Paper Cups Find New Use at SeaWorld

By Helene Hesselager O`Barry
Associate Director
Dolphin Project

A photograph showing a SeaWorld dolphin trainer balancing a Pepsi paper cup on the rostrum of an orca was recently posted on Facebook.

The photograph, which was reportedly taken at SeaWorld’s amusement park in San Diego, has caused outrage among some Facebook users.  “SeaWorld’s world-class standard of care includes balancing trash on their animals!” one Facebook user comments. 

Carol Currier, who advocates against dolphin captivity on her Facebook page, received a lengthy response from SeaWorld upon expressing her dismay at the photograph.  In response to Ms. Currier’s criticism, a spokesperson for SeaWorld refers to the paper cup incident as a “stimulation activity” where the trainer was having fun with the killer whale.  He describes SeaWorld´s philosophy that firsthand experience with marine life is “the finest way possible to create a lasting appreciation and respect”, and goes on to point out that the animals at SeaWorld are given daily enrichment and training activities.

I wonder if SeaWorld realizes what their response reveals about the lives of incarcerated orcas?  If SeaWorld takes the point of view that an activity as contrived as that of having a paper cup placed on its rostrum adds content to a captive orca´s life, then what does that say about that orca’s living conditions?   The fact that SeaWorld uses the term “enrichment” to describe the everyday handling of their orcas illustrates SeaWorld’s understanding that the lives of captive orcas are inherently impoverished and lacking in natural variety.

SeaWorld, of course, is not the only captive dolphin facility that makes use of such so-called “enrichment” activities.  A document explaining various training techniques at the National Aquarium of Baltimore, for example, describes how dolphin trainers use hula-hoops and Frisbees in order to “stimulate the animal´s brain.”

Orcas and other dolphins in the wild do not need paper cups or hula-hoops to occupy them.  Living in an ocean world rich in stimuli, orcas, according to whale researchers, have evolved complex cultures that are similar to those found in humans and chimpanzees.  Within these cultures, one generation of orcas passes down its specific survival skills, vocal behaviors, habits and preferences to the next.  Enjoying complete mastery of their ocean environment, orcas are known to employ sophisticated hunting techniques, and it is when chasing and catching live prey that all of their natural skills unfold: their speed and agility, their use of sonar, and their ability to communicate, cooperate and plan ahead. 

In contrast, captive orcas are impaired by the restraints of their enclosures and unable to initiate any of the impressive tasks enjoyed freely by their wild counterparts.  They can´t hunt live prey and instead are fed dead fish as food rewards.  There is nothing for them to explore with their sonar in their concrete tanks, and they certainly can´t use their highly evolved navigational skills, since they aren´t going anywhere.  Confined in this way, with about as much diversity as one finds in a parking garage, captive orcas are not really living.  They are merely surviving, and monotony, no doubt, is a predominant factor in their lives.

SeaWorld uses the words “appreciation and respect” to explain away the photograph that has caught the attention of so many.  But the grandness of those words sounds hollow to me.  Indeed, it seems to me that balancing a disposable paper cup on one of the world´s smartest and most powerful predators in the animal kingdom and calling that “enrichment” constitutes the most condescending of insults against nature itself.

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About Ric O'Barry

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Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Project Founder & Director has worked on both sides of the captive dolphin issue, making him an invaluable asset in the efforts to end exploitation. He worked for 10 years within the dolphin captivity industry, and has spent the past 40 working against it.

In the 1960s, O’Barry was employed by the Miami Seaquarium, where he captured and trained dolphins, including the five dolphins who played the role of Flipper in the popular American TV-series of the same name. He also trained Hugo, the first orca kept in captivity east of the Mississippi. When Kathy, the dolphin who played Flipper most of the time, died in his arms, O’Barry realized that capturing dolphins and training them to perform silly tricks is simply wrong.

From that moment on, O’Barry knew what he must do with his life. On the first Earth Day, 1970, he launched a searing campaign against the multi-billion dollar dolphin captivity industry and has been going at it ever since.

Over the past 40 years, Ric O’Barry has rescued and rehabilitated dolphins in many countries around the world, including Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Bahamas Islands and the United States. He is a leading voice in the fight to end brutal dolphin hunts in Japan, the Solomon Islands, the Faroe Islands, and wherever else they occur.

O’Barry has been recognized by many national and international entities for his dedicated efforts, such as being voted Huffington Post’s 2010 Most Influential Green Game Changer, and being listed on O Magazine’s 2010 Power List – Men We Admire for his “Power of Passion.” O’Barry received an Environmental Achievement Award, presented by the United States Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program. He has done countless interviews with such prestigious news programs as Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, the Mike Huckabee Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

His book Behind the Dolphin Smile was published in 1989; a second book, To Free A Dolphin was published in September 2000. Both of them are about his work and dedication. He is the star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove and the Animal Planet television series Blood Dolphin$.

Author: Ric O'Barry
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