Lions and Tigers, and Orcas! Oh my!

For more than 50 years, we have been a leading theme park and entertainment company delivering personal, interactive and educational experiences that blend imagination with nature and enable our guests to celebrate, connect with and care for the natural world we share.” -SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

When you think of SeaWorld, what comes to mind?

Do you picture a place embarked in wildlife conservation and marine education? Do you see a theme park where families are chasing their children from one attraction to the next? Or, maybe both?

I envision a theme park that has integrated marine life into their entertainment regimen. However, last month SeaWorld announced they will be ending their orca breeding programs and partnering with the Humane Society of the United States. In their announcement, they also stated they will be implementing new orca encounters that attempt to give customers a more natural experience with the orcas.

So what spurred SeaWorld to go from an entertainment focus to implementing more wildlife care into their practices?

orca

An Orca leaping from the pool during a show at SeaWorld. Image Credit: Woo via Flikr

In recent years, SeaWorld has been criticized for its practices regarding orca training, captivity, and shows. The 2013 movie Blackfish heavily scrutinized SeaWorld for its treatment of animals and apparent lack of knowledge about marine biology gained from keeping them held in captivity.

So why has SeaWorld gotten so much media attention in the past few years, yet we don’t hear much about zoos or aquariums?

What is the difference between SeaWorld and the average neighborhood zoo or aquarium?

Honestly, not a whole lot.

Zoos and aquariums hold large animals, such as elephants or whale sharks, in captivity. They often have shows or encounters with these animals that are similar to those of SeaWorld. The Smithsonian, a very well-respected institution, also has a zoo that breeds animals in captivity.

This still doesn’t clear up why SeaWorld is getting slammed while zoos and aquariums are in the clear!

Both SeaWorld and large well-known zoos, such as the San Diego Zoo, are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA accredits institutions who hold standards of excellent care for their animals. An interesting blog post speculates on why SeaWorld has been criticized to such a great extent while public zoos are held in higher regard.

Zoos, aquariums, and private enterprises such as SeaWorld are similar in that they tend to have three goals: entertainment, education, and research/conservation.

Depending on the type of institution, the focus may be different. For example, the San Diego Zoo has a strong emphasis on conservation and research, while SeaWorld traditionally has a stronger emphasis on being a public entertainment center.

Regardless of the focus, this brings to light the ever-pressing question: Should we keep wild animals in captivity?

When zoos are criticized, zoo advocates often argue that research and conservation are justification for keeping wild animals in captivity.

What research is actually going on? What impact does it have on the animals that are in the wild dealing with issues such as habitat loss and pollution?

There are varying views on the issue, but here are some facts. Zoos and aquariums are in fact an excellent research opportunity with so many species of animals all in one place. Most research focuses on conservation, animal husbandry, and behavioral studies.

Zoos also offer many educational opportunities for everyone: children, adults, and students. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has implemented the Seafood Watch program to help people actively choose sustainably farmed fish and seafood.

Despite these conservation efforts, many groups have actively opposed zoos and aquariums.

So what should the verdict be? Should we go with our gut and say that zoos and aquariums are not justified? Or should we continue research and conservation efforts by keeping wild animals in captivity?

For now, it seems as though zoos and aquariums are here to stay. With the phasing out of Orca breeding, SeaWorld may be triggering a new era of the zoo: an institution focused on research, conservation, and education that holds the highest standards for treatment of animals. Hopefully, this shift will ease that nagging feeling, and allow us to enjoy family vacations even more!

holly Holly McQueary is a PhD student in the Dept. of Genetics at the University of Georgia. When she’s not buried under a pile of academic papers, she can be found in her kitchen baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, crocheting awkwardly-shaped dishcloths, or dancing the night away with her BFFs. Solely based on diet, she is approximately 40% tacos and 60% caffeine. Holly can be reached at hmcqueary@uga.edu and you can follower her on Twitter @HollyMcQueary.