Marine parks like SeaWorld offer people a chance to learn about marine mammals and marine ecosystems in context that is both entertaining and engaging. The human-animal bond that develops between trainers and captive whales and dolphins (cetaceans) and pinnipeds conveys a certain respect for these sentient beings. In fact, it was SeaWorld of Ohio that offered me my first exposure to the subjects of marine mammalogy and conservation. SeaWorld of Ohio no longer exists, but three other SeaWorld parks in Texas, Florida and California continue to educate millions of people.
I went on to train marine mammals at two Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities—an aquarium and a zoo. I also conducted field work on activity budgets of California sea lions in the Sea of Cortez, as well as census studies on both baleen whales and toothed whales, including orca (killer whales) and several dolphin species.
Had I not been inspired to pursue a career working with captive wildlife and marine mammals in particular, I would never have explored opportunities to work with these species in the wild. Nor would I have developed an interest in conserving them.
The people working in marine parks are the lucky few who get to build life-long relationships with these intelligent beings and they inspire others to work with animals, many of whom choose to go into marine conservation and specifically marine mammal conservation.
Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute is “dedicated to promoting scientific interest and understanding among young people and the community to ensure that the next generation of research pioneers will be competitive in the world of science and industry.”
I think SeaWorld certainly makes an impact on conservation. If you look at the coastal ecology studies that they conduct you’ll see that using marine mammals as an indicator species, scientists can assess marine ecosystem health. The research applies not only to the conservation of marine mammals that utilize coastal habitat, but has human health implications that are a consequence of our very own exploitation and pollution of marine resources.
I thought I would ask the Barbi Twins about their stance on marine parks. The iconic pin-ups, turned vegan animal advocates are big followers and friends of Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society, which I understand opposes marine mammal exhibition at marine parks.
I also asked my friend and radio co-host Dr. Grey Stafford to provide his expert commentary on the subject.
Comments from the Barbi Twins:
Recently, everyone including Jordan has been asking our opinion (Barbi Twins) about Mattel’s Barbie I Can Be SeaWorld Trainer. This new whale trainer doll just hit the market, merging SeaWorld in a partnership with Mattel. This is a terrible business move that gives a horrible message to kids.
There has been is uproar to oppose marine life in captivity lately, like at a SeaWorld, because of all the unfortunate life threatening accidents at these marine parks, which eventually uncovered the unnatural and cruel environment for the animals in captivity. ALL wildlife deserve to live in their own natural habitat, and a zoo or marine aquarium is not even close to the environment that is natural for them. The exhibits are geared for human viewing, or an entertainment venue, which is counterproductive to studying wild animals in their natural environment. As we have witnessed in the news, wildlife in captivity eventually manifest unnatural, sometimes manic or destructive behavior in the captive animals, resulting in depression, injuries or even people getting harmed.
The most common excuse for condoning the placement of wildlife in captivity is so kids and students can observe and study the “natural” living conditions of a wild animal. But that is the whole irony. It would be no different to encourage the study of French people by putting a French person next to a mock Eiffel Tower, and a croissant on a French table—all on a small stage. Not only is it cruel and inhumane, it conveys a message that it’s OK to take an animal meant to be wild and untamed, and left alone in the wilderness. Instead it sends a message that you are conquering it by capturing it and bringing it into captivity. It is like imperializing a country, so it fits OUR agenda, protocol, customs and culture. It is making these animals victims, essentially containing them like a prisoner. It’s also “anthropomorphizing” an animal to do what we think it should do, rather than what is instinctive.
I call this the “King Kong Syndrome” where the movie makes a good point of humans taking a huge beast out of it’s natural environment, and try to conquer it so everyone can “study” it or be entertained by a beast completely out of it’s element, while it is so scared, confused and defensive. What is the NATURAL instinct of an animal or even human when they are scared? To fight back! And what happens to dolphins that don’t perform, lions that don’t behave, whales that accidentally kill or elephants that defend themselves? They are punished or killed, only for doing what is a natural instinct for them. Simply put, a wild animal that doesn’t behave like a trained domesticated dog, in a tiny, contained environment, will be brutally tortured and/or killed. How can having a “slave type” relationship with an animal be a good message to teach students?
Though we never like endorsing just one organization, (principal above personality), the Godfather and one-stop-shopping of animals and conservation organizations is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), which is the best organization to go to for learning about conservation and preserving wild places and the creatures that belong there. It’s the only organization that is hands-on in respect to exposing and preventing illegal poaching. Just about anyone can sign up to be a SSCS volunteer. Some have volunteered to become Cove Guardians. These individuals help protest and document the Taiji Dolphin slaughter, which is really explained well in the award-winning film, The Cove. The movie reveals the truth behind Taiji Dolphin slaughter, the cruelty of captivity, the hidden secrets behind the false glamor of marine aquariums and exposes the brutal capture of dolphins or whales, and the slaughter of the sea life that are not up to par.
