by Merritt Clifton
ORLANDO, NEW YORK CITY, MYSTIC––Activists don’t believe anything they hear from the “aquaprison industry.” Oceanarium people don’t trust activists to know truth when they see it. And small wonder on either side, given the pitch of the propaganda for and against keeping marine mammals in captivity.
This debate differs from the equally bitter conflicts over hunting, trapping, meat-eating, and the use of animals in biomedical research. Knowingly or not, the antagonists in the oceanarium debate express smilar visions of what oceanariums should be––and issue many of the same criticisms of what they are. They agree that saving marine mammals is among the urgent moral and ecological priorities of our time. Their only substantive disagreements concern the morality of capturing marine mammals from the wild, a practice now largely but not totally history, and the ethics of putting them on display.
The overlap of concerns is so great that Steve Wynn, owner of the Mirage hotel and dolphinarium in Las Vegas, has apparently been the biggest donor to the militantly anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society since 1988. The bitterness of the divide is such that anti-captivity leaders including Ric O’Barry of The Dolphin Project and Ben White of Friends of Animals call Sea Shepherd founder and captain Paul Watson a “sellout” and worse for taking the money.
After examining that dispute in December 1993, I wondered just how many of the other claims and counterclaims surrounding marine mammal captivity stand up. I spent almost a year probing the factual claims of four influential propaganda pieces, two from each perspective, which are frequently used as source documents by the opposing factions.
From the “Free Willy!” side, I investigated the two Fund for Animals Cetaceans in Captivity series fact sheets on dolphins and orcas, authored by whale protection activist Jerye Mooney, no longer with The Fund, in early 1992; the current editions were updated on August 28, 1993. The Fund authorized numerous other animal protection groups, e.g. The Dolphin Project, to reprint these sheets with their own contact information added. Abbreviated editions are also often used by local groups as handouts, both with and without credit to the source. The Cetaceans in Captivity fact sheets purport to tell the truth about the lives and deaths of dolphins and orcas at oceanariums and other entertainment facilities.
From the oceanarium side, I reviewed two essays purporting to tell the truth about anti-cetacean captivity activists: Bureaucracy and Politics Crippling Aquariums and Marine Mammal Research, Part II, first published in the Third Quarter 1990 edition of Seaword, the newsletter of the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut; and Marine Mammals in Zoological Environments: Current Threats, Goals, and Opportunites, by Brian E. Joseph, DVM, of the Minnesota Zoological Garden, initially presented to the 1990 conference of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association. Marine mammal exhibitors still routinely send copies of each essay to the media in response to protests.
I selected these four propaganda pieces not because they are uniquely bad––in fact, they are much less flamboyant than many––but because they appear to be particularly credible, coming from credible authors and organizations, and yet are not, for reasons apparently having as much to do with communication failures as with any intent to mislead. They represent the point at which misinformation perhaps presented in good faith becomes canon, and differences of opinion become a self-escalating and ultimately self-destructive conflict because each side now sees the other as acting in bad faith.
Dolphins in captivity
The saying that camels, giraffes, and zebras originated as a team of horses designed by committee could be applied to the Cetaceans in Captivity fact sheets, because the published versions familiar to activists bear little resemblance to Mooney’s originals, which she graciously furnished. A variety of editors cut her text by more than half, simplifying explanations, dropping details, and deleting footnotes. In the process, informed opinions evolved to appear as fact; limited-case observations metamorphized into seeming universals. No one person appears blameworthy for the distortions, which accumulated over 18 months of trimming and revision. Questioned about the evolution of the fact sheets, Mooney immediately expressed her dissatisfaction with them as published, while Fund president Cleveland Amory praised her as “simply a mine of information on marine mammal issues,” seeming unaware that she was unhappy with them.
Yet even the original editions, charges Sea World research biologist Daniel K. Odell, are “filled with rhetoric, clear bias and statements taken out of context.” In particular, Odell objects, “Statements lump together all marine mammals in all facilities, some of which no longer exist. No attempt has been made to show any changes over the relatively brief history of marine mammal parks.”
The tendency to use charged rhetoric in lumping all marine mammal exhibitions together is even more apparent in the published editions. For example, the dolphin sheet charges, “Most marine parks are experienced in entertainment, not education. The animals are used as performers, in the circus tradition, and the performances reinforce the concept of human dominance over animals, while teaching nothing about the animals own natural history or the concept of interspecies relationships.”
