Just when you thought SeaWorld might outgrow its weird, cultlike behavior in its ongoing efforts to pretend there's nothing wrong with orca captivity, they turn around and issue ads that attack the very activists they're supposed to be allied with now.
April 7, 2016

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]

If you watch much cable-network teevee, it’s a statistical near-certainty you’ve seen this ad sometime in the past week, because SeaWorld has been flooding the cables with it. Here’s the script:

Some say, free the whales. For them, nothing else is acceptable. But nothing could be worse for the whales. Most of the orcas at SeaWorld were born here. Sending them into the wild wouldn’t be noble. It could be fatal.

When they freed Keiko, the killer whale of movie fame, the effort was a failure, and he perished. But we also understand that times have changed.

Today, people are concerned about the world’s largest animals like never before. So [sounding slightly annoyed], we too must change.

That’s why the orcas in our care will be the last generation at SeaWorld. There will be no more breeding. We’re also phasing out orca theatrical shows. They’ll continue to receive the highest standard of care available anywhere. And guests can come to see them simply being their majestic selves – inspiring the next generation of people to love them as you do.

Fortunately, I resisted the impulse to hurl my pizza at the screen when watching this for the eighth time. Not sure what would have happened on the ninth had it still been within reach.

Those of us who, early on in this paradigm shift, were inclined to be generous and give SeaWorld credit for having learned to change with the times can be forgiven if this ad induces shudders of déjà vu all over again, because this is just classic SeaWorld cultism reasserting itself: Making straw boogeymen out of the very animal-rights activists you’ve supposedly just allied yourself with, peddling in half-truths and outright fictions, all delivered with a dash of snotty, privileged superiority.

Indeed, you know that the folks at Humane Society of the U.S. – SeaWorld’s allies in their new, more “sensitive” approach to handling their captive orcas, the great upshot of which is that SeaWorld will indeed cease breeding its captive stock – had to have been reaching for their heartburn medications, not to mention their Rolodexes, upon seeing this ad.

Already, HSUS has been under a lot of internal fire within the animal-rights community for having aligned itself with SeaWorld in this effort to help the company reform its image – Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd was unsparing, calling HSUS chief Wayne Pacelle SeaWorld’s “Judas.” Now it looked as if the SeaWorld public-relations team was intentionally lobbing uncooked eggs onto Pacelle’s face. Stinky, lying eggs.

First of all, let’s be clear: Not a single animal-rights organization involved in the orca-captivity issue advocates simply “freeing the whales.” What all of these organizations, and certainly HSUS, advocate is a combined program that works to reintroduce wild-born orcas (there are six of them in SeaWorld’s inventory) back into large seapens in their native waters, and to place captive-born orcas in whale “sanctuaries” that give the whales room to roam and explore a complex natural environment while still providing them with human care.

Reducing this thoughtful and scientifically sound concept to a mere caricature of “free the whales” is, however, typical of SeaWorld’s response in all of its dealings with animal-rights activists – namely, to make them out to be a bunch of “extremists” and “radicals.”

And throwing the Keiko story out there as a “failure” was a particular slap in the face to the HSUS, since they had been in charge of the orca when he died in 2003.

Certainly, there was a rueful quality to Pacelle’s post at the HSUS blog defending his organization’s record in its handling of Keiko, not to mention the concept of seapens as rehabilitation facilities for captive orcas.

I understand the impulse among so many advocates to call upon SeaWorld to remove orcas from their enclosures and allow them to live in sea pens. I’ve long talked about that idea, too. We have quite a history with that issue, given that the HSUS was centrally involved in the Keiko project more than 15 years ago and put a million dollars into his release into sea pens and eventually into the wild. Keiko lived in those environments for five years. In terms of improving his individual welfare, I believe the project was a success. Many others, especially the folks at SeaWorld and others from the zoo and aquarium worlds, consider it a failure because Keiko never achieved full independence. But I think everyone – on both sides of this divide — agrees it’s an issue that comes with tremendous challenges and costs and risks and warrants more careful study. It’s probably further complicated by the biographies of the whales at SeaWorld, since all but four of the nearly 30 whales are captive-born, and the few that were wild-born have been in captivity for decades.

This is being kind, and then some. The reality is that Keiko had been doomed by an intransigent and ultimately uncaring marine-park industry to essentially rot to death in his pool in Mexico City, because they feared the papilloma virus he had contracted there might spread to their collections. It was the intervention of animal-rights activists that rescued him, quite successfully, and gained him seven more years of good life, superior to anything experienced by any other captive orcas.

