An Open Letter to SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

While we applaud the SeaWorld decisions to end immediately their captive breeding program and to phase out theatrical shows by 2019, we cannot in good conscience allow the misrepresentations in your new advertising campaign to go unanswered and unchallenged.

Despite your progress, 28 orcas remain in concrete tanks that are detrimental to their health. The best solution for those animals is to relocate them to seaside sanctuaries, as living in natural habitat has been proven to promote the health and well-being of whales and dolphins.

We emphatically reject your mischaracterization of seaside sanctuaries as “sea cages”. Moreover, your current ad campaign blatantly conflates the effort to move orcas to sanctuaries with release to the wild, which is not being proposed by any responsible organization. Your ad is an attempt to create a false choice: either keep orcas at your facilities, or drop them in the ocean to fend for themselves. What is being proposed as the best option is the relocation of captive orcas to carefully managed seaside sanctuaries where orcas can thrive without performances and the well-known stressors of living in a concrete tank, and instead receive care, feeding, and veterinary support in a more natural setting.

Sanctuaries for the retirement of captive animals are a longstanding, effective and globally-accepted alternative to artificial enclosures for other large, wide-roaming animals such as elephants, primates, big cats, horses and many other species. It is a highly successful model.

There is no valid reason not to extend the sanctuary model to whales and dolphins.

We call on you to demonstrate your truthfulness and authenticity by working with others to develop seaside retirement sanctuaries for orcas and the other cetaceans in your care.

Thank you.


Lori Marino, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy

SeaWorld’s Announcement: A Good Start, but …

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced today that SeaWorld is ending captive breeding of orcas in its parks. But he intends for this last generation of orcas to live out their lives in concrete tanks at SeaWorld, and apparently intends no changes for all the other dolphins and whales and other animals that the company holds captive for profit.

SeaWorld’s announcement has been met with mixed feelings by the marine mammal advocacy community. David Phillips, Executive Director of the Earth Island Institute, expressed concern about the support that SeaWorld is receiving from the Humane Society of the U.S.:

Because of the stamp of approval from HSUS to SeaWorld keeping all orcas in captivity, it may significantly hurt the growing effort to bring about orca retirement to independent seaside sanctuaries.

So, while I do think it is important to support this step forward, it doesn’t mean that our work is done. We must keep up the pressure to end the capture, trade, breeding, circus performances, and holding of cetaceans captivity and for retirement of all captives.

On, marine biologist and author Carl Safina weighed in on the critical issue of how and when the orcas would be retired altogether:

I and some others would like to see orcas retired to net pens in natural waters. This would be analogous to retirement sanctuaries for elephants and chimpanzees  … Let us now devise a realistic, humane, properly funded long-term plan for retirement sanctuaries for orcas.

And author Tim Zimmerman echoed this concern in an article in Outside Magazine:

Even with an immediate end to captive breeding, killer whales are long-lived, and SeaWorld could have some of its younger killer whales in its pools for 30 or more years … This leaves SeaWorld with two costly choices: weathering ongoing criticism for keeping killer whales in its existing pools or investing in developing sea-based sanctuaries.

Responses like these point to the one inescapable conclusion that SeaWorld’s CEO is still avoiding: that while stopping the breeding of captive orcas is an important step forward, the only way the company will be free of continued criticism from animal protection advocates, scientists, and the public is to retire the orcas and all the other cetaceans to sea sanctuaries.

Coastal sanctuaries are the only ethical and practical solution to SeaWorld’s dilemma.

On interviews throughout the day, Joel Manby responded to the sanctuary question with the classic crisis-PR maneuver of ignoring the question and going off on a tangent – in this case by saying that captive orcas cannot be released into the wild, thus creating the impression that retiring the orcas to a coastal sanctuary is the same as releasing them into the ocean. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coastal sanctuaries are the only ethical and practical solution to SeaWorld’s dilemma. And sooner or later SeaWorld is going to have to bite the bullet again, just as it has done today with the issue of captive breeding.

