural life and receive care for as long as they need it, as well as by making future locations, including your planned park in Hainan Island, China, virtual reality centers without any live animals. People could then feel good about taking their families to your parks. So my question is this: When will SeaWorld transfer its orcas and other marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries to save them – and itself?
SeaWorld CEO John Reilly’s Response to Pink
The health and wellbeing of our whales, and all the animals at SeaWorld, will always be our top concern. They, along with most of the animals at our parks, were either born in human care or have lived in human care for the vast majority of their lives.
The world’s foremost experts on providing the best care and enrichment for our whales are the dedicated animal care specialists and veterinarians, who devote their lives to them each and every day, right here in our SeaWorld parks. They are highly experienced, skilled and undeniably recognized as the leading experts on and caregivers to the animals at our parks by federal licensing authorities, the leading zoological and aquarium associations, and the veterinary, medical and scientific community.
Those who know our whales and their habitats best and have the expertise to assess the practicalities and risks of sea pens have concluded that they are both impractical and, more importantly, would pose life-threatening risks to each of them. This option would expose them to harmful pollutants and toxins, rapidly changing environmental conditions, infectious viruses, the effects of boating traffic, algae blooms, pathogens and other known issues for wild killer whales. Also, they are unlikely to be able to adjust the challenges of an environment outside of the human care that they have received for all or the vast majority of their lives. Lastly, if introduced into sea cages our whales could potentially pose risks to other wild animals and the ocean’s ecosystem. No whales born into human care have ever survived being released into a sea cage or into the wild. As a reminder, this was tried before and the unfortunate outcome of this experiment demonstrated the unacceptable risks and significant challenges of this option.
Our work, alongside other experts, with wild marine mammals, including responding to stranded and injured dolphins and whales, gives us additional insight and familiarity with the challenges and risks posed by the open ocean — which is one of the reasons we made the commitment earlier this month to remove single use plastics in our parks.
The animals at our parks have, for all practical purposes, become accustomed to human care. This is all they know. To take them out of this environment would be inhumane and irresponsible.
We care deeply about our whales, and every animal we’re responsible for, and our priority is their wellbeing. The best place for them is to be with our dedicated and world-renowned animal care specialists who have and will continue to provide each of them with the world’ best possible care. We welcome people to come to our parks, meet our team and be inspired by what they do every day.
PETA President Ingrid Newkirk’s Statement
Although SeaWorld has the means to do what’s best for animals … it keeps [them] imprisoned in tiny, barren concrete tanks, where they swim in endless circles in their own diluted urine. The abusement park also spends more money on its public relations campaigns – to try to lure back the droves of visitors who have abandoned its tawdry shows – than the measly three percent of its profits that it devotes to conservation efforts. At least 40 orcas have died at SeaWorld, of everything from pneumonia to infection.
PETA wants SeaWorld to construct seaside sanctuaries that would allow the orcas to thrive in an enriched and natural environment and be able to feel, smell, and swim in the ocean while still receiving care and veterinary support. The orca Keiko was released into an ocean bay, where he swam free for the last five years of his life – during which time 17 orcas died prematurely in captivity.
The company is desperately working to create a false narrative by referring to seaside sanctuaries as “sea cages.” These sanctuaries – which have been endorsed by marine-protection organizations – are certainly not “cages,” a term far more appropriate for describing the concrete cells in which SeaWorld currently confines orcas. You can learn more about seaside sanctuaries here and the experts who support this effort, including former SeaWorld trainers, here.