Are SeaWorld’s Orca better off in their concrete tanks?

An orca at Sea World

The article outlines both the captive and anti-captive views with regards to getting killer whales out of concrete tanks and into netted pens in natural water and surroundings.

Proponents of captivity say that placing animals in pens exposes them to unnecessarily risks such as environmental hazards, toxins, and viruses.

While activists say the largest obstacle is money and the will to do so.

Source: LAtimes.com

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For my part I have to admit, the captive industry isn’t wrong. There are inherent risks with putting any animal into a more natural setting, but isn’t it worth the risk? The claim that there would be too many uncontrollable factors if captive whales were to be put in pens. They’re not wrong, but so what?
Killer whales are highly intelligent creatures and many of the harmful stereotypical behaviors activists rage about are due in large part to boredom.

Over the years zoos have done a phenomenal job of moving away from cages made of concrete slabs and surrounded by iron bars. Now zoos work hard to give their animals enclosures that are as close to wild conditions as is possible to do (at respected zoos at least, let’s not lump all zoos together shall we. There are some truly horrendous establishments out there). Attention is now also being paid just as much on the animal’s mental health as it is their physical health. Daily enrichment is now a requirement of any reputable AZA member zoo. Puzzle feeders are given to primates, prey scents used to make trails for carnivores to follow. And conditions continue to improve year by year.

Most aquariums on the other hand have lagged FAR behind this standard, even the ones belonging to AZA. Living conditions are still the equivalent of concrete slabs and iron bars. Yes making cetacean living conditions more natural comes with risk. You want to make a chimpanzee happy build him a three story jungle gym with plenty of places to climb and get up high just as they would in the wild. Is there a risk of that same chimp falling from the tall enclosure and hurting themselves, yes. But isn’t that risk an acceptable risk in order to greatly improve their quality of life?

One of the most common arguments I hear from captivity proponents is that captive born animals can’t handle the bacteria and viruses that are present in the wild, that their immune systems just aren’t up to it because they have been in a sterile environment all their lives. Sorry but I just don’t see the logic. Keiko was taken from his home at the age of 2 and placed in a sterile concrete environment for all that time. If captive advocates are right then the 16 years he spent before being moved to Iceland were enough to weaken his immune system as much as the captive born. And with such a weak immune system he should have developed an infection and died shortly after being put into the enclosed pen, with natural salt water running through, with all its inherent dangers. Instead he not only survived but thrived. They say it was over an hour before keiko responded to calls after being put in the pen, he was too busy checking everything out, too many new sights, smells and sounds.

There are even captive facilities out there now, housing bottlenose dolphins, that have their animals in netted pens or enclosed lagoons instead of concrete tanks. The risks are there, but they are minimal compared to gain in their quality of life!

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