Animal welfare is a tricky topic with many alleged ‘experts’, so the news that SeaWorld will terminate its orca breeding program came as a small shock, with many questions …
SeaWorld seem determined to gain publicity. They need to prove to shareholders that SeaWorld is still profitable. Today, they have introduced a new manatee viewing space and on Sunday, Joel Manby (CEO of SeaWorld) and Wayne Pacelle (President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States) wrote to Barack Obama, asking him to take action against Japanese whaling. However, the most significant recent action was the decision made on the subject of the orcas: SeaWorld will no longer continue their breeding program. It is the triumphant end of a chapter for some animal rights activists.
However, over time, the breeding programme would have ended anyway, due to the lack of genetic diversity among the orcas. The HSUS (an animal rights organisation, now affiliated with SeaWorld) has merely brought the date of that action forwards, with little perceivable benefit. The action means that the Blue World project, which would have involved doubling the size of all three tanks, will no longer go ahead. The project would have allowed the continuation of breeding and encouraged the animals to keep living in multi-generational groups. The impact that the Blue World project could have had will now remain unknown.
Although SeaWorld and the HSUS stated that they had made an alliance in reaching this agreement, the partnership generated confusion and uncertainty among animal care professionals. SeaWorld and the HSUS have opposing views about what is best for animals. While SeaWorld aims to connect people with them and provide animals with human care, HSUS aims to separate animals from the human world and liberate them from captivity. Moreover, animal rights organizations, like the HSUS, have in the past frequently attacked SeaWorld in the media. They gained public support and put on pressure by emotively suggesting that SeaWorld was cruel and unfair to animals. They did not take into account the benefits and improvements made from captivity, such as improved healthcare for animals and their increasing lifespan. The HSUS’ sweeping ideology criticises all captivity. Thus, while the decision to change orca performances to a more educational show (rather than a theatrical performance) benefits both the HSUS and SeaWorld, the end of the breeding programme only seems to further the aims of the HSUS.
Furthermore, the change is even more detrimental to SeaWorld than it first appears, as animal rights activists will still not be on their side, wanting the remaining orcas to be released immediately rather than be kept to maintain the current generation. Therefore, this decision appears to be a knee-jerk reaction resulting from constant pressure by the HSUS that will likely lose SeaWorld the support of those who were in favour of the orca breeding programme, while failing to gain them new supporters who were against it. Both sides of the debate on this controversial issue will be left unsatisfied.
Moreover, SeaWorld are denying their previous assertions that they were already doing what was best for the animals, by caving in to the demands of animal rights organizations. This makes it look like they are admitting they were previously wrong, making them appear unreliable and untrustworthy. In addition, giving into the pressure from animal rights organisations could stop animal care professionals from being at the forefront of change. Letting the HSUS gain control and power is a dangerous precedent to set, it may affect other animals at SeaWorld and in other centres too.
The majority of people that support animal rights organizations like the HSUS are unlikely to be experts in the field. However, they claim to know what is best for the animals, often ignoring the advice of animal care experts. This raises the question of whether their contribution is actually beneficial to the animals, or just uninformed and dangerous? The actions that they support may in fact be detrimental to the welfare of the animals, and the pressure that they put on organisations like SeaWorld to take actions is pervasive and cannot be ignored. Too often cogent advice by professionals gets undermined by those who follow the emotive publicity of animal rights activists, without knowing the true impact of their actions.
This does not deny the right of animal rights groups to campaign about animal welfare issues, nor does it suggest that removing animals from captivity is not a noble end to which organisations should aspire, or indeed, that all forms of captivity are cruel. It just means that progress needs to be undertaken in the right way, with the advice of experts and with their support. As SeaWorld has said: ‘HSUS and SeaWorld have common ground, in that both of our organizations love animals and want to protect them.’ This is evidently true, but they still have opposing views about what is good for them and it is necessary to take into account what is best in each individual case.