Even though SeaWorld was the last to accept it, the corporation has finally conceded: Orcas do not belong in tanks. And just as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did when it announced the end of its elephant shows, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby admitted that an “attitudinal change“ in the public prompted the decision.
As almost everyone knows by now, SeaWorld has announced that it has ended its orca breeding program. This means that this generation of orcas should be the last to suffer in SeaWorld’s tanks.
While welcome, the decision does not go far enough. Instead of forcing orcas to continue suffering for years, perhaps decades, in cramped tanks, SeaWorld must take the next logical step and begin the development of coastal sanctuaries that would allow the remaining orcas to become reacquainted with their natural ocean home.
Such protected seas pens would give orcas greater freedom of movement and many opportunities that they are now denied: to see, sense and communicate with their wild relatives and other ocean animals; to feel the tides and waves; and to engage in other natural behavior that is not possible when confined to a tank. They would have a degree of autonomy and self-determination. Family groups could be preserved, and incompatible animals wouldn’t be forced to live together. Caregivers would remain at a safe distance but could monitor the orcas and provide them with food as well as veterinary care if necessary. Visitors could observe them from viewing platforms.
Orcas can recover their sanity, even after years in captivity. Let’s not forget Keiko, a wild orca who was captured near Iceland and sold to a series of aquariums, where he was forced to perform tricks for food. He became sick and severely depressed. After the movie “Free Willy“ prompted the call for his retirement, he was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and successfully rehabilitated. Then in 1998, he was transferred to an ocean pen near Iceland.
While his adjustment wasn’t completely trouble-free, Keiko was nevertheless able to communicate with nearby orca pods. He didn’t have to perform. He learned to catch his own food. Even though he was still being monitored by his rehabilitators, he navigated more than 1,000 miles of open ocean and was living free when he died in December 2003 — nearly eight years after he was rescued from his tank in Mexico City and five years after he was first placed in the sea pen.
Orcas Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka and Ulises — like Keiko, all torn from their ocean homes and forced to spend their lives in tanks — could get to experience some of the same pleasures. Every orca at SeaWorld deserves this.
Unfortunately, it will probably be too late for Tilikum. Reportedly near death, he has spent three decades in captivity, forced to perform stupid tricks and used as a breeding machine. Kidnapped when he was only about 2 years old, he has never again known the joy of swimming with his family or exploring the vast ocean.
The tide has forever turned at SeaWorld. PETA’s celebrity supporters, including Kate del Castillo, Jason Biggs, Jessica Biel, Wilmer Valderrama, Bob Barker, Marisa Miller and Joanna Krupa, have all worked to expose the unnatural living conditions and untimely deaths of animals in SeaWorld’s tanks, and people around the world were outraged after watching “Blackfish,“ which documented the misery.
Until SeaWorld takes the next step and does what’s right for the animals who have long served its interests, kind people will continue to stay far away.
Jared S. Goodman is an attorney with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation in Norfolk, Va.