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Poll Reveals Americans Oppose Keeping Orcas in Captivity

WDCS, together with The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute, released the first-ever nationwide opinion poll gauging attitudes about keeping orcas, also known as killer whales, in captivity for public display that shows more Americans oppose than support the practice. The poll found that only 1 in 4 people are in favour of the practice.

Overall, support for keeping killer whales in captivity is low, the poll found, at 26 percent.  More telling of the tide of public opinion, however, is that strong opposition to this practice is triple that of strong support, with 24 percent  of respondents indicating they are strongly opposed and only 8 percent strongly favoring the practice. The data suggests the tide is turning and support for captivity is waning.

The data also suggest that opposition increases as Americans further consider the question of orca captivity. 

Whatever ‘educational value’ the public believes that orca exhibits contain is far outweighed by concerns over the impacts of removing these animals from their natural habitat and keeping them in captivity.  Significantly, the poll reveals that a vast majority, 71 percent, of respondents say that if zoos, aquaria and marine mammal theme parks were to end the practice of keeping killer whales, it would make no difference in their desire or decision to visit.  The June survey reached a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 U.S. adults.

With recent events shining a spotlight on performing orcas in places like SeaWorld, including the deaths of two trainers and current court challenges questioning the legality, safety, and appropriateness of keeping killer whales in confinement, we felt it time to measure public attitudes about orcas in captivity,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDCS.

The public has glimpsed the darker side of the captivity industry and is becoming disenchanted with it.  The true face of captivity is actually quite repugnant”

You can see video of a serious aggression incident by the killer whale Kasatka against her SeaWorld San Diego trainer Ken Peters in 2006

Other key findings of the poll include

  • Opposition to the practice is motivated more by concern over the welfare impacts to orcas in captivity than by the notion that keeping orcas in captivity represents a danger to humans.
  • Over 80 percent of respondents believe that the inability of orcas to engage in natural behaviors, and the negative consequences of confinement in small pools—including stress and illness—is a sufficient reason to stop keeping orcas in captivity. 
  • Americans want to learn about orcas. Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed have sought to learn about whales either through live or virtual means. While one-third of the sample had visited a zoo, aquarium or marine mammal theme park, two-thirds had learned about orca whales through museum exhibits, IMAX films, news, television and online sources, revealing that more Americans are seeking information about orcas from sources other than zoo or aquaria.
  • The results, when broken down by gender, are even more striking. While men are evenly divided on the question (32% favor, 34% oppose), women oppose orca captivity by a highly significant margin of more than 2-to-1 (21% vs. 45%).  Astonishingly, just 5% of US women “strongly” support captivity for this species, and only 11% of men.

Despite recently reopening its ‘Dine with Shamu’ show where trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed, complete with new lift-bottom floors intended to provide some protections from dangerous encounters with orcas, SeaWorld is mired in legal and regulatory challenges on the heels of the recent determination by the courts that affirmed the safety violations cited by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA’s citation slapped the SeaWorld with a ‘willful’ safety violation –its most severe category–and a $75,000 fine following a six-month investigation of the February 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. SeaWorld originally contested the citation issued by OSHA in August 2010, and spent nearly two weeks in court providing testimony to oppose the OSHA ruling.  The hearing concluded in November 2011. Although the judge’s verdict downgraded the category of the violation and associated fine from ‘willful’ to ‘serious,’ it upholds the original citation against SeaWorld and required outlined safety measures be implemented within 10 days of the verdict becoming final.        

As the time has come due for SeaWorld to implement those safety measures affirmed by the court, it has instead decided to further contest the OSHA citation and fight the judge’s ruling by requesting an appeal for review by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC). Procedurally, either SeaWorld or OSHA can request a discretionary review from the presidentially-appointed review board of the independent Commission, and as a result, the battle continues.  

OSHA may also decide to file a cross petition to reinstate the original violation against SeaWorld back to ‘willful,’ because of SeaWorld’s continuing unabated and unprotected exposure of trainers to safety hazards. The court ruled that SeaWorld must adopt safety abatements that provide equal or greater protection than staying out of the water altogether, and although in-water interactions have ceased for the time being, trainers are still exposed to safety hazards in the absence of physical barriers being utilized at the parks. SeaWorld had until last week to certify that those abatements were in place. With this appeal, SeaWorld is most likely anticipating that the abatements it has installed – such as a fast-rising false-bottom floors in one of its pools – will not satisfy OSHA’s requirements and permit a return of the trainers into the water with the killer whales. Any of the OSHRC commissioners may also, at his or her own motion, bring a case before the Commission for review.  Employers and other parties may appeal Commission rulings to the appropriate US Court of Appeals.  The fight may be far from over.

“SeaWorld refuses to acknowledge that it might be captivity that is the problem, rather than their inability to manufacture a controlled environment for these orcas,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDCS. “They are missing the point completely if they think they can eliminate the risks associated with an artificial and stressful environment. Captivity is a depravity, and until this is recognized, SeaWorld will be fighting a losing battle. Spare air and lift-bottom floors will never protect a trainer from the speed and intensity of an orca attack.

I think the public is catching on and is now in a better position to make a choice that is in the best interest of trainers and orcas.” 

According to poll data which indicates that the public’s desire to visit marine parks is not contingent upon having captive orcas, SeaWorld could adopt a different business model that eliminate its orcas in captivity, and focus on conservation and education, including rehabilitation of sick or injured animals.

In light of these findings, support for the continuing confinement of orcas in captivity appears to be waning, and WDCS continues its call for an end to this practice. The physical, social and mental needs of orcas cannot be met in captivity and the public display industry is a threat to populations in the wild that are targeted by live capture operations used to supply public display programs worldwide.