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Are sanctuaries and cetacean releases viable alternatives?

As we move ahead through the 21st century and the disconnection between humans and nature increases, the already important educational animal presentations in modern zoological facilities become more and more necessary. Every animal species housed in a zoo becomes an ambassador not only for its wild counterparts, but also for many others that live in endangered habitats and ecosystems.

From more than 46 years ago Loro Parque has become a home for numerous animals in need: chimpanzees, penguins, gorillas, tigers, even orcas. More than a decade ago, SeaWorld needed space to house its growing group of killer whales and Loro Parque agreed to build the world’s most modern facility to provide new space for four of them. In 2006 Skyla, Kohana, Tekoa and Keto (second and third generation orcas bred under human care) arrived to the brand new facilities built at Loro Parque. The group welcomed a new member in 2010, when Adan was born. And in 2011 the Dutch Government requested Loro Parque to house Morgan, an orca found emaciated in the Wadden Sea the previous year, and which was declared non-releasable by the Dutch authorities. At that point the only alternative for Morgan was euthanasia, as the experts and the Supreme Court, after eight previous similar resolutions, agreed that her release would mean a slow but sure death.

Nowadays the six orcas housed at Loro Parque are in perfect shape; their health is closely monitored by a team of veterinarians and their daily needs attended to by a group of zoo keepers with extensive experience in taking care of this species. The social structure of the group is stable and the veterinary records prove that in the last three years they have not presented any significant pathology. Their welfare is continuously monitored by unaffiliated experts from different universities and independent international consultants visit the premises regularly to give advice on various husbandry aspects.

Although there are no concerns about the health and welfare of this group of orcas, some groups of activists like PETA (People for the Ethic Treatment of Animals), Born Free Foundation or Free Morgan Foundation, actively lobby different administrations to release these animals to the sea, or to relocate them to a marine sanctuary. As we will explain further on, the liberation of these animals to the sea is completely impossible and their transfer to a sanctuary will not improve their welfare but rather the contrary. But lately the blackmailing and the pressure from the activists is not limited anymore to the administrations or zoological institutions, they are also threatening tour operators and other companies that work in the touristic sector.

It suits to ask two questions:

Who is saying that the orcas in zoological institutions are not happy?

The answer is only given by anti-zoo organizations. Not any researcher from an independent institution (university) with academic knowledge and accredited experience about animal welfare corroborates these affirmations. Some scientists that have supported the anti-zoo organizations are not experts in animal welfare but their experience is based only on general biology or neuroanatomy.

On what are their affirmations, that the orcas are suffering, based?

Their affirmations are not based on measurements of hormones, rigorous investigations about behaviour or careful scientific studies that evaluate the personality or the activity of the animals. The affirmations of the anti-zoo organizations are based on prejudices and speculations never proven.

In contrast, Loro Parque has independent studies from experts in animal welfare of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria which, by analyzing all hormonal parameters, their activity and behaviour, conclude that the welfare of the animals is very high.

This leaves very clear that the self-proclaimed organizations for animal rights claim that they are motivated by the lack of welfare of the zoo-housed orcas, despite the fact that none of them has the academic background in animal welfare. Actually, the vast majority of their personnel don’t even have the minimum formation in biology or zoology. The truth is that the so called “animal rights” organizations have turned into big multinational businesses that receive million of dollars in donations from good-hearted people who are truly concerned about animals. Due to this lack of knowledge and experience the effects of these campaigns against zoos that
have cetaceans in their care have a disastrous outcome for the orcas. SeaWorld’s decision to stop the breeding program of their orcas in 2016 has resulted in reactivating the hunt of orcas in Russia in order to fulfill the demand of Chinese parks.

At this point it is very important to analyze the demands that the anti-zoo groups make to the administrations and the tour operators: to liberate the orcas to the sea or to transfer them to marine sanctuaries.

1.- Can the orcas be returned to the sea?

The answer is very clear: No. And they know it because we’re talking about a group of hybrid animals (a mixture between orcas from the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans) and no administration from any country will allow that they are liberated into the sea since the risk of genetic contamination of the wild orca populations will be far too high.

And if that was not enough, these animals, born in second, third and fourth generation under human care, have never learned to hunt their prey. The only known experience of liberating an orca that was born wild and kept 20 years under human care (Keiko) demonstrated that it is not possible for them to recuperate the ability to hunt for their own food; and this, even though Keiko had not been born under human care. The adaptation of animals that have lived several generations under human care would be even more difficult.

Also the health authorities would not allow a reintroduction into the sea because of the possibility to liberate at the same time bacteria, fungi, and parasites which have been treated with medicines and could cause severe epidemics in wild populations of dolphins and whales.

