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Is SeaWorld and Dolphin Captivity a Symptom of a Bigger Problem?

Two days ago, we received some fantastic news: SeaWorld has made the decision to end its captive orca breeding programme. While the plan is not perfect, the entertainment company’s change of direction is a very welcome one, and could very well mark the start of other dolphinaria around the world joining in to phase out orca captivity for good.

It is only in the aftermath of our elation that we are starting to ask more questions: What about the other marine mammals, such as the bottlenose dolphins, the beluga whales… the seals? What about in the future, if an orca or other marine mammal is rescued and later deemed non-releasable? And how about the welfare conditions that SeaWorld’s current orcas and other marine mammals are continuing to experience right now?

I was pondering all of this the day after SeaWorld made its announcement, whilst driving to (non-whale-related) work. As my thoughts flowed from a (positive, but) heavy heart, filled with the rocks of these questions and something more, I had a deeper revelation…

Captive SeaWorld-loaned orca at Loro Parque, Tenerife ©

What if the concrete tank were society? The circus tricks were an unfulfilling job that has no real meaning in the grand scheme of life… The backrubs, the ball to play with, the fish, are the money you need to live? Only, you are never paid quite enough. So you are trapped in this endless cycle, swimming circles day after day. Surrounded by concrete and not wanting to make eye contact in case it is taken the wrong way. Hoping above all hope that you hold a winning lottery ticket, or that a stranger will appear out of nowhere, validating your existence and whisking you off to someplace else.

Maybe you cheat the system, like Springer the orca. Or you ‘snap,’ unable to cope on a mental and emotional level, like Tilikum and Keto. Perhaps you just simply plough on, like Lolita.

Or maybe you are one of the lucky few who has escaped this man-limited, thought-limited captivity, like the free-ranging orcas who have and still continue to evade the capture nets.

Free-living orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar ©

My revelation, you see, was two-fold: To be okay with, even to come up with the idea of putting other beings into captivity might suggest that we are, as a species doing the capturing, experiencing our own feelings of entrapment, (like the bullied who goes on to bully because, right or wrong, they know no better, have not developed a keener sense of self-worth and respect, and therefore, do not value or respect others)…

And if we do feel trapped, then perhaps we too, like orcas, have not been, (in the evolutionary sense of the word), domesticated – and despite this are still trying to squash ourselves into a small box of domestication, surviving not thriving in a role that we just don’t fit.

We do share many similarities with orcas, so what is not to say that our lives of living in suits and ties and uniforms, conforming to conceptual routines and rules that are not ours, and typically living removed (to varying degrees) from nature, is not detrimental to our own welfare?

Lolita originated from this orca population ©

As I was driving to work the day after SeaWorld’s announcement, with words like ‘confinement’ and ‘wild’ swirling inside my mind, I felt as though I received some insight into why we feel so deeply about beings suffering in captivity. That perhaps, better than we realise, we can relate. And of course, the degree to which we feel such compassion, like our ability to survive and create a situation for ourselves in which we thrive, is dependent on who we are as individuals.

Whether we should take part in a revolution for ourselves, as we have for captive orcas, I couldn’t say. We have certainly learned a lot about ourselves from taking orcas into captivity and it makes sense to me that we, as humans, will continue to reflect and evolve as we work towards their eventual retirement to more natural seaside sanctuary habitats. I would like to think that as we raise our voices for captive orcas and other marine mammals who we believe should be free to thrive, their stories will act as a guiding voice in our quest to better our own quality of life and reconnect with our own wild selves…

Here’s to living wild and free!