animal captivity seaworld copenhagen

What SeaWorld And The Copenhagen Zoo Tell Us About Animal Captivity

Photos courtesy of Jamie Lantzy and Alois Staudacher via Flickr; bars via Wikimedia Commons.

“In 50 years, we’ll look back and go ‘My God, what a barbaric time.’”

This quote is from the controversial documentary Blackfish, which details the capture and captivity of orca whales, mainly by the marine theme park SeaWorld.

Parks like SeaWorld, as well as zoos and other establishments that keep animals for education and entertainment, are currently under fire by animal advocates for allegedly cruel and exploitative treatment of captive creatures.

This can be witnessed not only in the controversy surrounding SeaWorld’s killer whale captivity, which has resulted in numerous human deaths over the years, but in the media attention the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark has received over their strategic and publicized slaughtering of healthy animals.

Is captivity barbaric?

Generally speaking, while benefits of animal captivity may include conservation, research, and education, there are a significant number of danger factors as well. These include lack of sufficient space, behavioral problems, premature deaths, and surplus killings.

Here are some of the facts, courtesy of the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS):

  • In zoos, tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild. Polar bears have one million times less space.
  • African elephants in the wild live more than three times as long as those kept in zoos.
  • 40% of captive lion cubs die before one month of age.
  • 70% of elephants in European zoos were taken from the wild
  • In 2010, a Government-commissioned study found that “Concerns remain…. with regard to the lack of available evidence about the effectiveness” of conservation and education projects in zoos.

The SeaWorld Story

Allegations against SeaWorld are fairly damning when viewed at face value, and coincide perfectly with CAPS research in that behavioral issues and shortened lives are linked with whale captivity.

But there are two very different stories being told, one by an institution that has a business to protect, and another by potentially biased filmmakers.

According to the Oceanic Preservation Society (pdf), and in accordance with Blackfish, SeaWorld routinely separates marine family units and keeps whales in oppressive environments, driving the animals to depression, psychosis, and violent activity.

This puts trainers’ lives in danger and shortens whales’ lives by a third.

But SeaWorld argues that they have not captured killer whales in over 35 years, and only separate calves from mothers when the mother rejects the child. They’ve also  spent millions creating comfortable habitats and rehabilitating marine life.

SeaWorld also states that the documentary’s claims were often fictionalized completely, if not supported by faulty evidence, and were heavily reliant on the stories of inexperienced former trainers and activists rather than scientific fact.

Regarding the trainer who was allegedly killed by orca Tilikum – the conflict at the center of the film – SeaWorld accuses the documentary of misleading the audience, sensationalizing the event, and ignoring key information.

The filmmakers have responded to SeaWorld’s assertions with additional clarification. Still, several people involved in the documentary have publicly condemned the final cut as a perversion of truth.

Animal euthanasia

The situation Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark demonstrates the issue of animal surplus and the all-too-common method of euthanasia as a means of population control.

The zoo has received heated backlash for euthanizing and publicly dissecting a healthy 18 month old giraffe named Marius in February 2014, followed by four healthy lions, two being cubs, in March.

But Copenhagen, too, has their own story and support. The zoo stands by their culling, which they did to protect the species from inbreeding, and chose to be transparent with the public about rather than secretive.

The lions were killed because the zoo was preparing to introduce a new male lion to the pride. The new pride leader would have killed or fought the other lions, which the zoo could find no alternative home for.

Marius was killed to prevent inbreeding, a choice that, though unpopular, is not inconsistent with European animal population control practices. American zoos, in contrast, mostly use birth control to prevent such extreme measures.

The Copenhagen zoo is said to put down between 20 and 30 animals a year of an estimated 3,000 – 5,000 surplus animals culled annually in European zoos.

Changes in laws and perspectives

If nothing else, CAPS information as demonstrated by both of these stories raises understandable concern regarding animal captivity policy and ethics.

In the case of SeaWorld, as Blackfish spread mass awareness on orca captivity laws have begun to change to reflect public concern for the animals’ safety and wellbeing.

Specifically, California assemblyman Richard Bloom has proposed a bill that will make it illegal for San Diego SeaWorld to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes,” or artificially inseminate the whales.

Of course, SeaWorld and others have decried the legislation, arguing that seven of the ten orcas were born in captivity and could not be expected to survive in the ocean.

And though for zoos like Copenhagen laws that would prevent euthanasia are unrealistic, several new questions have emerged from these debates about an animal’s right to life and quality of life.

So, we have to ask: will zoos and marine parks some day be a thing of the past, considered years from now as barbaric?

And if not, where is the line between protecting animals – whether an individual or an entire species – and exploiting them as goods?

Jennifer Markert