Though this wasn t always the case, major oceanariums today tend to employ more Ph.D.-holding scientists than former circus trainers. Many, including the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the New York Aquarium, are incorporated as nonprofit educational institutions. What they teach may be subject to debate; likewise, the line between education and entertainment may be blurred as, indeed, educators often strive to blur it. Yet these facilities differ hugely from the vanishing beachfront dolphin shows of the “Flipper” era, the 1950s through the 1970s.
Odell provided a page-by-page, line-by-line critique of the original draft of each Fund fact sheet, and sent along copies of each study Mooney cited in her footnotes.
It is to be expected that Odell’s interpretations clash with Mooney’s. Just as Mooney and The Fund oppose keeping any healthy marine mammals captive, so Odell, as a senior staffer at the world s largest oceanarium chain, is a frank defender of the oceanarium industry. But disagreements are one thing, and fair representation quite another.
One part of Mooney’s draft on dolphins that appears intact in the published edition asserts, “Adult males captured from the same groups have been maintained together with little aggression; yet when captive groupings contain adult males from different capture localities, the animals have been known to fight viciously over females or lead an injurious attack on a helpless poolmate.”
Mooney’s referenced source, an article by by J.R. Geraci, published in Zoo & Wild Animal Medicine (1986), says nothing about different capture locations. “It is not uncommon for a dominant dolphin to lead an injurious attack on a helpless poolmate,” it agrees, then qualifies: “Few species seem to be genetically incompatible, but for some reason the common dolphin does not always coexist well with the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphin and other large dolphins.”
In other words, big and little species don’t mix well, regardless of sex––which is quite another matter. Some support for Mooney’s statement does come from the article Marine Mammal Behavioral Diagnostics, by Jay Sweeney, DVM, included in The Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine (1990), cited by Mooney in support of other passages. However, the Sweeney reference is strictly to juveniles recently captured from the wild.
But there was one case bearing out Mooney’s contention as written: in December 1986, SeaWorld bought out Marineland of the Pacific. In February 1987, SeaWorld placed a subdominant male bottlenose named Sundance into a tank among other male bottlenoses it already had––contrary to the advice of his Marineland tranier, Joanie Hay. Within 24 hours Sundance died of a fractured skull and cerebral hemorrhage.
“One can only speculate,” Mooney wrote, in another passage that The Fund published intact, “why animals equipped with natural echolocation and sonic capabilities have collided with pool walls, with resulting injury and even death.” Often cited, this allegation wasn’t referenced even in the original.
“We are not aware of any instances of this kind,” the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium declared in examining the same charge as part of Bureaucracy and Politics.
The closest thing to a reference that I could find in Mooney s footnoted sources was Sweeney s acknowledgement, in the paper cited above, that, “There are, however, occasional instances of minor self-inflicted trauma that occur in animals through contact within their environments.” Sweeney went on to explain, however, that the principal examples involve abrasions to pinnipeds, such as seals and sea lions, when they drag themselves out of water and over rough concrete.
Only one source I consulted could recall any case of a captive dolphin injuring himself or herself in a pool wall collision: Ric O’Barry of The Dolphin Project was aware of two, one in the Bahamas and one in Brazil. That’s two self-injured dolphins out of several thousand captives, over a 30-year period and one of those two was kept alone for nine years in an extremely small pool.
Despite the paucity of supporting evidence, the myth that dolphins’ sonar is disrupted by pool confinement has become a staple of anti-captivity literature; an article of faith that to many people brands oceanarium staff as liars if they even try to deny it.
Orcas in captivity
The same allegations surface in The Fund’s fact sheet on captive orcas, in almost the same language. “The level of aggression in captive orcas presenting life-threatening risks to other animals and their trainers/handlers has never been observed in wild populations,” Mooney wrote. “Captives have died from many causes, but none as spectacular and tragic as those from self-inflicted trauma, from internal injuries resulting from aggression of incompatible animals, and from shattered skulls from collisions with pool walls caused by panic responses.”
There are in fact many examples of orcas harming and even killing themselves in attempting to evade capture, though most of those involving U.S. oceanariums occured before 1973. There are very few cases of orcas doing themselves fatal harm in collisions with pool walls: perhaps only one, that of Kahana, in 1991. That collision has never been definitively explained. Captive orcas have killed each other at least twice, once in Great Britain in October 1981, when three recently captured young males fought for dominance of a small tank and one suffered severe internal injuries, and once at SeaWorld San Diego in 1990, where Kandu, a 14-year-old female, bled to death from a broken jaw after colliding with Corky, a somewhat older female recently arrived from the defunct Marineland of the Pacific. In each case, the killing might not have happened in the wild, where the antagonists might have more readily disengaged. Yet it isn’t clear that the aggression was unusual.
