A new poll just out this morning, the first-ever survey of US public opinion on attitudes toward keeping killer whales in captivity, does not bear good news for the marine mammal industry, and in particular SeaWorld -- which is currently embroiled in an escalating legal drama with the Labor Department over the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Only a modest fraction of Americans -- just 26% -- supports orca captivity, according to the poll, while a plurality of people, nearly 40%, opposes the practice. A third of respondents was undecided.
When the data are broken down by gender, the results become even more striking. While men are evenly divided on the question (32% favor, 34% oppose), women oppose orca captivity by a highly significant margin of more than 2-to-1 (21% vs. 45%). Astonishingly, just 5% of US women "strongly" support captivity for this species, and only 11% of men.
The somewhat startling news might well present a problem to SeaWorld's Shamu-based show business model, and may represent a growing trend away from supporting orca shows, at least in the United States. (Since this was a first-ever poll, there are no baseline data to measure against.)
What's more, because mothers often make decisions concerning family vacations, these numbers may not bode well for the long-term health of the orca-display industry.
The bad news for SeaWorld comes at the same time it is trying to appeal an unfavorable verdict handed down in May by a Federal judge in the Brancheau case.
The marine mammal entertainment industry may try to question the poll's credibility by pointing to the three animal-protection groups that sponsored it: the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Humane Society of the United States, though the survey was conducted by the independent, well-regarded Opinion Research Corporation (ORC). The margin of error was 3.1%.
Even though many respondents feel that orca captivity is good for educating the public about the species, most people opposed to the practice are concerned about the animals' difficult living conditions. In fact, despite the perceived educational benefits, 82% of respondents agree that killer whales' inability to "engage in their natural behavior in captivity," is a convincing reason to end captivity.
Four-out-of-five respondents, meanwhile, agree that another convincing reason is because "confinement in relatively small pools causes boredom, stress, more illnesses and shorter lifespans," all of which is thoroughly documented in my book Death at SeaWorld, which is being released tomorrow, Tuesday, July 17.
Ironically, it doesn't have to be this way for marine parks to thrive. If venues like SeaWorld were to remove orcas from their collections, it would make no difference on the number of people who would still be interested in attending. Although 13% of respondents say they would be less likely to visit, 14% would be more likely to do so. Fully 71% say it would not matter: Elimination of Shamu shows would be a wash for SeaWorld.
There are other fascinating findings in the poll, including a breakdown of support for orca captivity according to age, region, education and even political affiliation. Republicans and GOP-leaning voters are slightly more likely to favor captivity (36%) than oppose it (30%), while Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters are opposed by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 (46% vs. 22%). And though Republicans are 61% more likely to favor orca captivity than Democrats, support among both parties is hardly robust: Just 5% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans "strongly favor" the practice.
And there's more. According to the press release issued with the survey:
- Opposition to the practice is motivated more by concern over the welfare impacts to orcas in captivity than by the notion that keeping orcas in captivity represents a danger to humans.
- Americans want to learn about orcas. Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed have sought to learn about whales either through live or virtual means. While one-third of the sample had visited a zoo, aquarium or marine mammal theme park, two-thirds had learned about orca whales through museum exhibits, IMAX films, news, television and online sources, revealing that more Americans are seeking information about orcas from sources other than zoo or aquaria.
SeaWorld doesn't need to perpetuate the Shamu business model in order to survive. There should be no more captive breeding of orcas for show business purposes. Meanwhile, these magnificent animals should be allowed to gradually retire to sea pens, while still under human care, to live out the rest of their lives in a peaceful facsimile of their natural oceanic environment.
If that were that to happen, Shamu shows would eventually become a thing of the past. And it doesn't sound like too many Americans would strongly object.