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Official poll reveals growing opposition to orca captivity in US

WDC, along with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), recently commissioned an independent scientific public opinion poll gauging public attitudes regarding the confinement of orcas in captivity. This poll querying over 1000 Americans and conducted in early May, reveals a double-digit increase in opposition to this practice, up 11% from the same poll conducted at about the same time two years ago in June 2012. Now, half of all Americans say they are against the practice.

Although perhaps not surprising to us and to those that have read David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld or seen the documentary Blackfish in the last two years and since the first opinion poll was conducted, it is significant that sentiment against orcas in captivity has markedly increased in the wake of the factual evidence surrounding this practice and presented to the public in such a thorough, objective, and compelling manner.

Beyond the sheer numbers involved, what is perhaps more telling about current attitudinal trends against captivity is the public’s shift in ambivalence and uncertainty about this issue. The numbers of the American public conflicted or uncertain about how they feel about captivity has decreased from 34% in 2012 to 29% in 2014. Fewer Americans are on the fence about the issue, and this is mirrored in the 5-point decline in overall support for the practice.

It is not difficult to understand why the public has been and even continues to be confused or conflicted about captivity. With captive facilities such as SeaWorld being promoted since childhood, especially for those of us raised in the US, as ‘good clean fun’ and traditional family vacation destinations, it is incongruent for many to consider the dark underbelly of captivity. Contrasted against images of smiling dolphins, wet-suit clad staff waist-deep in rehabilitation pools tending orphaned or ill marine mammals, and enthusiastic trainers extolling the virtues of their whale and dolphin performances, it has been difficult to reveal the truth about captivity and what it actually means for the individual whales and dolphins in these programs, as well as for their brethren in the wild. It seems for many almost counterintuitive to question places like SeaWorld, especially considering our natural affinity and love for these magnificent animals. 

But that has all changed as the facts are now available for all to consider and inform consumer choices. Regardless of the facts, our ethical sensibilities have evolved to reconsider this cruel practice and our perceptions regarding the value and necessity of these programs have been forever altered.

The poll shows that Americans are increasingly convinced that the negative impacts to killer whales caused by removing them from their natural habitats and social groups outweigh any alleged educational or scientific benefit. A large majority of people –82 percent—say that the inability of killer whales to engage in their natural behaviors when kept in captivity is a “convincing” reason to end this practice. A majority now also say that the confinement to relatively small pools (compared to orcas’ large natural range), which causes boredom, stress, increased illness, and decreased lifespans, is a “very convincing” reason to stop keeping this species in captivity. Most importantly, no argument tested for keeping orcas in captivity for public display was as persuasive as the reasons to end this practice.

Also of note, Americans’ concern about human safety working with killer whales has also increased in the past two years. The fact that captive killer whales might injure or kill trainers was cited as a convincing reason to end captivity by 72 percent of those surveyed—up from 66 percent in the prior survey. There was also a statistically significant drop of 10 points in those who believe captive breeding will help preserve killer whales for future generations.

It is clear from the poll that the arguments supporting the maintenance of orcas in captivity have lost their luster and are increasingly failing to convince the American public of the value of this practice. With growing awareness and understanding, it is more difficult to dupe the public. The poll clearly indicates the public’s ever-growing disaffection with captivity, and seems a natural progression in attitudes as we learn more and more about the detrimental impacts of captivity on these social, sentient beings.

In a hopeful note for SeaWorld, the poll also indicates that 72% of the public would still attend SeaWorld even if orcas were not a part of the equation. This is good news for an ‘American tradition’ caught in the middle of redesigning its future. It is time for SeaWorld and other captive facilities to adapt and change their business models to one that is responsive to this shift in public attitudes and places the welfare of whales and dolphins first.