“We must let SeaWorld and all captive facilities know that we will not stop being a voice for these precious creatures who have lost their right to freedom, their right to live a natural life and [who] are now imprisoned, artificially inseminated and forced to perform tricks for food — all for human entertainment,” said Ellen Ericksen, San Diego spokeswoman for Empty the Tanks, during a July 27 global anti-captivity protest joined by about 150 picketers outside SeaWorld San Diego on Mission Bay.
SeaWorld officials are of a different mind.
“The protesters’ claims and accusations are without merit,” said SeaWorld San Diego’s communications director Dave Koontz. “There is no organization more passionately committed to the physical, mental and social care and well-being of animals than SeaWorld. The real advocates for animals are the trainers, aviculturists, animal-care staff and veterinarians at SeaWorld.”
Rachel Greenhalgh, a Sea Shepherd volunteer and founder of Empty the Tanks, said the protest is “an awareness campaign and change movement.” She argues that marine mammal entertainment parks “do not have any place in the 21st century.”
“We know the level of awareness these animals have,” Greenhalgh said. “We know their social connections, their eating habits and natural wild behaviors. You cannot breed natural instincts out of an animal in a handful of generations. These are incredibly social, intelligent beings that are being used to make money. It is animal slavery and it needs to be brought to the general public’s attention.”
Greenhalgh said Empty the Tanks is not a radical movement requesting the release of all captive whales and dolphins.
“Some of these animals might be great candidates for release, but those that are not should be retired into sea pens, where they can enjoy the rest of their days in natural seawater, feeling the waves of the ocean around them,” Greenhalgh said. “They should not be worked until their last breath is taken and then thrown out like trash and replaced.”
Greenhalgh said Empty the Tanks has so far not gone political.
“Right now, our audience is the general public,” said Greenhalgh. “The people who are simply ignorant to the issue. We want to get them to rethink their choice to visit these parks. The future of Empty the Tanks is that we will be here [at SeaWorld] every year until a change is made. We will get bigger and louder until the world wakes up to the issue.”
Reacting to the July 27 Empty the Tanks Day, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums, an international organization dedicated to conservation through public display, education and research, attacked the protest as a “publicity stunt by anti-marine park and aquarium protestors designed to discredit marine mammal facilities.”
“The campaign paints a distorted picture of what our parks offer and ignores the value of the high-quality educational programs and conservation efforts of our parks and aquariums throughout the world and the quality of care they provide for marine mammals,” said alliance officials in a prepared statement. “Accredited members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums and our animal-care professionals know firsthand the educational and inspirational experiences children and adults have when they see live whales, dolphins and other marine mammals at our facilities. We also know from national opinion polls that the public strongly believes that seeing and experiencing live marine mammals is the best way for children to not only learn about the animals, but to inspire conservation action that can help marine mammals and their ocean environments.”
Noting Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla has no marine mammals, Nigella Hilgarth, the marine education and science center’s executive director, said it’s easy to underestimate the value of having living organisms on exhibit.
“The key is education,” Hilgarth said. “Historically, zoos and organizations like them were the only way in which a lot of people ever experienced animals. It’s true to say zoos have played a huge part in awareness, building education and conservation of creatures.”
Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoo and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization founded in 1924 that accredits more than 180 facilities worldwide, said there are a number of things going for wildlife exhibitors.
“More than 90 percent of people like aquariums, zoos and marine parks, and only 1 to 4 percent of people don’t like these places,” he said.
Feldman said the importance of zoos, aquariums and marine parks is growing with time — and the changing circumstances.
“In a world where climate change, human encroachment and habitat loss are negatively impacting wildlife in the oceans and on land everywhere in the world, accredited zoos, aquariums and marine parks are even more important to educating people and to research and conservation,” he said. “If we didn’t have zoos and aquariums, we’d be asking ourselves how we could invent something an awful lot like them.”
Answering the argument that captive animals like orcas, commonly called killer whales, range freely in the wild and are denied that opportunity in marine parks, Feldman responded, “There’s a lot of evidence that animals that travel long distances in the world in search of food don’t travel those distances when food is present.”
Feldman said how well — and ethically — animals in zoos, aquariums and marine parks are treated is frequently overlooked.
“Our enrichment program ensures we meet the physical, social and psychological needs of the animals,” he said.
Enrichment is about “stimulating the natural behaviors in animals.”
Feldman said the interaction of humans with marine mammals “stimulates play behavior and is really enriching for the animals.”
Feldman said people who haven’t been to the zoo or a marine park in 20 or 30 years have “missed out on an awful lot.”
“There’s been a lot of transformation of them into models of conservation, scientific research and education,” he said. “Much of what we know about physiology and reproductive biology comes from the work that SeaWorld and others have done, and that is directly transferable to conservation of animals in the wild.”