Last December, Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, and I presented a day-long public workshop entitled Sea-Pen Sanctuaries: Progressing Toward Better Welfare for Captive Cetaceans at the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference in San Francisco. Throughout the day, an A-list of marine mammal veterinarians, scientists, sanctuary directors and marine engineers outlined the necessary steps towards building a coastal sanctuary for orcas and other cetaceans.

Several realistic plans exist to achieve the goal of retiring captive orcas and others to sanctuaries within the next five years. We would welcome SeaWorld as an authentic collaborator in this overall effort. Only then will the company be the welfare and conservation organization it pretends to be now.

As Tilikum Ails, Questions for SeaWorld

SeaWorld announced today that Tilikum, the orca at the center of the Blackfish documentary, is suffering from a drug-resistant lung infection (likely bacterial pneumonia) and is close to death.

The emotional outrage being heaped upon SeaWorld for its exploitation of these animals is fully justified. But the ongoing charade perpetuated by theme parks about the welfare of captive cetaceans also demands a response.

Let’s look at the facts based on the peer-reviewed scientific literature:

First: Tilikum is succumbing to the most common cause of death in captive cetaceans: pneumonia1. In today’s video announcement from SeaWorld, their veterinarian correctly notes that pneumonia is a cause of illness and death in wild cetaceans. But while wild orcas do die of pneumonia, its prevalence in captive cetaceans begs the question: How are they contracting this disease in the protected environment of captivity?

Second: Why, at the age of 35, is Tilikum considered “old”? SeaWorld correctly notes that the average life expectancy of male orcas in the wild is 30 (with the maximum about 60). But they also claim that captivity is a safer and healthier environment. So why are orcas like Tilikum not living to a ripe old age? This question has never been satisfactorily answered by the captivity industry.

Growing evidence of increased stress hormone levels in captive cetaceans lends alarming support to the hypothesized connection between captivity, chronic stress and mortality.

Third: Captive orcas (and other cetaceans) are routinely given antibiotics to ward off infections and, in particular, the systemic effects of bacteria from tooth decay brought about by habitual grating of the teeth on gates and tank walls. As it has been pointed out2, the immunosuppressive effects of chronic antibiotic use are well established in all animals, including humans. Tilikum is dying of an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria considered “difficult to treat” by the SeaWorld veterinarian in the video. This must have been foreseen by the veterinary staff, who know full well that chronic dosing of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance. If SeaWorld is trying to hold at bay bacterial infections from tooth decay through the continual use of antibiotics, and the continual use of antibiotics leads to drug-resistant infections, they have put the animals in an untenable situation.

Finally, captive cetaceans routinely succumb to illnesses that are known to be associated with stress-induced immunosuppression. The mechanism by which this occurs has been known for many years and is on the curriculum for every college student in an introductory physiology or psychology course. All animals, including humans, respond to stress by activating a wide array of behavioral and physiological responses that are collectively referred to as the stress response. Chronic stress leads to immune system dysfunction and, eventually, serious health problems3-5. There is growing evidence of increased stress hormone levels in captive cetaceans 6-8, which lends alarming support to the hypothesized connection between captivity, chronic stress and mortality.

In the Oath adopted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarians – including, presumably, the veterinarians at SeaWorld – solemnly swear “to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”

But the facts stated above tell a story of a solemn responsibility distorted by industry demands. It is time for the SeaWorld veterinarians to stop acting like spin doctors and start acting like real doctors.


1 The Merck Veterinary Manual (2015).

2Jett J & Ventre J (2012). Orca (Orcinus orca) captivity and vulnerability to mosquito-transmitted viruses. Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology 5(2): 9-16.

3Broom DM and Johnson KG (1993). Stress and Animal Welfare. Chapman & Hall: London, UK.

4Dohms JE & Metz A (1991). Stress-mechanisms of immunosuppression. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology 30(1): 89-109.

5 Sapolsky RM, Romero LM and Munck A (2000). How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory, and preparative actions. Endocrine Review 21: 55-89.

6Clark LS, Cowan DF, Pfeiffer DC (2006). Morphological changes in the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) adrenal gland associated with chronic stress. Journal of Comparative Pathology 135: 208-216.

