Sea World Controversy

My thoughts on Sea World

I get asked about Sea World a lot and as a former marine mammal trainer, I felt like I needed to weigh in. That’s me in the photo below with a dolphin named Hiapo at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Jen Hancock training a dolphin in Hawaii 1989

Obviously most people saw Blackfish, and recently a new book has come out from a former trainer saying that the psychological and physical effects of confinement on orcas is  immoral. (see:

My response to this as a former dolphin trainer was duh! Why did it take him so long to figure that out? How could he not know going in that keeping marine mammals like dolphins and orcas in captivity is cruel? When I was taught to train – that was the first thing that was drilled into me. It’s emotionally and psychologically very hard on these captive animals because of the conditions of captivity.  Our job as trainers is to help keep them sane given the immense stress captivity causes.

To keep captive marine mammals, you better have a darned good reason for doing so. They aren’t pets and they aren’t domesticated. They are tamed and the value of their confinement must outweigh the negative damage done by confinement. (The same thing is true with humans in prison by the way).

The interview with this guy came off as naive and delusional to be perfectly honest.  It’s hard for me to grasp how he couldn’t have understood the pros and cons of working with captive intelligent animals like that and that it took him 14 years to realize that reality. It also reminded me why I turned down an opportunity to audition for a training job at Sea World. Their hiring criterion was stupid to me and I didn’t want to work alongside people with that little education about what they were doing because working with these animals is important dangerous work. People with idealized and anthropomorphized ideas about what these animals are, are dangerous to work around. These animals can kill you.  

And yes, I do believe the benefit of keeping animals like this in captivity outweighs the negatives, which are many and varied. Captivity research compliments and informs wild animal research. And vice versa. There are things you simply can’t learn from watching wild animals. And there are things you learn from captive animals that can only be verified in the wild populations because there is no way to know whether what you are seeing is normal or not because captivity isn’t normal.

We need both captive study and wild study. The two ways of doing science complement each other. They are incomplete ways of learning otherwise.

Further, the captive populations at Sea World cannot be released. It doesn’t matter what the advocates for release claim, the reality is that there have been zero successful releases of previously captive animals. ZERO! There have been a few valiant efforts, but the cost associated with the effort is so much that they ran out of money before the conditioning work was completed and the animals were eventually abandoned and starved to death. I’ve seen the photos and the reports on these attempts. No reputable animal handler suggests it. And that’s the key – reputable. It would be more humane to euthanize an animal than to abandon it. Even this guy doesn’t advocate abandonment.

These animals, since they have to be kept in captivity, have to continue to be worked for their mental health. And, there is still a lot we can learn from these captive animals. SInce they will have to remain in captivity and because it’s stupid to waste an opportunity to study these animals since there is still so much to learn in terms of cognition and care and given how incredibly expensive such an endeavor is – unless you have a better model of paying for their care and the research than the current for profit model which does not require funding from the government, then it becomes clear how the for profit model that Sea World has to pay for their care and upkeep is actually quite genius.

What I’m trying to say is that given all that the negatives, despite the inherent cruelty of captivity for any animal, I still will take my son to see these animals. They can’t be released and they have to be worked, and funds are required for both, so I might as well take advantage of the learning opportunities these animals offer and help pay for their upkeep and support at the same time.

Does this mean I don’t care about them? Of course not. It just means I’m being realistic. Confinement of any animal is cruel. We should only do it if we have to or if there is a compelling reason to do so. At this point, it is more cruel to abandon the animals that are in captivity. And no – you can’t prevent them from breeding either. Sexual health is mental health and preventing these animals from having sex would also be really cruel.

What we should be advocating and lobbying for is an improvement in the Sea World training program and public education programs so that what they present is a more realistic image of what these animals are and what we have learned and continue to learn through captivitiy. Give us the pros and cons, both for the trainers and for the public. Show us a training session and let us in on the research that is done. Because the anthropomorhpic illusions they promote of these animals are harmful to the trainers, the visitors and the animals themselves by virtue of not being real.