Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Ethics, Entertainment, and Conservation- The Case of the Killer Whale

By Shashank VuraPublished November 9, 2015

The increasingly embattled captivity of killer whales at SeaWorld theme parks faces an uncertain future as legislation severely regulating this practice comes into effect in California. Heated debate on the ethics and efficacy of this issue suggests that such activity must come to a close, as the vast and complex needs of this species cannot be met by captivity.

By Shashank Vura, 11/9/15

    Once considered a mainstay of American culture, the killer whales of SeaWorld, dubbed "Shamu" by their adoring fans, now face some serious roadblocks to their continued existence in captivity. Following a half-decade of scrutiny from the tragic death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 and the 2013 exposé documentary Blackfish, the parks have seen a dramatic decline in popularity, resulting in an 84% drop in profits in the most recent fiscal years. And now an issue previously limited to sparring between animal rights groups and SeaWorld has entered the public sphere, as policy decisions directly influence SeaWorld itself. Just three years after O.S.H.A. regulations prevented whale handlers from entering the water with the huge animals, the California Coastal Commission has handed down a major blow to the organization. In the process of approving a $100 million expansion to the San Diego Park's antiquated 1995-era pools, increasing their capacity from 1.7 to 5.2 million gallons, the C.C.C. has banned any captive breeding at the facility and any transport of individual animals across state lines. Meanwhile another California bill, one introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom to ban captive cetaceans, is under review by a committee in the California Legislature. Although this movement has yet to spread to the authorities governing SeaWorld's Texas and Florida locations, this only appears to be a matter of time. The organization has vowed to fight the latest decision in court.
    Critics of SeaWorld claim that the twenty-three killer whales in its three parks are held in fundamentally inhumane conditions, arguing the animals which swim hundreds of miles at a time in the wild should not be confined to inadequate tanks less than an acre in span. Life expectancies of the whales in captivity appear to be only around half that of their wild counterparts, with most individuals only living into their twenties and thirties. They argue that the individuals in captivity are used for entertainment purposes, and show signs of serious mental stress and aggression as a result of their living situations. SeaWorld's intensive breeding program sometimes mandates that parents be separated from their closely bonded family members, which is an agonizing experience for the whales. SeaWorld's large budgets for these animals, as some groups suggest, could be far better used on direct conservation efforts, and the best option for these animals would be to rehabilitate them in semi-wild sea pens with freedom to roam. SeaWorld, however, has shot back at these allegations. The park states that only its use of killer whales in its parks has changed the reputation of these animals as bloodthirsty killers to gentle, intelligent, and perhaps even sentient cetaceans. They maintain that their use of the whales provides vital education which thereby encourages individuals to become passionate about their conservation.
    Through its research efforts and advances in animal care, SeaWorld posits, the park has drastically changed its management of killer whales in captivity since it exhibited its first whales in the early 1970s. They hold that the whales are a huge economic boost to the regions where their parks are located, and that they fill a great void by serving as ambassadors for their species to a broader audience. However, perhaps the time has come to end the use of these animals (which some scientists consider close in intelligence to human beings) for our entertainment, and redirect the money and energy that goes toward keeping them in harmful, unnatural environments to their conservation in the wild. Great success has been achieved in the preservation of their cousins, the "great whale" species, even though the majority of people have never seen these animals in person. With the intense amount of attention that killer whales have received in recent times, the argument for their need to be kept in captivity has fallen into disarray, and raised deep questions about the morality of the practice itself. Lawmakers must consider the value of both the "rights" we can accord these animals and the need for more in situ conservation, and pass appropriate measures to make sure that these ethical values find themselves reflected in legislation. Perhaps the case of the killer whale and the recent actions of some California lawmakers and regulators can spur a conversation on this that lasts well into the future.