“Where is the evidence that these behaviors have not been observed in the wild?” Odell demanded. Mooney cited no reference, but in fairness it isn’t always easy to find a reference to anything that isn’t seen.
Other Fund fact sheet claims about captive orca behavior may likewise overreach. “Marine parks insist that the tricks featured during show performances are all extensions of natural behaviors,” it asserts. “In reality, these animals do not naturally catapult humans into the air, or allow humans to ride them, walk on them, or climb on them.”
Retorts Odell, “The author of this ‘fact’ sheet missed the point of her previous sentence. The operative word is ‘extensions.’ No one is claiming that orcas push people around in the wild. However, they do push other things around––especially seals and sea lions. Training orcas is no different from training dogs,” Odell continued, pointing out the adaptations of hunting behavior in such common dog tricks as catching a Frisbee. The object, with either species, is to encourage normal activity in a different context.
The Fund fact sheet wanders into still deeper water in the next paragraph, asserting that, “Some facilities even allow children from the audience to be hugged and kissed, or to sit upon the orca’s back for souvenir photographs. Neither Mooney nor any of the other users of this fact sheet whom I contacted could cite a single instance of any such practice taking place at any U.S. or Canadian facility; it would violate federal regulations and would probably also much interest the facility’s liability insurer.
The most sensitive Fund allegations, to Odell, concern the mortality of captive orcas and the purported failure of captive breeding. “From 1964 to 1989, 138 orcas were captured for aquariums worldwide,” the fact sheet states. “As of 1993, only 35 of these animals remain alive.”
“Out of context,” Odell growled. “Nothing lives forever.”
According to Jay Barlow, head of coastal marine mammal research at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, studies of orca mortality suggest a death rate of about 7% per year in captivity, compared with about 5% per year in the wild. Those figures are disputed, as are estimates of the maximum orca lifespan, but one point both Mooney and Odell agree on is that the best current maximum longevity figure is circa 29 years for males and 50 years for females.
Mooney’s statistics on captive breeding were amended from 30 pregnancies and nine surviving offspring to 27 pregnancies and just six survivors before her manuscript went to press. “Either way,” said Odell, the figures are “just a partial list. In my opinion,” he continued, “the success of holding orcas in captivity is the success of the captive breeding program. Field observers in the Pacific Northwest estimate that orca calf mortality in the first six months after birth is about 45%,” he said, whereas Sea World claims a neonatal mortality rate of zero.
Other facilities have not done as well; in 1989 an orca calf starved to death at the Vancouver Aquarium through failure to nurse successfully, a problem that somehow eluded the staff even though she was kept under almost around-the-clock observation. Still, the orca captive breeding record compares well to that of many other species, e.g. panda bears and gorillas.
Given the relatively brief time that orcas have been held in breeding groups, “reproduction has been incredibly successful,” Odell believes. The early years of attempted captive breeding brought several important discoveries, among them that orcas have a 17-month gestation cycle, not the 12-month cycle that was once supposed, and that female orcas can reach sexual maturity at only six years of age, not 12, though the latter is still the most commonly cited estimate. As Odell puts it, “Age at sexual maturity in captivity may reflect the species potential which may not be achieved in the wild where other factors come into play.”
It is to be noted that SeaWorld, Odell’s employer, has engaged in misleading propaganda quite as avidly as anyone else. In November 1991, Mike Thomas of Florida Magazine obtained a “top secret” internal memo instructing Sea World staff to refer to their animals as “acquired,” not captured; to their native habitat as “the natural environment,” not the wild; and to their current condition as a “controlled environment,” not captivity. The words “tank” and “cage” were to be shunned in favor of enclosure.
“Further,” the memo instructed, “If people ask you about a particular animal that you know has passed away, please say ‘I don t know.'”
With that Orwellian attitude toward plain speech, it is no wonder that SeaWorld suffers a basic credibility problem when obliged to explain just what did happen to any animals whose fate they don’t know, even though the animals dwelled in an enclosure in a controlled environment after acquisition from the natural environment.