7Spoon TR and Romano TA (2012). Neuroimmunological response of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) to translocation and a novel social environment. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 26: 122-131.

8Ugaz C, Valdez RA, Romano MC and Galindo F (2013). Behavior and salivary cialis 20mg cortisol of captive dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) kept in open and closed facilities. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8: 285-290.

There’s Nothing "Natural" About SeaWorld’s New Plan

It didn’t take long for the major media to figure out that the latest announcement from SeaWorld was largely smoke and mirrors.

Yesterday, in the wake of mounting protests over its treatment of animals and hemorrhaging revenue from its downwardly spiraling public attendance, SeaWorld announced it would end the “theatrical killer whale experience” in San Diego by the end of 2016.

SeaWorld’s chief executive Joel Manby said:

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing. In 2017 we will launch an all-new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales]. 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.”

This “natural environment”, called the Blue World Project, is basically a larger tank, motorized water currents, and live fish and kelp. Instead of their current offerings, SeaWorld promises a more educational form of entertainment.

Killer whales have three basic needs: space, social complexity and choice, and mental challenges. None of these are addressed
in SeaWorld’s new plan.

But none of the real issues have been addressed, and this new plan is essentially an attempt to create a distraction from the critical issues for which SeaWorld continues to draw criticism. Just for starters, SeaWorld will continue its “theatrical” orca shows at its other two U.S. facilities in Orlando and San Antonio. And the company intends to continue breeding orcas for entertainment at all three parks. From an orca’s point of view, nothing is basically going to change.

In order to thrive, killer whales have three basic needs: space, social complexity and choice, and mental challenges. None of these are being addressed in SeaWorld’s new plan:

Space: SeaWorld says its new tanks in the proposed Blue World expansion are going to be twice the size of their current tanks, claiming that “the enlarged environment will provide killer whales with even more dynamic opportunities. It will support the whales’ broad range of behaviors and provide choices that can challenge them both physically and mentally.”

But the new tanks are a minute fraction the size of even the smallest orca natural habitats. The new 10 million-gallon tank will be 50 feet deep and have a 1.5-acre surface area. Orcas naturally travel over 75 miles a day and dive to depths of over 300 feet. The new tanks would not even accommodate diving to a depth of two body lengths in whales, who can grow to 32 feet long. The new tanks may seem large from a human perspective, but from an orca perspective the change is negligible.

Social Complexity and Choice: SeaWorld’s plans continue the same model of forcing the whales into artificial social groups in which mothers and children are separated and individuals from different natural subpopulations and cultures are thrown together and forced to mate. Orcas are highly intelligent and socially complex animals who naturally live in cultural subgroups in which every individual has a role in the social network. Mothers and children are deeply bonded and stay together sometimes for life, and life is based on a long period of learning from each other. Whether hunting, playing, resting or traveling, orcas always travel in groups with other family members and friends. Their complex social structure, long-term relationships, and exquisite cultural traditions are comparable to those of humans and elephants.

Orcas are not interchangeable units and cannot be moved around and forced together in unnatural ways without severe consequences for their mental health.

Mental Challenges: SeaWorld claims its new tanks are going to be more “naturalistic”, providing the whales with more enrichment features which “maximizes the health and wellbeing of the animals,” like a fast running water current to simulate the dynamism of the natural environment.

But orca brains are among the largest of all living mammals, more than two and a half times the size one would expect for their body size, and more convoluted (i.e. more grey matter surface area) than even human brains. Their brains have highly elaborated structures that are thought to be involved in self-awareness, social cognition, and emotions. In other words, orcas are among the most psychologically and behaviorally complex animals on the planet.

Animals with brains like orcas are not enriched by unchanging, one-dimensional features of their environment that pose no new challenges. The new features of Blue World do not even come close to the complexity and mental challenges they enjoy in the wild.

SeaWorld cannot provide a “natural environment” for these whales while ignoring the facts about who orcas are.

To make a real change SeaWorld would need to do two things:

First, end the (mostly artificial) breeding and display of orcas for the benefit of entertainment and ticket sales.

