By Mark Simmons,
I know a lady. She is the calm, wise and benevolent leader of a group of 11 killer whales. She and her family do not live in the wild. Their home is one of the most advanced marine life habitats in world, located in San Diego’s Mission Bay. Her name is Kasatka. Her family is unique in many ways. Perhaps the most notable quality is the fact that over the last decade Kasatka’s family has prospered more than any generation of zoological whales before them. But today, Kasatka and her family are threatened with extinction. Extinction not caused by pollution or climate change, but rather an invisible foe, emanating from human machinations and agendas. More than a week ago today, the California Coastal Commission voted to end this family’s future.
In an LA Times Oct. 13 editorial, “California Coastal Commission goes too far on SeaWorld,” the authors pointedly and rightly criticize the commission’s amendment to ban killer whale breeding in the SeaWorld park as “overreaching.” Tragically, the piece goes on to agree with the premise that ending killer whales in zoological care is somehow a good thing.
This view is sadly reflective of a growing anti-zoo-and-aquarium bias, rooted in emotion, not science or fact, that is being promulgated by animal rights activists. These extremists seek to end human-animal relationships of all kinds. Their agenda doesn’t stop at killer whales. A quick search of their recent statements reveals they believe humans have no right to possess or use any animal in any capacity.
The California commissioner who introduced the amendment to end breeding at SeaWorld, represents a clear and present example. In the aftermath of the decision, she was seen celebrating with some of the leading activists who are campaigning to end SeaWorld. The Commissioner’s conduct was as inappropriate as the amendment she introduced to ban breeding.
But the actions of her and her colleagues are just an unfortunate sideshow when compared to the real threat to animals taking place right under our noses.
Our generation resides over the beginning of the most rapid and large-scale loss of wildlife in studied history. Our top apex predators are at the greatest risk. Scientists identify the impending loss as the “Sixth Extinction Event.” The striking difference between this event and prior studied extinctions is that this one is completely human imposed.
What we currently refer to as “conservation” initiatives may well benefit future generations, but the work required today is more like salvage – salvage from over a century of an industrial economy. We are facing a freight train of destruction that cannot be reversed, and the worst is yet to come. Our best hope is minimizing permanent damage by averting the annihilation of many varieties of wildlife. To that end, our zoos and aquariums are perhaps the greatest asset we have in the fight ahead to preserve many notable species, including killer whales.
Those who seek to destroy the most advanced marine zoological organization on the planet live in a bubble. They are harming, not helping, animals in the wild. They are experts in nothing but character assassination. In place of actual conservation work, they have built a lucrative business model on the backs of true ocean and animal welfare advocates by injecting the idea of corporate greed, fundraising for an imaginary problem, and claiming they have the solution.
Their latest solution: to build their own version of SeaWorld in sea pens where they would manage SeaWorld’s animals and they would charge admission to see them. Their resume: they brought about inexcusable suffering and death to the only killer whale for which they have ever had responsibility, Keiko.
The whales at SeaWorld are not suffering. They’re thriving and live as long as their wild counterparts by comparison to the most studied populations. They live in a world free of toxins and enriched by loving human-whale relationships. Theirs is a different life, but not a lesser one by any measure.
Animal presence in our lives inspires and gives us the knowledge we need to work to recover the most threatened wild populations. In the modern world, zoological sciences and wildlife conservation are one and the same. Our zoos not only contribute directly to saving wild animals, they remind us daily of why we fight to save them.
SeaWorld is just in challenging the commission’s amendment. Unfortunately time, resources and headlines consumed by our courts amount to no more than a public disservice. Now more than ever we need our top zoos and aquariums to remain steadfast and resolutely focused on the fight at hand. Their experience and resources are vital. They are our best hope at minimizing the devastation already bearing down on the world around us.
It is time to change the conversation and turn our attention to real problems before it’s too late. We need Kasatka’s family right where they are, a beacon in the storm, healthy, thriving and growing.
Mark Simmons is Executive Vice President for Ocean Embassy located in Orlando Florida and author of the non-fiction book “Killing Keiko: The True Story of Free Willy’s Return to the Wild.” He has spent the last 29 years working in the field of marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation. Simmons has worked for SeaWorld in Orlando and as the Director of Husbandry on the Free Willy/Keiko Release Project, authoring and implementing the behavioral reintroduction protocols for Keiko’s release in Iceland. He serves as a Board member for both the Marine Mammal Conservancy and Embassy Blue Institute.