Paul Watson sums up the marine aquarium debates well when he said this to me… “Sea World professes to be an educational organization but they say nothing about what people are doing to the oceans, no mention of Taiji, of the Faeroes, of Japanese whaling, of Canadian sealing, nothing controversial. Dolphin trainers bonding to dolphins is no different than overseers during the slave days getting friendly and attached to field slaves. Friends they may be, but one is free and the other remains a “slave.”
My sister and I would like to start a Celeb Cattle-Call to Save the Dolphins, calling on Celebrities to lend their name to help expose Taiji Dolphin Hunt–the biggest dolphin slaughter disguised as a traditional Japanese culture. Celebs can simply use social media to lend their name, or help sponsor Cove Guardians, like celebrity conservationist, Elissa Sursara, who volunteers to go to Japan to protest the slaughter. The Taiji Dolphin “Hunt” can be described as follows: pods or families dolphins, including babies (calves) and pregnant mothers are tricked and driven into the Cove of Taiji by sounds coming from “Banger Boats.” Many dolphins ultimately get tangled & killed in the nets. The prized dolphins are captured, while the others are used for “mystery” meat (despite mercury poisoning), and many are stabbed brutally because they did not make the captivity cut for becoming a prized dolphin or whales. Japanese culture? I don’t think so. Eco tourism would be a compassionate and lasting solution. This would also help the stigma of the needless Taiji slaughter, and give jobs to the hunters that make the sea bleed red.
For more information go to http://www.seashepherd.org/dolphins/taiji-dolphins.html
The following comments are from Dr. Grey Stafford. Grey is the Director of Conservation at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium, a former SeaWorld Marine Mammal Trainer, author of the popular book Zoomility (for companion and exotic animal trainers), and a celebrity zoo spokesperson in his own right.
For years, major marine mammal organizations as well as their individual members have strongly condemned the Japanese drive fisheries. They have also pooled their resources to work with the U.S. government to urge the government of Japan to end the slaughter. Credible marine animal exhibitors do not possess animals from Japan. In fact, the leading international association representing marine life parks, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, “prohibits any zoological park and aquarium from joining the organization if the facility acquires animals from the Japanese drive fisheries.” Interestingly, nearly 2/3 of the dolphins in Alliance facilities were born in human care.
Jordan, I’m old enough to remember when products labeled “dolphin safe” did not exist. However, it wasn’t a textbook description, picture or video of a dolphin that motivated everyday citizens to change how an entire industry provided consumers with tuna, thus saving the lives of thousands of dolphins each year. Rather, it was due in large part to the heartfelt connection to dolphins and other mysterious creatures of the sea that millions of families like my own experienced thanks to professional marine mammal display facilities. And after 20 years of zoo work, I know one thing is certain, conservation begins with the heart not the head.
Of course, most of what we understand today about cetacean and pinniped physiology and behavior comes from animals living under human care. That is very important because study after study suggests that our world oceans are in trouble due to pollution, over-fishing, invasive species etc. The in situ and ex situ research, rescue & rehabilitation, conservation and public education funded by zoos and aquariums are helping to preserve what’s left of our blue planet. With 7 billion people on earth and 9 billion expected by 2050, professional zoos and aquariums are more important to educating the public and saving wildlife than ever before.
As for the comments about human slavery, they are outrageous, repugnant and serve to trivialize the agony of millions of human beings past and present. Such reprehensible comparisons should offend everyone, whether they are pro zoo or not.
Few professionals are called upon to work under more physically demanding conditions all hours of the day or night than zookeepers. Not only do they strive to provide increasingly improved care, nutrition, and engaging habitats, they often participate in important original research designed to help wild populations survive. In truth, today’s zoo professionals are better educated than ever before and no doubt such education could earn them much more in other chosen professions. Yet, they persevere because they love animals and want to protect wildlife and wild places for generations to come. Instead of criticizing them, we should celebrate caring and dedicated zoo professionals.
Most excitingly, following the example and behavioral advancements made by marine mammal trainers over the past 30 years, zookeepers are widely using the principles of positive reinforcement-based training to teach wild and endangered animals how to voluntarily participate in their own care and species survival. Animals in zoos and aquariums today routinely demonstrate cooperative husbandry behaviors such as stationing on a scale to measure body weights or holding steady while keepers administer vaccinations or draw blood samples as part of a comprehensive preventative care plan. These complex behaviors highlight the amazing relationship of trust between humans and animals made possible with exclusive use of positive reinforcement-based training.