The best evidence of the impossibility to re-adapt zoo-housed killer whales to the sea is the reintroduction of Keiko (the protagonist of the film “Free Willy”). After more than three years of preparation and 20 million dollars spent, the only result was the sacrifice of a beautiful animal that was incapable of hunting for itself. But it seems that neither PETA nor Born Free Foundation or Free Morgan Foundation have learned anything from the death of Keiko and keep on presenting the liberation as an ideal solution.

2.- Would the orcas welfare status improve if they are transferred to a sanctuary?

In this case the answer also is no. It is very naive to think that orcas, that have lived various generations in zoological facilities, will automatically swim longer distances for the mere fact of having more space. The reality is that the orcas would have to be kept exactly the same way as in zoological institutions, with trainers that motivate them to swim and jump in order to release their energy, a team of veterinarians that can obtain blood, urine, stool and blowhole samples (which can only be achieved with training) to guarantee their health.

For the same reasons of genetic contamination and the possible epidemic infections earlier mentioned, no government will allow the construction of a sanctuary in its waters since this would put the wild populations of dolphins and whales in high danger. The possibility of an accidental or deliberate escape of the animals from a sanctuary is very high, the same as the transmission of illness and infections through the water that will be exchanged with seawater without purification. There is a famous precedent of an intentional liberation of two dolphins from a sanctuary, of which one died and the other one ended up with severe damage since neither of them was able to hunt fish to feed themselves. The author of this liberation, Rick O’Barry, was sentenced for animal abuse breaking the Marine Mammal Protection Act of the USA.

In case of oil spills or other naval accidents or simply by the general plastic pollution, the animals would be in great risk of contamination.

In case of storms the animals would be at risk of drowning if the nets of the enclosure broke or simply that big waves in the bay would push them to land. Therefore, the sanctuary will need to have an emergency system which in practice means to build a pool with its filtration system, water control, etc.

The dietary necessities of the orcas would be the same as in the zoological facility. That means that they have to be offered 8 to 9 feedings which represent more than 300kg of highest quality fish daily. It is not possible to find this amount of live fish in a small bay and if live fish gets thrown in, it would escape through the holes of the nets. Therefore, the feeding in a sanctuary would also have to be based on frozen fish.

A group of 6 of these big animals produces approximately 54,000kg of excrement a year; this means that very strong tidal current would be needed to keep the bay clean. But the tides could have a negative impact on the animals as well as the nets and moorings used to close the bay.

To keep an orca costs approximately 600,000 US$ a year which means that a sanctuary needs to generate a minimum of 3.6 million dollars yearly for at least 40 to 50 years to come. Taking into consideration the difficulties that dog and cat shelters have nowadays to maintain their very inferior costs, it might very well be possible that these costs, in a few years, will have to be paid by the taxes of all citizens.

All these arguments leave it very clear that neither the reintroduction into the sea nor the transfer into a sanctuary are viable options for orcas born under human care like the ones at Loro Parque. But what about Morgan? She has not been born under human care. This is true and, as has been explained, Morgan arrived to Loro Parque because she was rescued,which saved her life, and because of a petition from the Dutch Authorities so that they didn’t have to euthanize her. This means that thanks to Loro Parque her life was saved twice.

With the arrival of Morgan to our installations, we were very aware of three things:

  • Our interference was necessary in order to save the life of an animal.
  • Our maintenance cost would increase by US$ 600,000 per year.
  • Morgan would not bring one customer more to Loro Parque.

But as on many previous occasions, Loro Parque has highlighted the fact that there was an animal in need. This is why we have received Morgan and welcomed her not only with professionalism but most of all with tremendous love and respect towards an animal with a big history of suffering.

However, and unexpected by us, the arrival of Morgan also unchained the criticisms of the activists and their false arguments, as for example, that her family awaits her in the sea (although her pod had never been located) when the most likely was that her family had left her behind because of a sensory deficiency. This hearing deficit, which was not diagnosed until several months after of her arrival to our facilities, might have been the reason why, applying the maxim of “only the strong survive”, her family separated from her, an animal that cannot help in the survival of the group.

When Morgan’s trainers started to suspect that she was deaf, Loro Parque contacted the highest experts in cetacean acoustics, Dr. Houser, Dr. Luke and Dr. Finneran of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, IMARES and the US Navy respectively. They demonstrated the complete lack of hearing of Morgan and published their results in a scientific journal.

Therefore, the liberation of Morgan into the sea would be her death penalty because, besides that she has never learned how to hunt (like the other orcas in the group), her hearing deficit would not allow her to find prey since it implies that her sonar does not function. Also her communication problems would not allow her to coordinate herself with other orcas in order to hunt and orcas like Morgan are not able to feed themselves.

In conclusion, if PETA or Born Free Foundation would achieve their objective, to take the orcas from Loro Parque to a sanctuary or to liberate, they would only provoke their sure death.