When SeaWorld announced an expansion of its killer-whale habitats, no one was surprised when fringe activists like PETA — and even people who position themselves as marine mammal “experts” who actually have zero first-hand experience with killer whales — pounced on the news. As someone who’s worked with whales and dolphins for nearly three decades, I can no longer sit on the sidelines while these groups hijack the conversation and continue to mislead the public.
Those of us who work with, study, rescue and care for animals know that nothing will ever satisfy these groups, short of opening the gates and turning loose any and all animals in human care.
So let me be clear: blindly releasing zoological whales into the wild is a dangerous, irresponsible approach that would imperil not only those animals but the future of all wildlife.
We need only look to the tragic experiment of the release of Keiko, the whale whose story inspired the movie Free Willy. Spurred by the film, people donated millions of dollars to fund his release. Unfortunately, the project was led by animal-rights activists who were not only ill-prepared to manage such an undertaking, but were unrelentingly focused on a single outcome – releasing Keiko to the wild – despite overwhelming evidence that this whale could not survive there.
Sadly, Keiko suffered a long, slow and physiologically punishing death at their hands.
Today, more than a decade after Keiko’s death, animal rights groups like PETA continue to push aquariums to #emptythetanks. They’ve been emboldened by #blackfish, which is nonsense masquerading as documentary and whose Hollywood director has absolutely no experience or expertise about marine mammals, period.
Frankly, it’s insulting to those of us who do.
What many people don’t understand is that zoos and aquariums play a critical role in the health and well-being of animals in the wild. They employ some of the best and brightest veterinarians, researchers and behaviorists who work closely with animals each and every day.
Their work helps us understand species’ physiological and cognitive needs so that when the time comes to help these animals in the wild, we’re ready.
The next time there’s a marine mammal stranding, pay attention to who’s leading the rescue; it will be a zoological facility. The next time there’s an oil spill, find out who’s guiding wildlife management; it will be a zoological facility. The day is not far off when the same people who criticize zoological care will be pleading for organizations like SeaWorld to come to the aid of wild populations facing extinction.
It’s only because of these organizations’ missions that many animals in the wild have a chance of survival.
Mark Simmons, animal behaviorist and author of Killing Keiko, is a former SeaWorld Senior Trainer and was the director of the Animal Behavior Team for the Free Willy/Keiko Release Project.
Today Mark serves as the Executive Vice President of Marine Mammal Consultancy, Ocean Embassy. Simmons has spent nearly three decades working in close contact with Killer Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals and is a frequently sought speaker and expert in the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded and injured animals.