ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. has faced criticism over its treatment of its captive killer whales since the release of the highly-critical documentary, “Blackfish,” last year.
But an Associated Press analysis of federal data shows annual survival rates for some of the most common marine mammals at SeaWorld’s three parks — including killer whales — are near the top of all U.S. parks and aquariums.
Here are five things to know about marine mammals held in captivity in the United States.
KILLER WHALES: The average life expectancy for captive killer whales was more than 27 years, compared to an estimated 49 years for the wild population, using often-cited populations of wild killer whales off British Columbia and Washington state. It was also more than 27 years for all orcas at SeaWorld parks, but more than 46 years for SeaWorld killer whales born in captivity and not taken from oceans, according to the AP analysis.
OTHER MARINE MAMMALS: The survival rate for bottlenose dolphins in captivity was about the same as estimates in the wild based on an often-cited population off Sarasota, and the survival rate for SeaWorld dolphins was higher than the wild estimate. The survival rate for California sea lions at U.S. parks and aquariums, including SeaWorld’s three parks, exceeded the estimate for those in the wild.
CRITICISM: Regardless of survival rates, critics say keeping intelligent marine mammals in captivity is detrimental to their well-being. They say marine parks should be doing better than in the wild, given the advantages of medical care and as much food as the animals need. Over the decades, captive marine mammals have died from seemingly preventable causes: electrical shock, allergic reactions, swallowing foreign objects, stress while being moved, drowning, reactions to vaccines, anorexia and heat stroke.
MEDICAL TRAINING: SeaWorld officials attribute improved marine mammal survival rates over the decades to more sophisticated medical care and an accumulated body of knowledge. Many of the animals are trained to give breath, urine and blood samples, and they can get ultrasounds in the water.
CAUSES OF DEATH: Infections, specifically pneumonia, are the leading cause of death for all marine mammals in captivity as they are in the wild. Illnesses associated with infections are responsible in more than a quarter of the deaths in captivity reviewed by the AP.