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Whale of a Problem: Captive Marine Mammals

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Tomorrow morning my colleague Naomi Rose, Ph.D., and a number of other experts will testify before a House subcommittee about the ethical and legal issues associated with keeping marine mammals in captivity so that people can watch them perform.

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act generally prohibits the hunting or capturing of marine mammals, or importing them to the United States. But at the behest of the theme park industry, Congress gave an exemption for marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, under the guise that display of these protected species is a valuable tool for educating the public about marine mammals and their value to marine ecosystems.

Congress assigned oversight for the care of these animals to the USDA's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, even though it's a stretch for an agency with little expertise in these species to oversee their welfare. However, Congress asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to retain oversight of the public education programs, balkanizing the regulatory responsibilities. Since the amendments to the law 16 years ago, the federal agency has failed to issue regulations for public display permit holders or education programs, leaving the industry to self-regulate.

These educational programs are something of a charade. An analysis of these materials found information that was biased, misleading, or plainly incorrect. People take it on faith that such materials, along with public display itself, meet a high standard of meaningful educational value, but that faith has been misplaced.

The hearing takes place just weeks after the killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by an orca named Tilikum. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) continues to investigate Brancheau's death in light of a series of attacks by orcas against their trainers. SeaWorld downplayed OSHA's 2006 warning that it would only be "a matter of time" before someone associated with its captive orca acts was killed. After the latest fatality, Seaworld dispatched a cadre of spokespersons to appear on television and to limit the public relations fallout.

Meanwhile, The Humane Society of the United State has urged Seaworld to retire Tilikum to a large sea pen in a suitable cold-water location, similar to what was done with Keiko, the orca star of the movie "Free Willy." Given Tilikum's age and his history, we aren't suggesting allowing him to roam freely as Keiko did. But a sea pen would give him more choices, more stimulation, and more room -- all of which would assist in keeping his handlers safer as well. Despite the efforts of certain critics within the public display community to disparage the approach taken in regard to Keiko, Keiko's experience gave him five years in his natural habitat, no doubt lengthened his life, and offers a blueprint for how to address Tilikum's plight.

Another person scheduled to testify at tomorrow's hearing is Louie Psihoyos, director of the Academy Award-winning film, "The Cove," which focuses on a ghastly dolphin slaughter in Japan with direct ties to the international dolphin display industry. A friend recently shared a superb celebrity PSA on dolphin protection inspired by "The Cove," which I'd like to share with you, too.

Public concerns about marine mammal capture and care are at a high point because of the events in Orlando. This tragic circumstance highlights the need for the National Marine Fisheries Service to properly fulfill its duties in oversight and regulation of permit-holders like SeaWorld. Such parks enjoy an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act only at the discretion of the American people, and they ought to be held to a very high standard by the agencies of our government.

This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.