A controversial New Zealand-based whale researcher’s latest PR move raises eyebrows among members of the zoo community in terms of her questionable ethics.
Ingrid Visser is a New Zealand born whale researcher who is known for her work on wild killer whale populations, in both her native New Zealand, and in other parts of the southern hemisphere. She has an anti-zoo agenda as well—It is of one that involves her traveling to zoological facilities that house orcas, by taking photos of them in order to pass them off as “evidence” of “abuse.”
Yet, she is also known for some of her questionable methods of “research” practices that have put her under some scrutiny in recent years, and it all shows in her latest PR move that involves an ongoing lawsuit filed against SeaWorld.
In 2018, Ingrid Visser was asked by a group of plaintiffs to serve as an “independent expert” in an ongoing case, which is known as “Anderson v. SeaWorld.” The lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2015, claimed that SeaWorld was making “false” advertising claims about the killer whales in its care, after watching the biased anti-zoo film movie Blackfish.
Although parts of the lawsuit have since been dismissed, the courts have since allowed the remainder to continue. In February of 2019, Visser submitted a report that discussed her findings, that would suggest “alleged” abuse. The next hearing for this case is expected to take place next spring, but when looking at Ingrid’s involvement, it is very obvious that she stands out as being the only “expert” in this case when they could have at sought out other experts to give a second opinion on the matter.
Then again, it could possibly be another PR move for the controversial researcher-turned-extremist, who just happens to have a long history of questionable ethics.
Free Morgan Foundation: Saving Orcas, or Animal Rights Scam?
The motive behind Ingrid Visser’s Free Morgan Foundation is simple: It wants to have Morgan, a rescued orca who currently resides at Loro Parque with a calf of her own, to be removed from human care and be placed in a potentially dangerous “return-to-the-wild” program. Yet, so far, Ingrid Visser has spent the hard-earned donations that would have been used for rescue and rehabilitation efforts on courtroom fees that have seen trials, which have all ended with her losing the case.
After all, the organization’s name proves that it only cares about Morgan, but not the other animals, even though she often used the other animals who reside at Loro Parque to gain sympathy and donations from a concerned public who are tricked into believing that, even if Morgan ends up not being placed in a sea pen as Visser promised, it would still go into helping other animals, who might be in trouble when it is obvious that is not really the case at all.
Before Visser was finally banned by Loro Parque in early 2018, she was reported using The Free Morgan Foundation’s funds to regularly travel to Spain, in order to obtain photos and videos of Morgan to continue to make false claims about the keeping of killer whales at the facility, and seek more money in the process. Loro Parque has a rule that prohibits guests from using photos and videos of its animals for commercial purposes, without the facility’s permission to do so. Yet, Visser continued to ignore this rule by making all her photos and videos be part of her anti-zoo propaganda, which then became part of Free Morgan’s commercial marketing, and enough to cause the Loro Parque staff to have her permanently banned from ever laying a single foot at the facility again.
It does not help that one of the true motives behind her Free Morgan campaign was not really Morgan herself, or the need to make a real difference for orcas everywhere, but the fact that, around the same time she was getting her new campaign started, Visser was having a lot of financial problems back home in New Zealand, where at one point, she was on the brink of bankruptcy and losing her home. So, it is possible that she may have been motivated by money to get the group up-and-running in the first place.
So, the real question in the end regarding this particular group is this: Did Ingrid really care about the well-being of an orphaned rescued orca, or did she really need the money more than anything?
The Whole ‘Bob’ Situation
In 2016, Ingrid Visser was involved in a failed rescue and rehabilitation effort that involved an orphaned killer whale calf, who was named “Bob” three weeks after he was first sighted alone, with no pod nearby. During the failed rehabilitation effort, Visser had the six-month-old calf placed in a small pool, where he was given too much hands-on contact with Visser and her staff. These interactions ranged from Visser rubbing his belly, to her allowing young kids to pet him while he was in the midst of being treated. She even went as far as calling herself his “mom,” while giggling to him in the background.
It was already bad enough that no one was wearing a mask—as required when rehabilitating sick, stranded cetaceans—when they were treating Bob. Not surprisingly.
Although there is argument that it was better for Bob to have been rehabilitated in a pool rather than be euthanized, as it is in most cases that involve stranded cetaceans, a lot of effort should have been focused on trying to relocate his wild pod in hopes for a potential reunion, before going in to rescue and rehabilitate. I mean, for three weeks, Visser, her staff, and New Zealand’s Department of Conservation knew about Bob and the possibility that he was a transient orca from a pod that might still be out there, and this was all before he became weak, as he was when he was finally taken in.