And second, assume leadership in the growing movement towards sea pen sanctuaries for orcas and other marine mammals, where they can either be rehabilitated and returned to the ocean or, at very least, spend the rest of their lives in a setting that’s as close as possible to the open ocean.

Only then will SeaWorld be the welfare and conservation organization it only pretends to be now.

Orcas Are Not Thriving at SeaWorld

In a September 4, 2014, guest column titled “SeaWorld Responds” published in Florida Today, SeaWorld veterinarian Dr. Chris Dold said:

“[I] can unequivocally state that our whales, along with every other animal in our parks, are thriving, both mentally and physically.”

But how do you define “thriving”? According to Thomas White, who teaches ethics at Loyola Marymount University:

“Full, healthy growth and development of the traits, skills and dispositions that allow a being to have a satisfying and successful life as a member of that species.”

Thriving has everything to do with a species’ characteristics shaped by evolution and adaptation. And, as if it weren’t self-evident enough that a species adapted to long distance travel, hunting, and lifetime social relationships is fundamentally at odds with being in a marine circus like SeaWorld, we can still fall back on the abundant empirical scientific data which show that orca nature is fundamentally incompatible with conditions at SeaWorld.

Dr. Dold goes on to say:

“What’s interesting to me is that so much of those who criticize us are basing that on their own opinions.”

We are all familiar with the exasperating climate change deniers who refuse to acknowledge that we humans are creating global climate catastrophes and mass extinctions. They are best known for their data-poor rhetoric and, especially, their insistence that anthropocentric climate change is still a matter of debate. In the face of the overwhelming evidence they continue to maintain that the issue is still “just some people’s opinion.”

The science tells us unequivocally that orcas cannot thrive, or even survive for very long, at places like SeaWorld.As most of us have figured out, it is best not to take the bait of those who try to draw us into endless battles that have already been settled by facts and evidence.

The same can be said for the so-called “evolution versus creationism” debate or, back in the 1960’s and 70’s, the “debate” over the health effects of tobacco smoke manufactured by the cigarette industry to confuse the public.

And now we can add SeaWorld’s arguments to the long list of failed crusades currently being kept on artificial life support.

SeaWorld wants to convince the public that the question of whether the orcas at their marine circuses are thriving is a matter of legitimate debate and differences of opinion. But the issue has, in fact, been settled. We now have the science that tells us unequivocally that orcas cannot thrive, or even survive for very long, at places like SeaWorld.

Here are a few findings from the scientific literature:

  • Annual mortality rates for orcas are 2.5 times higher in captivity than in the wild.
  • Most captive orcas die by the early 20’s (wild orcas can live to 60-90 years old).
  • Captive orcas exhibit several behavioral abnormalities that are rare or absent in the wild and symptomatic of psychological stress and trauma. These include hyper-aggression toward other whales, swimming in a stereotyped manner, maternal rejection of newborns, self-injurious behaviors such as breaking the teeth on hard surfaces, and serious and lethal aggression toward humans.

These are not “opinions”; they’re facts. And those of us in the scientific and animal advocacy fields need to call SeaWorld on their deceptive statements.

Even more important, we should not let the rhetoric and empty arguments distract us from our real goal, which is not to win an already-settled debate with SeaWorld but to bring an end to dolphin and whale captivity.

Next Steps for the Orca Welfare and Safety Act

On April 8th, at the California legislature, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act went before the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee. Passage of the bill would require the phasing out of captive breeding of orcas and their continued use for entertainment purposes.

After hearing testimony from scientists and advocates for the orcas, including from Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute and Dr. Deborah Giles of University of California, Davis, and then from SeaWorld officials and lobbyists, the committee requested an interim study and undertook to revisit the bill in 2015.

The Kimmela Center worked with Dr. Rose to craft a Scientist Statement that was presented in support of the bill and signed by 35 prominent members of the marine mammal scientific community.

Kimmela will continue to work over the next year to strengthen scientific support for the bill, including bringing to bear scientific peer-reviewed papers and more marine mammal experts.

By the time the bill goes before the committee again next year, and having heard the arguments of the SeaWorld lobby, we are confident that we can make a very strong case, and one that will gather the support of large numbers of California voters.