May 23, 2016
An Express-News investigation of infection deaths at SeaWorld parks was “unfairly critical” and presented an “incomplete set of facts” in a “biased way,” the company said on its blog after the article was published Sunday.
The investigation, based on federal data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that infections have caused the deaths of almost 150 sea lions, beluga whales, orcas and other dolphins at SeaWorld parks in the last 30 years. They have been especially deadly for killer whales, contributing to 60 percent of deaths for the species.
Many biologists and veterinarians think captivity impairs the immune systems of marine mammals by making them bored and stressed out, while SeaWorld and its defenders disagree. The company’s critics say stress is the reason many orcas at SeaWorld parks fracture their teeth on concrete and metal in their tanks, opening a pathway for bacteria.
SeaWorld’s blog post includes a quote from Kevin Willis, vice president for biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo, saying animals in his facilities are “not chronically stressed.” The Express-News investigation devoted several paragraphs to SeaWorld’s response to accusations that its marine mammals have high levels of stress.
“Suggesting that they are, because they have less space than their wild counterparts, doesn’t take into account everything faced by their wild counterparts, including hunger, pollution or being preyed on by other animals,” Willis says in the blog post.
The blog post mentions a 1996 study in Marine Mammal Science that was described in the Express-News article. The study shows that semi-domesticated bottlenose dolphins held in a sea pen had lower levels of stress hormones than wild dolphins that had been captured with nets shortly before having their blood tested.
The Express-News investigation came after the deaths of five dolphins, whales and sea lions from infections at the local park since May 2014. Another three marine mammals died from inflammatory diseases often caused by infections.
Along with the federal data, the article was based on interviews with four former SeaWorld trainers; seven experts, including three suggested by SeaWorld; and employees of the two federal agencies that regulate SeaWorld’s animal care, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. Through another FOIA request, the Express-News obtained inspection documents for SeaWorld’s three U.S. parks from APHIS.
SeaWorld’s blog post notes that the company hosted an Express-News reporter on a visit that included a tour of its animal care facilities. The Express-News also interviewed SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, Vice President of Veterinary Services Chris Dold and employees of the local park.
In SeaWorld’s blog post, Willis surmises that a high infection rate among captive marine mammals could be caused by too few bacteria in their pools due to federal regulations for water quality. The small amount of bacteria could cause a lack of stimulation of the animals’ immune systems when they are young, he says.
“This is just one hypothesis that some scientists have been looking into, and no scientist would leap to stress as the reason if in fact infection rates were found to be higher in the animals in our care,” Willis says in the post.