Bureaucracy & politics
In part, the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium publication Bureaucracy and Politics Crippling Aquariums and Marine Mammal Research Part II is an effective rejoinder to many of the more misleading claims issued by anti-captivity activists. It is factual and reliable in refuting the International Wildlife Coalition’s contention that, “Mortality is extremely high for belugas during capture and transport,” and that deaths are not recorded; in actuality, no belugas have died during either capture or transport during the past 30 years. It further convincingly demolishes the Animal Rights Front’s claims that wild belugas perform 2,000 deep dives per day, or 83.3 per hour, 24 hours a day, when in actuality belugas don’t dive to great depths at all. It also makes a strong case that the average and median longevity of whales and dolphins in captivity is quite as good, if not better, than their longevity in the wild.
But “rhetoric, clear bias and statements taken out of context” are quite as evident in the Bureaucracy and Politics description of activists as in the Fund fact sheets description of oceanariums. “To speak bluntly,” the anonymous author asserts, “extremist groups are typically unreasonable and unethical, notwithstanding that many of their members are well-meaning people sincerely concerned about the welfare of animals. Most of the membership-at-large is simply misinformed––if it is informed at all––about what the leadership is up to. The extremists circulate distortions, half-truths, and plain lies. They are Rumor that grows tongues everywhere, so that after a while even their most preposterous claims gain credibility in the minds of Federal bureaucrats.”
Apparently all anti-captivity organizations fall under the heading of “extremist.” Disregarded is the equally adamant suspicion of anti-captivity activists that the oceanarium industry more-or-less “owns” the regulatory bodies. All of the Mystic allegations may be true of some organizations and some anti-captivity leaders, but the blanket condemnation dismisses any possibility that there are well-informed critics of keeping marine mammals in captivity, whose opposition is founded in both science and conscience.
This in turn raises the unanswered question “why?” Why exactly have the leaders of the anti-captivity movement founded and developed such a movement, if not for serious reasons? For money and glory? Many anti-captivity activists who once were part of the captive marine mammal industry have paid a considerable economic and professional price for taking the positions they have. Ric O’Barry, for instance, who first became famous during the mid-1960s as a trainer of the dolphins on the Flipper television show, has drawn the wrath and ridicule of marine mammal captivity defenders since Earth Day 1970, when he tried unsuccessfully to free a half-blind dolphin named Charlie Brown from a research laboratory in Bimini. Charlie Brown didn t take the opportunity to escape; O’Barry reported his own deed to the authorities, served a week in jail, was fined $5.00, and campaigned in obscurity for most of the next 18 years while earnng his living as a diver. Only since the 1988 publication of his book Behind The Dolphin Smile has O Barry enjoyed any particular celebrity or possibility of economic advantage as a conscientious objector.
Nearly 20% of Bureaucracy and Politics is devoted to an attack on O’Barry, including the false charge that he was caught in the act at Bimini and the highly questionable allegation that he tried to sell dolphins to Steve Wynn when the Mirage dolphinarium was under construction. While many versions of O’Barry s failed negotiations with Wynn float about, O’Barry’s own version that he wanted the Mirage to become a halfway house for dolphins in training for re-release seems most plausible (instead, it is more a board-and-care home for aged dolphins who probably couldn’t be released successfully).
Certainly O’Barry can be accused of overstating his case at times, and of extremism. But as he says of himself, “My life is an open 10-page comic book I don’t have any secrets from anybody.”
The virulence of this attack calls to mind the late J. Edgar Hoover s aphorism that one is honored by one s friends and distinguished by one’s enemies.
Within the past six months, three major marine mammal-related organizations and exhibitors have forwarded to me copies of Marine Mammals in Zoological Environments: Current Threats, Goals, and Opportunities, by Brian Joseph, DVM, which they seem to pass out much as the Gideon Society distributes abridged Bibles. Authored in the midst of a long battle between the Animal Rights Coalition and Joseph’s employer, the Minnesota Zoo, over the ethics and humane aspects of displaying belugas, Joseph’s piece purports to be a scholarly review of the conflicts over cetacean capitivity, yet the level of scholarship is just good enough to fool people who don’t already know the subject.