Yet, the problem with transient orca pods is that, once they have left an area, it might be years before they ever return to that particular area, and if Bob did manage to recover and survive, then it would have made any hope of him being reunited with his wild pod to be very much impossible. But, since the keeping of cetaceans in zoological facilities is illegal in New Zealand, it would have been very difficult to find, or even build a facility that would have enabled Bob to live out his life.
The tragedy of little Bob did not just show the inexperience of a whale researcher who once proposed a sea pen off the coast of Washington State that would house up 300 cetaceans, but also, the lack of confidence she really had to begin with.
The Norwegian PR Move No One Talks About
In an investigation that was done by Eric Davis and Erin McKinney back in 2015, it was discovered that Ingrid was planning to serve as a “special guest” for a winter 2016 orca snorkel tour in Norway, under the supervision of Waterproof Expeditions—a dive company that specializes in marine scuba diving and snorkel tours. In emails that the two reporters did manage to obtain, it was discovered that Visser and the company were charging $3,810.10 per person to swim with a pod of wild orcas off the Norwegian coast.
While it would be a lot more logical for Visser to collaborate with whale watch companies in the Pacific Northwest to host tours that would enable people to watch wild orca pods from the comfort of a boat, Visser has a very long history of swimming with wild orcas.
This is because, in both the United States and in Visser’s native New Zealand, there are laws that are put in place that prevent people from harassing wild killer whales. For example, the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act establishes a viewing distance of about 100 yards from all large whale species, while New Zealand’s own marine mammal laws establish a rule that has people stay at least 54 yards from any whale, or dolphin, when out in the water.
However, in the case of Norway, there are no laws or regulations that would protect marine mammals from human interaction, if they were to occur out in the wild. This means that Visser and the company were obviously taking advantage of the lack of legal regulations, that would have protected the whales in the pro-whaling nation. In addition, since the dive company considered Visser to be a “scientist” who publicly professes concern over killer whales in human care, it would be concerning as to why they would even enable her to serve as a “guide,” and harm the animals she claimed to care so much about, which would bring me to my next point regarding Visser’s ethic practices when it comes to her “research” on wild orcas.
The biggest ethical concern regarding Ingrid Visser is the fact that she has a history of interacting with wild orcas off the New Zealand coast, when she has targeted zoological facilities for housing killer whales. Many of her interactions with the animals could have easily resulted in her unintentionally harming New Zealand’s wild population, but here is a little twist that is a lot more concerning than a potential freak accident with a wild orca: She encourages both the public, and her fans online, to participate in such interactions as well.
In many of her own videos and photos that she and her staff may sometimes publish when sharing updates on New Zealand’s wild orcas, Visser can often be seen calling the animals to approach her boat by splashing her hands in the water, in order to draw their attention to her. From there, her in-boat interactions with the mammals may involve her laying a foot on the animal’s body, giving them rub-downs, and even blowing bubbles at them. Many of these interactions take place outside of a stranding.
The human-wild orca interactions that Visser is both promoting and participating in is very harmful to the wild orcas in question, because research has been done on interactions between people and wild marine mammals that has shown that the animals can develop an inability to fend for themselves, and become too reliant on human interaction for survival. As a result, this could reduce the animals’ chance of survival, and may potentially put people at risk of being involved in dangerous freak accidents with them.
While it might be argued that Visser’s research permit may enable her to interact with the mammals, it should be noted that since SeaWorld’s killer whales have spent their whole lives around people; they are used to such interactions with them. These interactions keep the animals healthy and active throughout their daily lives, and ensure their well-being. Studies have shown that experiencing killer whales, and other animal species at zoos and aquariums, are more likely going to enable public appreciation for wildlife than what Visser claims in both interviews and on her social media pages.
It should also be noted that Visser’s research permit, which was issued to her by the New Zealand government, is only applied for her to conduct non-invasive research on the wild orcas, not to swim with them, nor play with them as if they were her pets. In New Zealand alone, the fine for harassing wild marine mammals is around $250,000.
When evaluating Visser’s involvement in this consumer-based lawsuit against SeaWorld, one must look into her questionable ethics before considering her a great candidate to serve as an independent “expert” in the case. This would have to involve looking into her questionable ethics when it comes to how to handles her research on wild orca populations, her ties to radical animal rights extremists, and the potential harm that could come out of it. As much as I respect Visser as a researcher, I had the need to call her out on some of her unethical practices when it comes to how she does such research in the first place.
This is more about holding Visser accountable, in hopes she would take more responsibility if she is to have the same respect as any whale researcher on the West Coast.