Friday, August 15, 2014

Why PETA is Being Dumb about Sea World

When I was younger I had a housemate who had a dog.  Barney was a gangly retriever mix: a rambunctious, untrained pain in the neck.  Since my housemate lacked both the time and willingness to train him she resolved to get rid of him. 

This was back when hippies were real hippies, not the ersatz kind we have now.  Accordingly, they were mostly dumb and drug-addled.  Some of them were arrogant as hell.  They believed, for example, that just because the Vietnam War was finally over, they must have had something to do with it.  Nixon had been forced to quit and they took credit for that too.  Most significantly they figured out if you took the baloney off a sandwich and put avocado on it, not only did you appear more virtuous (see: Love Animals Don’t Eat Them), but had invented a new kind of tasty lunch.

So my housemate, her fierce belief in “natural” things reinforced no doubt by both avocado and alfalfa sprouts, decided to turn Barney loose in the wild.  The problem was that we lived in Los Angeles and the only “wild” she knew was Topanga Canyon, a brambled rolling land of sagebrush covered hills punctuated  by ramshackle houses occupied mostly by more hippies and possums.  Hopefully, someone found Barney and rescued him.  But it is more likely he was run over or starved to death.  He could no more have caught a possum than flown to Mercury.

This is the problem I have with PETA and its insistence that Sea World release its captive orcas.  I’m not on Sea World’s side.  I worked at a marine park with two captive orca whales in the late 1970’s and from the first day I saw them in that tiny 500,000 gallon tank, which sounds like a lot of water, but isn’t when you consider the fact that the bigger whale was actually slightly longer than the depth of the tank so his tail flukes were curved at the ends, you get the picture. 

Everybody knew that situation was wrong.  I asked an old keeper one day whether he thought those animals would every get out of that tiny tank and he said, “only in pieces, Catherine.” (fortunately, that did not come to pass.)  When the female had babies, they starved to death.  She couldn’t nurse them.  There were several theories as to why.  One was that being on her own, no one had ever taught her how.  Orca whales, which live in matriarchal pods, are highly social animals and they learn just about everything from other whales.  Another idea was that since the pool was round and she couldn’t really straighten out, her calves couldn’t get into a nursing position.  The problem has been solved at Sea World and it has successfully raised many orca calves, which is good because at this point the animal loving public would raise holy hell if it began snatching baby whales from the wild again.

PETA’s answer to the Sea World problem however, is naïve at best and moronic at worst.  Let’s take a look at the only example we have of humans trying to rehabilitate and release a lifelong captive orca:  Keiko.
In the early nineteen-nineties production began for a movie called “Free Willy.”  It was about a kid who makes friends with a captive orca and resolves to get him back into the wild.  Most of the whales in “Free Willy” were animatronic, but inevitably the studio needed a real whale for a few shots.  Like all movie productions “Free Willy” had a limited budget and needed to get the cheapest whale they could find. They found him in a rundown dump of a seaquarium in Mexico.  He was two-thousand pounds underweight, had a nasty skin condition—the result of living in warm Mexican waters instead of the cooler waters of his native seas—and was overall in extremely poor health. 

The movie was a minor hit with the kids and somewhere along the line questions arose that would lead to one of the greatest let’s-put-our-money-where-our-mouths-are experiments of all time.  There was no choice.  Keiko had to be removed from that situation, but because of his skin condition he could not simply be purchased by another Sea Park.  No one knew whether it was contagious or not, and nobody wanted to risk putting him in with other valuable captive orcas.

The “Free Willy/Keiko Foundation” was formed.  Keiko underwent 2 years of rehabilitation in Oregon.  He had been captured in Iceland as a baby in 1979, and when he was healthy again he was transported by cargo plane back to his home waters.  He was trained to eat live food—having been fed dead fish from buckets for most of his life the change was something he had to get used to—taken on numerous open ocean swims, (accompanied by his caretakers in a boat)—and after being tagged with a tracking device, released into his native seas. 

Some wrongs simply cannot be righted and as humane as its motives no doubt were, The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation did not succeed.  Keiko did not, as was hoped, re-integrate with his family pod.  He did not speak their language, having never had the chance to learn it. Three weeks after his release he was found in a Norwegian fjord seeking human companionship and letting little kids ride on his back.  On December 12, 2003 he was found dead in Taknes Bay, Norway.  The cause of death was pneumonia, common in starving marine mammals.  Without a thick blubber layer they get as cold as we would if dumped in icy Icelandic seas.  They are warm blooded animals.

The cost of freeing Willy/Keiko, a project that took nearly ten years, was over twenty-million dollars and it was a failure.  He could not readapt to the wild any more that Barney the dog could have.  He did not know how to be a Killer Whale.  The sea is a wondrous but harsh place.  Thriving there takes a lifetime of learning and practice.

Sea World currently owns 29 captive orca whales, which have lived their entire lives in captivity.  Many have been born there.  The question becomes, if some grand hand were to come down and demand it release its animals, who would pay for it and more importantly, is there a chance in hell it would even work?  If it didn’t, could the suffering imposed upon real animals by uninformed ideologues be greater than the suffering they already endure?  These are valid questions.  These animals are not just used to captivity.  They are functionally dependent on it. 

Dramatic solutions often look great and make us feel virtuous, but in the case of captive orcas at Sea World, or at any other marine parks and believe me, there are a lot of them worse than Sea World, isn’t it better to put pressure on such organizations to phase out their captive breeding programs thereby eventually stopping the practice of keeping such large and majestic animals in captivity in the first place?

Sometimes, as it goes in life, mistakes are simply compounded.  The first captive orca was Namu, caught in 1965, made to live in a small sea pen in the Pacific Northwest.  He lasted one year in captivity before he died.  That’s not to say they didn’t try.  When he seemed lonely they even caught him a mate and called her Shamu, the performing name of every orca whale Sea World owns.

Maybe it’s time we admitted our mistake and simply turned around.  But like anything that takes years in the making, the solution will not happen overnight.

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