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Continued: Debbie Leahy: Just maybe, worry about the whales?

  • Article by: DEBBIE LEAHY
  • Last update: February 28, 2010 - 4:15 PM
SeaWorld's damage-control team is in overdrive after the tragic death of a trainer who was attacked by one of the theme park's captive orcas. But if SeaWorld held news conferences every time an animal died at its facilities, people would be staying away in droves. SeaWorld, which owns most of the captive orcas and bottlenose dolphins in the United States, has one of the worst animal care records in the country.

Twenty-one orcas died in U.S. SeaWorld facilities between 1986 and 2008 -- an average of nearly one each year for 22 years. Their deaths were caused by a range of factors, including severe trauma, intestinal gangrene, acute hemorrhagic pneumonia, pulmonary abscesses, chronic kidney disease, chronic cardiovascular failure, septicemia and influenza. In some cases, the cause of death could not even be determined, but it is clear that none of these animals died of old age. Dozens of bottlenose dolphins have also died at SeaWorld. Marine mammals are literally dying to entertain you.

Ocean animals inhabit vast, fascinating and complex worlds. Orcas are intelligent predators who work cooperatively in search of food. They share intricate relationships and swim as much as 100 miles every day. At SeaWorld, orcas perform circus tricks for food; swim endless circles in small, barren concrete tanks; and live far short of the 60-year maximum life span that orcas enjoy in the wild. Their worlds have been reduced from fathoms to gallons. Is it any wonder that they are being driven insane by their diminished lives?

In 2007, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued a report concluding that a fatal attack on a SeaWorld trainer was inevitable and not a matter of "if" but "when." The study was conducted after an orca dragged a trainer underwater, nearly drowning him in front of horrified spectators during a November 2006 incident at SeaWorld San Diego.

At SeaWorld San Antonio, a trainer was repeatedly slammed underwater by an orca during a 2004 performance. At SeaWorld Orlando in 2008, a dolphin was fatally injured when she collided with another dolphin during a show.

Killer whales, also called orcas, are the largest members of the dolphin family. Studies reveal that dolphins have distinct personalities, have a strong sense of self, communicate with one another using their own complex language and can think about the future. Studies also demonstrate that newly learned behaviors can be passed from one dolphin to another. Researchers conclude that the cognitive capacity of dolphins is second only to that of humans and recommend that dolphins be given the same moral standing as people.

The United States lacks the moral compass of many other nations concerning the grossly unethical practice of keeping whales and dolphins in miserable captive environments that can never come close to meeting their needs. Chile has enacted an outright ban on the public display of most marine-mammal species, and Costa Rica prohibits the capture and display of all whales and dolphins. Some countries, such as Mexico, Cyprus, Hungary and Vietnam, ban the import and/or export of these species. Brazil released its last captive dolphin back into the wild and no longer has captive-dolphin facilities.

These animals will continue to live and die in misery in the United States as long as the public continues to buy tickets. The next time your family considers a trip to SeaWorld, take a moment and ask yourself this question: Is it fair or ethical to demand the lifelong confinement of intelligent and sentient animals for a few hours of fleeting distraction? Please say no.

Debbie Leahy is the director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Captive Animal Rescue and Enforcement Department. This article was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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