When SeaWorld announced recently its decision to end its orca breeding program, animal rights activists hailed the decision as a major step forward in the rights of these giant animals. Orcas- the “killer whales” have always been a guest favorite at the water parks, but as a giant animal, the orca requires much more freedom to swim. Animal activists and many people, understandably take concern with the treatment of such a large an spectacular creature.
The announcement came recently that SeaWorld would end its breeding program, but keep the orcas it currently has in its possession. SeaWorld owns all except one of the captive orcas in the United States, making it a goldmine for potential research. The orcas currently in possession at Sea World range from the ages of 1-51, meaning there are potentially still decades of orca captivity occurring, even if no new offspring are produced.
This week, scientists and marine researchers responded to SeaWorld’s decision. Some are concerned that as the orca population dwindles over the next few decades, the ability to research and collect data regarding health and behavioral traits will soon be lost. As the animals grow older, physical examinations and lab works will be limited to the aging population. This limited data could slow down research immensely, not immediately, but over time.
Researchers also claim that they rely on the funding and staff and proper care than SeaWorld provides and that without that support, it would be difficult to continue the research.
“If you want to interact with them and conduct research, the combination of talent you have to have is a scientist with a research question, animals that are healthy so that you’re looking at normal physiological rates, and in between that are the trainers — and I think people miss that,” said Terrie Williams, who runs the Center for Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at University of California, Santa Cruz.
The concern with orca captivity was thrust into the spotlight in 2013 with the successful film, Blackfish, which brought the topic more into the mainstream population. Blackfish is a documentary that “tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.”
The debate surrounding animal research will surely continue as scientists, researchers, activists, and individuals search for a way to find a middle ground between the rights of animals and the importance of research.