Shamu Gets A Treadmill: Does It Make Captivity Better?

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If a factory farm in the Midwest—crammed with so many pigs they could not turn around—installed a small outdoor area where the animals could move about for a brief time each day, would that excuse the stress of mass confinement? Would it temper activists’ outrage over the conditions imposed on these intelligent, sentient creatures?

It’s unlikely. If you make something less bad, it’s still bad. On the other hand, shouldn’t any improvements in a terrible situation be welcomed and encouraged, if not applauded?

The analogy may be harsh, but it does help illustrate a certain ethical Catch-22 now faced by members of the anti-captivity community. This week, a theme-park website called Mice Chat posted an item about a new “whale treadmill” being tested on the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld in Orlando.

According to the site, the “treadmill” is actually a pump that simulates swimming by producing a moving stream of water within a killer whale tank, somewhat akin to the “endless pools” that swimmers train in. Speeds in the “flow channel,” which is “whale vandal safe,” range from 10-to-30 mph. There is a feedback control system, which presumably means each animal can determine its own speed, and there are water areas outside the stream, for easy egress. The machine, which can be moved from pool to pool, will be used in all three SeaWorld Parks, if successful.

“The new device was tested out with Tilikum at speeds up to 30 miles per hour,” Mice Chat reported, referring to the 12,000-pound bull involved in the death of three people, including trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The apparatus was built by KSB Pumps, a company that outfits Surf Parks.

In nature, killer whales travel up to 100 miles a day in search of food. And though captive whales swim in circles and perform in shows, they obviously get nowhere near that kind of exercise or stimulation in a tank. “This is exciting news for the Orcas in SeaWorld’s care as they develop new ways to exercise them and provide them with enrichment,” the website boasted.

SeaWorld did not answer an interview request, but some comments on the article gushed over the new technology.

“This is why I love SeaWorld,” one person wrote, “always thinking about how to improve animal health and happiness.” Another commenter agreed, saying that “SeaWorld isn’t standing still! (Pun intended) They clearly want to provide the best care possible to their Orcas!”

And that’s just the problem that anti-captivity activists now confront.

If they applaud SeaWorld for giving its whales more opportunity to exercise and swim for “miles” a day, they are tacitly implying that captivity just needs to be made better, and then it will be acceptable. But clearly, that is not how they feel. On the other hand, if they condemn the “whale treadmill” outright, they will be accused by SeaWorld and its supporters of displaying callous indifference toward improving their lives.

But activists also see an opportunity here. SeaWorld, they say, by offering this new technology, is itself tacitly admitting to the lack of exercise and enrichment afforded to its killer whales over the course of five decades. They say that public pressure, brought about by the film Blackfish, my book Death at SeaWorld, and the efforts of dozens of groups, forced SeaWorld to do something to address the tedium and lethargy that comes with being a captive killer whale.

Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute put it this way in a written comment:

This development will improve the whales’ overall fitness and endurance and anything that improves the welfare of the animals is a welcome change. However: 1) this innovation was something SeaWorld could have added a long time ago, so why didn’t they? It’s clearly a response to changing public sentiment rather than a proactive recognition that the animals’ welfare requires more and 2) it does not address the lack of variety in the whales’ social and physical environments. It will not relieve their boredom or their social limitations. It’s better, but it is not good. This doesn’t mean I can’t recognize an improvement when I see one, but no one should be fooled into thinking this makes captivity for this species okay. It’s still not good enough. Only the ocean is good enough.

Candace Calloway-Whiting, a marine-mammal advocate and blogger, was also ambivalent. She calls the treadmill “good news for the whales, it can’t help but improve their health, and I’m up for anything that makes their lives better.” Plus, she says, “It will undermine any argument that the whales are not strong enough to be released” into the ocean.

But, Calloway-Whiting adds, she doesn’t believe “the public is unintelligent enough to be duped into thinking a treadmill is a substitute for life in the wild.”

Heather Murphy, vice-president of the group Fins and Fluke, also has mixed feelings about the device. “I think it’s a bit degrading for Tilikum to be asked to swim constantly, and I believe it will cause frustration for him not to have any adequate result,” she says. “That’s an insult to his intelligence. Is there going to be a bucket of fish waiting for him?  It’s the same with the hamster wheel. A hamster probably doesn’t have the intelligence to understand that he is only spinning his wheels, but I believe Tilikum knows better.”

Activist and author Deborough Blalock, however, is wary of giving SeaWorld any high marks. “Anytime we praise them, we’re colluding with them to fool the public,” she says. “SeaWorld has now offered the introduction of a swimming treadmill as a step up from the monotony that orcas endure. SeaWorld is acknowledging that captivity makes orcas unhappy. While it’s always a welcome change to see a focus on improving their lives, these animals are in the wrong place and no amount of swimming in place will change that.”

Finally, Carol Ray, a former orca trainer, worries that SeaWorld will exploit the new device for public relations purposes, trying to convince people that the orcas are receiving a nice “upgrade,” as she put it. “Unfortunately they’ll probably label it ‘Endless Ocean,’” she says. “It’s a lame alternative to willingly swimming free.”

I agree. You can put a fake ocean current in the middle of a tank, but it’s still nothing more than a tank.

It reminds me of the outside treadmill for Astro, the dog on The Jetsons. There was simply no other way for the poor pooch to stretch his legs.

Well, dogs don’t belong in the sky and whales don’t belong in tanks. It’s that simple.

About David Kirby

DAVID KIRBY is the author of 'Evidence of Harm,' which was a New York Times bestseller, winner of the 2005 Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award for best book, and a finalist for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, and 'Animal Factory,' an acclaimed investigation into the environmental impact of factory farms which NPR compared to Upton Sinclair’s classic work 'The Jungle.' His latest book, 'Death at SeaWorld,' was previewed by Library Journal, which wrote: “Lives are at stake here, and Kirby can be trusted to tell the story, having won a passel of awards for his investigate work.” Booklist called the book “gripping” and “hard to put down.”
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