The animal protectionist movement was preceded by the animal welfare movement, “originally known as the antivivisectionist movement,” Joseph wrote, seemingly unaware that the foundation of all of these movements was the humane movement of the early-to-mid-19th century, which included the causes of abolishing slavery and child labor as well as the cause of animals. Though the antivivisectionist movement shares some roots with the animal protection movement, it rose mostly in the latter quarter of the 19th century, after the formation of the American SPCA in 1869, the Women’s Humane Society in 1871, the American Humane Association in 1876, and many other mainstream animal protection groups. Joseph remarked with alarm that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals enjoyed a twenty-fold increase in membership between 1980 and 1990; in fact, the growth was much more rapid than that, since PETA was only incorporated in 1981.
Origins seem generally to have confused him, since he further asserted that, “A proliferation of animal rights organizations has occurred during the last 20 years, ranging from the peaceful Humane Society of the U.S. and American SPCA to more strident groups including the Animal Rights Coalition and PETA.” Yet both HSUS, founded in 1954, and the then-121-year-old ASPCA had by 1990 adopted policy statements distinguishing their views from “animal rights” philosophy, and indeed PETA, as well as the Fund for Animals, the International Society for Animal Rights, and Friends of Animals, among other avowed animal rights groups, were founded expressly because of splits with HSUS and the ASPCA over basic animal rights issues.
“Recently the full agenda of many groups has been revealed,” Joseph continued. Without naming the groups, he cited as the agenda “the elimination of farm animals, companion animals, hunting, fishing, and zoo animals.” While the elimination of hunting and fishing have been goals in animal protection almost from the start of the humane movement, most of the others tend to be maybes even among animal rights militants: yes to eliminating animal husbandry for meat, but qualified answers to raising animals for eggs, milk, wool, and riding, under circumstances far more considerate of animal well-being and longevity than are common today. Yes to eliminating the capture of animals from the wild solely for exhibit, but also yes, usually, to species conservation via zoos until such time as natural habitat can be reclaimed, recovered, and protected. And yes, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk has said that in a perfect world, dogs and cats would not be born, but though virtually all major animal protection groups urge neutering pets to reduce pet overpopulation, none––of any shade of philosophy––actually oppose keeping pets.
So it goes. After extensively accusing just about everyone involved in animal protection of opportunism and mendacity, Joseph argued that marine mammal parks should align themselves with Putting People First, the militant anti-animal rights group formed by direct mail fundraising hucksters Bill Wewer and Kathleen Marquardt. Wewer apparently got into direct mail hustling through simultaneous stints as a board member with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the American Tax Reduction Foundation, 1980-1989. Connecting with Marquardt, Wewer formed the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in 1982, where they were two of the four board members. Their first mass mailing, in 1983, drew a formal complaint from the Social Security Administration and a reprimand from the U.S. Postal Service. In 1984 the NCPSSM was reprimanded by the Justice Department for improperly using governmental insignia. By 1987 a variety of allegedly misleading mailings brought the NCPSSM under the scrutiny of the House Committee on Aging. Wewer and Marquardt departed to found the Doris Day Animal League. Although Marquardt reportedly founded Putting People First in September 1989, Wewer remained on the DDAL payroll––and did legal work for the 1990 March for the Animals––until PPF was formally incorporated six months later.
Having also decried the limited instances of illegal activities by animal rights groups, Joseph next urged marine mammal exhibitors to subscribe to the now-defunct Animal Rights Reporter, a pricy newsletter published by Perceptions International. This was the private security firm employed by U.S. Surgical, whose undercover operative Marylou Sapone was apparently the Animal Rights Reporter‘s chief newsgatherer. Posing as an animal rights activist, Sapone repeatedly told me at a party on January 18, 1988, as I later testified under oath, that she wanted to find someone to help her blow up U.S. Surgical president Leon Hirsch. After I told Sapone that it was a stupid idea and that she ought to sober up, she went on to meet activist Fran Trutt in April 1988. On November 29, 1988, Trutt was driven to U.S. Surgical by another Perceptions International operative, Marc Mead, to whom Sapone had introduced her. There Trutt planted a bomb, bought with money Mead gave her, and was arrested by police waiting in ambush. Tape recordings disclosed during pretrial hearings revealed Sapone’s part in encouraging the plot, as Trutt’s self-designated best friend, apparently to undermine public support for activists who were then in the ninth year of an unsuccessful 13-year-effort to get U.S. Surgical to cease doing sales demonstrations of surgical staples on live dogs.
When neither side demonstrates either accurate knowledge of the other or a good-faith effort to converse, mutually harmful conflict is inevitable.
Next I’ll look in depth at three specific conflicts where the propaganda over marine mammals in captivity has itself become the primary issue––probably to the detriment of all concerned.