Keiko Controversy, Fight over Orca Sanctuaries

March 26, 2016

By: Danielle H. Foster

In the wake of Sea World’s announcement to put an end to their killer whale breeding program, news sites have been flooded with Op Eds from both pro and anti-captivity advocates.

Most of those on the anti-captivity sides, while applauding Sea World’s  decision, continue to call for the company to go further and put their animals in ocean sanctuaries. One piece by Jean-Michel Cousteau in the LA times pointed to the simi-release of Keiko as evidence that placing captive whales in sanctuaries as not only possible but necessary.

Cousteau points out how much more enriched Keiko’s life became once he was placed into his seapen in Iceland. He was exposed to the sites and sounds of his natural environment, not possible in a bare concrete tank. During his ocean walks he was able to swim long distances, increasing his health and stamina. He even go the chance interact with wild orca.

Mark Simons, a former Sea World trainer and long time captivity advocate, wrote his own reaction to Cousteau’s article. Simons makes the wild claim that Keiko’s release was equivalent to “animal abuse” and yet fails to back up his claim with substantial evidence. Simons was the husbandry director for the Keiko project and yet doesn’t go into detail on the claims he makes in the article. He even contradicts himself at one point.

“[Keiko] never foraged or ate on his own. Other than the fateful 23 days he was deliberately left at sea”

Keiko was never “deliberately left at sea” he instead swam away from the support boat and didn’t return the rest of the day. Keiko had been following the support boat on walks away from his seapen for several years prior to this. I find it highly unlikely he couldn’t have found his way back within a few days if he hadn’t wanted to remain at sea.

And while it’s true Keiko’s interactions with wild whale were rocky at best, the fact remains that when Keiko returned from his 23 day solo excursion he hadn’t lost any weight. Measurements were taken and no girth was lost. 23 days of not feeding would have brought Keiko’s weight down significantly. He was able to forage on is own.

The issues with Keiko’s release lie with how he was prepared and managed, not with Keiko’s potential to “survive”.

But all of that to me is beside the point. Simons, like many in the pro-captivity community, fail to argue on point. Cousteau and many others (though not all) in the ani-captivity community are not advocating for Sea World’s whales to be set free. There is a vast difference between retirement to a seapen and full return to the wild. If Sea World advocates want to continue to fight against retirement to natural seapens then can they please argue the points made by advocates rather than going off on tangents?

Sea World’s advocates, on the rare occasions when they do, argue against seapens rather than sidestepping into full release, claim that the health risks are too great. They claim that because Sea World’s whales have been in a sterile controlled environment their entire lives they lack a sufficient immune system to deal with exposure to disease and pollution that is present in the world’s oceans.

It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water for me. If captive whales had compromised immune systems due to captivity then logically Keiko should have caught something and died within months his transfer to the seapen not years. What’s more, a fact largely ignored, is that captive dolphins have been transferred from concrete tanks to natural pens and lagoons without issue for decades. There are many facilities out there that don’t hold their bottlenose dolphins in concrete tanks but instead house them in netted lagoons, as natural environment as you can get and still be in captivity. On occasion these animals are brought to these natural enclosures from other captive facilities, facilities where they were held in concrete tanks. There is no great health risk to the dolphins already in the lagoons and those brought from other facilities. Why would the “health risks” be any greater for killer whales than it is for bottlenose dolphins?

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