Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Seaworld's Killer Whales Captivity Is Cruel for Such Social, Wide- Ranging Creatures

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Seaworld's Killer Whales Captivity Is Cruel for Such Social, Wide- Ranging Creatures

Article excerpt

Last week the toymaker Mattel announced the discontinuation of its SeaWorld-related merchandise, including SeaWorld Trainer Barbie.

This move is part of the backlash to the release of the powerful 2013 documentary "Blackfish," a film that calls into question SeaWorld's safety practices, as well as its treatment of marine mammals, especially orcas.

For decades, the world's most prominent merchandiser of killer- whale-based entertainment has managed to shrug off the complaints of animal-rights activists about the wellbeing of the captive orcas essential to its brand.

But now SeaWorld has begun to suffer repercussions. Entertainers such as Pat Benatar, Willie Nelson and the Beach Boys have canceled appearances and Southwest Airlines has ended its long-term promotional partnership with the park.

The consequences are real and painful: SeaWorld stock fell by 50 percent in 2014, and attendance at its parks dropped by a million.

But the best defense is a good offense. SeaWorld is deploying a print and video campaign centered on attractive, young killer-whale trainers.

In an ad in my local newspaper, Kristi assures us that, as a mother of two children herself, she would not work at a place that separates "killer-whale moms" from their "dependent calves."

The word "dependent" seems carefully chosen, and Kristi admits that young whales are, in fact, separated from their mothers, but only after they are "weaned and socially independent."

But this way of thinking has several problems. The killer whale's natural habitat is a complicated matrilineal pod based on lifetime associations that, common sense tells us, simply cannot be managed according to the practical requirements of SeaWorld's various performance venues.

Former killer-whale trainers tell us the same thing. An impressive number have given in to their consciences and gone public. In March on National Public Radio, former trainer John Hargrove asserted his knowledge of 19 cases of calf separation, sometimes while the calves were still nursing.

Mr. Hargrove said killer whales are smart enough to understand when a separation is coming; when they hear the lifting cranes advancing toward the pool, they move closer together. …

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