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Friday, August 15, 2014

Facing Backlash, SeaWorld Expands Killer Whale Habitats

In this April 10, 2014 photo, Sea World trainer Michelle Shoemaker hugs killer whale Kayla as she works on a routine before a show, in Orlando, Fla. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. has faced criticism over its treatment of its captive killer whales since the release of the highly-critical documentary, "Blackfish," last year. (John Raoux/AP)

In this April 10, 2014 photo, Sea World trainer Michelle Shoemaker hugs killer whale Kayla as she works on a routine before a show, in Orlando, Fla. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. has faced criticism over its treatment of its captive killer whales since the release of the highly-critical documentary, “Blackfish,” last year. (John Raoux/AP)

The struggling theme park chain SeaWorld announced plans today to enlarge and improve the killer whale tanks at three of its parks.

The renovations will begin at the San Diego SeaWorld in 2015, where the total water volume in the killer whale environment will double to 10 million gallons and include a “fast water current” for the whales to swim against.

SeaWorld has suffered declining attendance and sharp drops in revenue and stock prices after the documentary “Blackfish” renewed debate over the ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity and using them for entertainment.

Animal rights activists have long maintained that training and using killer whales at theme parks is cruel and immoral, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) issued a statement saying the new tanks will not solve SeaWorld’s essential problem.

“This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time at a time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and it will not save the company. What could save it would be the recognition that it needs not to make larger tanks but to turn the orcas out in seaside sanctuaries so that they can feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families, and one day be reunited with them. A bigger prison is still a prison.”

SeaWorld says that killer whales can live healthy lives in captivity, and that the changes it has announced are “revolutionary.” The company is also emphasizing that it is creating new opportunities for scientific research.

“What we want to give them in captivity, sometimes we can’t.”
– Vicki Croke

Here & Now contributor Vicki Croke tells hosts Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson that this announcement is particularly significant because “for 18 months, [SeaWorld has] been saying that ‘Blackfish’ had no effect on how they do business, and the business itself.”

Now, SeaWorld is admitting something is off, and Croke says it’s clear these changes are necessary.

“Killer whales are still mysterious to us,” she said. “They live underwater and it’s very difficult to study them. But we know that they suffer in captivity, that they don’t live as long, that their teeth get worn from chewing on the grills, that they’re not living in the kind of social groupings that they would in the wild.”

But while Croke recognizes the value of SeaWorld and other zoos and aquariums, she also agrees with many of PETA’s arguments, especially regarding large animals like the 40 or so captive killer whales worldwide.

“What we want to give them in captivity, sometimes we can’t,” Croke explained. “We just have to open our hearts… and look at how these animals would behave in the wild. Are we able to give them something of that when we keep them in captivity?”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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