Blackfish Debate Reaches Campus

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Source: Wikipedia

By Anna Alvarado | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2013-14)

Last year a controversial documentary was released explaining the issues behind SeaWorld’s captivity of orca whales. Blackfish sparked widespread debate regarding the ethics of captivity and mobilized thousands of people to boycott SeaWorld enterprise and their parks. The film argued that the captivity of these creatures is both harmful to the animals and morally wrong. SeaWorld responded to this argument and stated that the movie itself is factually flawed and continued to emphasize their contributions to oceanographic research and quality care for all of their animals. The magnitude of this debate was so great that it inspired the drafting of a new California bill proposed by State Assembly member Richard Bloom which called for a ban of SeaWorld orca shows and for the release of whales to the wild (if possible) or to larger sea pens.

This debate was brought onto campus to continue the conversation regarding the impact of captivity and to inspire UC San Diego students to delve in the issue further beyond what the film suggested. The debate, which was part of ASCE’s Panel Series, was between UCSD philosophy professor Andrew Lamey and SeaWorld’s Corporate Director of Pathology and Research Dr. Judy St. Leger.

I attended and listened to this debate and found that this issue (as moderator Dr. John Hildebrand cleverly stated) is not black and white. Their arguments touched upon the treatment of these complex orcas, the importance of captive animals in orca research, the California Bill and how it all relates to the morality of captivity. I will highlight major points of contention from the debate and discuss my own opinions about the responses and on the topic as a whole.

Moral Standing of Orca Whales

The debate began with the question of whether these orcas should be granted moral standing. Dr. Lamey focused on the sentience of orcas and their capacity to experience pain and fear. He also mentions their incredibly complex social structure, justified by a study by Dr. Lori Marino on orca brains, which revealed areas of high cognitive capacity. Because of this, Lamey argued that it is completely immoral to keep such a large and sophisticated animal confined in extremely small spaces.

Dr. St. Leger, on the other hand, emphasized that the most important moral consideration is to be aware of these animals and their state in a rapidly changing environment. Zoos and aquariums like SeaWorld act as a point of connection between humans and these animals and without these facilities the connection will be lost. These captive orcas are “ambassadors” for other killer whales in the world, increasing visibility and awareness about their current state in the wild.

SeaWorld’s Treatment of Orcas

The debate moved on to the discussion of SeaWorld’s training of orcas and their treatment of these animals. Dr. Lamey argued that the treatment of these orcas are morally indefensible for multiple reasons. Studies by Dr. Ingrid Visser and David Kirby showed that SeaWorld orcas performed extremely abnormal behavior due to the stress and isolation caused by captivity. This extreme behavior was exposed in the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau caused by an attack by one of SeaWorld’s whales Tilikum (the main subject of Blackfish). This is just one of over 70 incidences that have occurred between SeaWorld trainers and their whales.

Dr. St. Leger rebuts these claims and stated that the orcas are well adjusted in their environment and that the whales that Dr. Lamey described are not the types of whales she saw everyday. After working with these whales for years she was able to forge bonds with them and found strong relationships between the whales they lived with and their trainers. These bonds are based on positive reinforcements and operant training; a training that is often misconceived as punitive and degrading.

SeaWorld’s Research & Conservation Efforts

Finally the two experts addressed SeaWorld’s role as a research institute. Dr. Lamey believed that SeaWorld is not voice of science but rather contradicts the best science. The routine, artificial conditions of captivity is nothing in comparison to the fluid variability of the wild. This made it difficult to gain accurate and applicable information about wild orcas through captivity. SeaWorld is likely to be viewed as an entertainment enterprise rather than a beacon of research and conservation. They provided $1 million a year for marine conservation but generated about $2.7 billion dollars from the 10 parks they own, showing that SeaWorld is “an amusement park that happens to have animals.”

Dr. St. Leger argued the contrary. She pointed out that the captive animals at SeaWorld enabled for in depth research that cannot be done in the wild. Studies ranging from orca metabolic rates to orca reproductions are made possible because of captive orcas. Dr. St. Leger also discussed the vast impact of SeaWorld on marine conservation. The $1 million that SeaWorld donates is not insufficient and contributes to a vast number of studies regarding marine life. SeaWorld parks serve as a source of education for the general public, connecting the larger mass to these animals and increasing their care and awareness of these animals.

On the Blackfish Debate

Dr. St. Leger’s claims on the interests and connections piqued by shows performed by the orca ambassadors are valid. Many people enjoy going to SeaWorld because they are able to witness these killer whales first hand. However, despite this whale diplomacy, I still question how much these shows truly resonate with the audience beyond the novelty and entertainment it produces and whether this connection can last longer than a Shamu popsicle. Regardless, this type of pageantry is insufficient justification for their captivity. Witnessing these orcas first hand is a unique experience, but placing these animals isolated in confined spaces and having them perform tricks only perpetuates the idea that these animals are commodities used to attract guests and increase profits.

I understand Dr. Lamey’s criticism of SeaWorld’s research and marine life conservation efforts. I’m not sure how relatable these findings are to wild orcas especially since these captive orcas do not express the same behaviors or live in the same environment as the ones in the wild. This is why I’m particularly vexed with Dr. St. Leger’s claim about the metabolic rates of orcas. It is hard to compare the two when the living conditions are so vastly different from each other. It is also hard to for me to believe that the SeaWorld enterprise’s main concern is research and conservation. The amount of money they accumulate in comparison to the amount they use for these conservation efforts is so vastly skewed that it makes it difficult to think of SeaWorld as anything beyond an entertainment enterprise.

Dr. Lamey asked if the experience and research truly outweigh the cost of keeping these sentient beings in limited conditions. My answer is no. Although, while I agree with Dr. Lamey’s claims about orca stress, I also believe that the impact of captivity is almost impossible to undo. Unfortunately the artificial lifestyle that these orcas now live in makes it difficult and dangerous to release them in the wild. I’m not sure what the solution for this problem is. Ideally I would prefer the end to orca breeding and for their placement in sea pens. However, the efficacy of these measures are still unknown.

For now I believe that conversations about this topic should continue. This discussion provided a snapshot of the various ethical dilemmas that future scientists will likely encounter. As we continue our education and beyond we must be aware of the consequences of our actions, not just for our respective fields but for the society, the community and the world as a whole. With Earth Week currently upon us, it is important for us students to reflect on the impact we want to make and at what cost.



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Links for further reading:

SeaWorld’s research publications
Orca research foundation founded by Dr. Ingrid Visser
Pro-captivity article that outlines the argument
Various other orca research projects