12/19/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

What SeaWorld Should Do


SeaWorld has been pummeled by revelation after revelation about its treatment of cetaceans: dolphins, orca whales, and beluga whales that they are responsible for. The most punishing blow came more than a year ago from the shocking documentary "Blackfish," in which several former SeaWorld trainers expressed their own anguish and hurt for the orcas in their care -- SeaWorld insists on calling them "killer whales." One SeaWorld orca, Tilikum, has been involved in the killing of three people so far, yet is still kept for public performances and, perhaps more importantly, for milking of his sperm to use to artificially inseminate female captive orcas to breed yet more captive orcas.

The documentary, and subsequent incidents such as children being bitten in dolphin feeding pools and videos of dolphins flopping out of their pools, has led to major changes in public perceptions of SeaWorld and other dolphinariums. SeaWorld's value as a business on the stock market has gone way, way down. Amid the red ink, SeaWorld's CEO Stan Atchison recently stepped down.

Well, SeaWorld, now that we have your attention...

SeaWorld has responded by proposing to build new orca tanks that will be twice the size of the current tanks, complete, according to an artistic rendering, with nice trees and even a water "treadmill" for orcas to swim against. All this is supposed to make things better for one of the smartest animals in the world, as if they were chickens that just need a bit bigger cage to play in.

What SHOULD SeaWorld do?

Here are some ideas:

Stop the Circus Acts: Marine mammals are the only zoo animals that have to perform for their food. Indeed, the business model for SeaWorld is not that of a zoo; it is of a circus. If the animals don't perform, they do not eat; they need to be kept hungry to make them perform all the tricks. And the tricks are just that -- there is nothing natural about an orca or dolphin being ridden by a human trainer or launching a trainer up into the air or jumping over obstacles. The open mouth that orcas and dolphins display when they bob their head above the water is completely unnatural -- it is a begging behavior to get more fish. As biologist Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute says: "The fish are in the water; they don't rain down from the sky." These performances are unnatural for the cetaceans and teach our children dominance of animals. SeaWorld argues that the cetaceans like doing the tricks, but then why do they require fish rewards? SeaWorld also claims the performances are critical for exercise and to stimulate the animals, but the performances are the same day after day, week after week, year after weary year. Taking advantage of natural behaviors and different experiences each day would suit their needs for exercise and mental stimulation much better, albeit this is no substitute for their rich lives in the wild.

Stop the Lies: Parents take their children to SeaWorld to learn about the ocean and be entertained, but the information provided by SeaWorld is often warped if not dead wrong. Male orcas like Tilikum have flopped-over dorsal fins in captivity -- this rarely occurs in nature. Yet SeaWorld tells visitors that the flopping dorsal fin is "natural." One guide even told people that flopped-over fins were like some people having curly hair! Most cetaceans do poorly in captivity, but SeaWorld insists they live as long as in the wild. SeaWorld claims that its goal is to make committed conservationists out of the visiting public. But as Dr. Susan Davis summed up in her book-length study of SeaWorld ("Spectacular Nature"), its message to the public is falsely soothing: "Don't worry; there are problems with the environment, but scientists and corporations are working together to solve them." SeaWorld even outrageously says that by attending its park, people are contributing to protection of the oceans! Stop lying to the public, SeaWorld, and provide the public with the truth.

Stop the Breeding: None of the species of dolphins, orcas and whales held in captivity are considered endangered, and aquariums breed them with little regard for genetic purity anyway. The only reason SeaWorld breeds dolphins and orcas and belugas are to produce more cetaceans for their silly shows. Most of the breeding is done through artificial insemination. Stop the breeding and stop the production of more miserable circus clowns.

No More Captures of Wild Cetaceans: The capture of wild dolphins, orcas, and belugas, which has been depicted in documentaries like "Blackfish" and "The Cove," is a horrendous and cruel activity. Many animals die during such captures. SeaWorld now claims that they do not catch dolphins, orcas and belugas in the wild anymore, but they once did, including buying dolphins from the dolphin slaughter at Iki Island, Japan. And SeaWorld is part of a consortium now trying to import 18 beluga whales captured in the wild in Russia. In other words, SeaWorld doesn't catch wild cetaceans anymore -- they pay the Russians and others to do it for them. Let us put an end to this nonsense and leave cetaceans in the wild where they belong.

Consider Sea Pens: There is an alternative to the sterile concrete tanks that captive cetaceans now live in. In a sea pen, an area fenced off from the ocean, a captive orca or dolphin can experience the tides, the currents, the fish and the seasons as if in nature. Care and feeding could still be given to the animals. The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation kept the orca Keiko, the star of the hit movie "Free Willy," in his home waters in Iceland for six years, most spent in a sea pen. Keiko was even taken out on the open ocean for "walks" in following a boat to and from his pen. And putting dolphins and whales in a sea pen does not mean ending public involvement -- seeing these animals in a more natural habitat can only enhance the educational experience. Sea pens are a good compromise between the deep ocean and the shallow sterile boxes on land where captive cetaceans are currently housed. SeaWorld has made millions off of performing dolphins and whales. It is time for them to give some of that money back and develop sea pens, carefully built and carefully sited, for the retirement of their captive cetaceans.

Consider Releases Back Into the Wild: SeaWorld insists that none of the animals can be released back into the ocean, and they may be right. The question of which whale or dolphin might be able to survive in the wild is complex: Can they catch fish and feed themselves? Were they born in captivity or were they taken from the ocean? Are they in good health? Is there a chance they can be re-united with their home pod and family, or perhaps be integrated into another pod? These are questions for experts based on the best available scientific information and evaluation, not glib SeaWorld publicists and hacks. Many dolphins and one orca have been successfully returned to their ocean habitat -- some are still there and thriving. It is a question we should seriously ask.

SeaWorld has a choice. They can continue to cast aspersions on their critics, and they can continue to deny the truth about their dolphins, orcas and belugas by spinning fantasies about how much these wild intelligent beings enjoy life in a small concrete tanks doing stupid circus tricks for the public. Or they can seize the opportunity to truly show their corporate integrity and do the right thing. I've outlined a few ideas above. We all know what SeaWorld SHOULD do. But will SeaWorld do it?