As I explained awhile back:

If the marine-park industry had had its way, Keiko never would have been moved out of Reino Aventura and almost certainly would have died there by 1996, perhaps 1997 at the latest. Period.

Keiko in Oregon, 1996
If you go back to 1994 and '95, when the "Free Keiko" campaign was just getting underway, it had been made painfully clear by the entire marine-park industry that Keiko was not going to be leaving Reino Aventura, the tiny, cramped Mexico City pool where he had been held since 1985, anytime soon. None of the other parks wanted him because of his papilloma-virus infection and his rapidly declining health. And they actively sabotaged an agreement between activists and Reino Aventura to place him in a seapen in Iceland.

Instead, the campaign successfully built a new pool for him in Oregon, bought him from Reino Aventura, and moved him there in January 1996. He was moved a little more than a year after that to the Iceland seapen.

And he wound up living a good life up until late 2003. So the campaign to free Keiko bought him more than seven more years of life.

And they were pretty damned good years, especially for a large male captive orca whose previous life had mainly been stuck inside tiny concrete pools. His pool in Oregon was the nicest orca pool in the world, and he regained his health there, losing the papiloma virus and gaining large amounts of weight. His Icelandic seapen was even better; he grew healthy and strong there, and relearned how to hunt on his own quite efficiently.

Keiko was functionally free beginning in the summer of 1999, allowed to roam at will out of his seapen, but returning voluntarily until that day in August 2002 when he hooked up with a pod of wild orcas and never came back, showing up in Norway instead and reestablishing contact with humans.

The Keiko experiment was not a failure except in reaching a final goal that the industry had a direct hand in ensuring was never reached -- namely, a positive identification of his familial pod so he could be reunited with them. What we learned from Keiko is that such identification is vital to a complete reintegration.

But in every other regard, this was a successful reintroduction to the wild. He learned to feed himself. He was independent. He clearly appeared to be healthy and happy, right up until just before he died. And the lung infection he died from may well have been contracted in captivity anyway.

Here’s what Paul Spong, the great orca scientist, had to say about the Keiko saga:

“My belief is that Keiko would have needed direct contact with members of his immediate family and community in order to fully integrate back into a life in the wild. That did not happen in Iceland, and it is very unlikely that it would have happened in Norway. However, this does not mean that it could not happen, given the appropriate circumstances. Had more been known about Keiko’s social background, it would have been far easier to put him in contact with members of his family. I do not believe he met his mother or any siblings or close cousins while he was swimming freely in Icelandic waters. He did meet and interact with other orcas, but they were not his kin, so he did not join them permanently. That said, Keiko did get to experience the feel and sounds of the ocean once again, after being surrounded by barren concrete walls for most of his life, and that, I believe, must have come as a profound relief to him. For me, the simple fact that Keiko died as a free whale spells success for the grand project that brought him home. Deniers will deny, spinners will spin, but they cannot erase or alter this truth.”

And one more note: During the seven years (1996-2003) that Keiko was enjoying the good life in Oregon and Iceland and Norway, under the care of animal activists, a total of six orcas died at SeaWorld. If SeaWorld and its minions want to imply that the kind of care that Keiko received “killed him,” that’s an accusation that can be hurled straight back at them sixfold.

One can understand the HSUS feeling the need to troop along, despite this obvious public-relations slap in the face from SeaWorld, in maintaining the alliance to help make the captive orcas’ lives better. That no doubt is why Pacelle defends SeaWorld in spite of the churlishness:

While The HSUS is committed to looking at the options that exist for captive animals, I want to encourage animal advocates to celebrate the major progress that SeaWorld has made, as we’ve done, and to inspire the company to take additional positive action across a broad swath of animal protection concerns. What the company has committed to is quite extraordinary, and I urge every advocate to take stock of the unprecedented set of pledges SeaWorld has made – many of them unimaginable even among the core group of advocates and organizations who have been demanding reform for so long.

That makes a certain amount of sense, but nonetheless, no one will be blamed if they continue to be skeptical that SeaWorld will ever really “get” why orcas don’t belong in captivity. Because they obviously don’t now. They’re just finally facing up to the realities of their bottom line, and their remaining cultural impulse is to keep sniping at their critics rather than ever acknowledging those critics were right all along.

What’s also obvious is that Joel Manby has a long row to hoe when it comes to changing the culture within SeaWorld to one that actually understands the bigger picture, and genuinely places the welfare of the whales above their own predilections and bottom lines. The ghost of Fred Jacobs clearly still haunts their public-relations department, so that might be a good place to start making some cultural changes too.

In the meantime, we’ll all be forgiven if we continue to watch SeaWorld make these changes with nothing but deep skepticism. This response ad from PETA pretty much says it all.

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