Seaworld abandons Killer Whale breeding program

Early this morning, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced his organization would be abandoning their Killer Whale breeding program as a result of public pressure.

killer whale show

via pixabay

In his LA Times Op-Ed, Manby cites “attitudinal” changes behind SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding Killer Whales. This is a veiled reference to a weeks-long effort on the part of animal activists, animal lovers and a concerned general public in reaction to the deteriorating health of Tilikum, one of SeaWorld’s best known orcas and subject of the widely acclaimed documentary Blackfish (if you haven’t yet seen Blackfish, I encourage you to do so. The trailer is featured below).

SeaWorld unsurprisingly continues to defend their work as a “conservation” effort. They will not be releasing any of their existing Orcas into the wild, and Manby’s article refers rather loosely to continuing to collect sea lions, dolphins and other animals in “rescue operations.” This remains an issue of deep concern and we should continue to put pressure on SeaWorld to halt all breeding programs and stop taking animals from the wild.

Responses to SeaWorld’s announcement have been predictable. The general public sees it as a victory for animals, and animal rights activists warn that we shouldn’t sit back on our laurels in the belief that our work has been accomplished. Animal abolitionists will likely remind us that half measures are for nought: we should focus on spreading veganism and eliminating all forms of animal exploitation.

Emotional Appeals Carry Weight

But emotional appeals are to essential to growing any rights-based movement. While my commitment to animal rights emanates from an intellectual/moral philosophy, the wider public has either not thought the issue through, or aren’t yet willing to do so. For maximum effectiveness, abolitionists must meet society on a level where they don’t feel threatened.

I’m reminded of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her book (which preceded the civil war by a mere 9 years) raised the consciousness of a nation. It was one of the first pieces of American protest literature, and its impact continues to this day. It has many serious flaws – most obviously its paternalistic attitude towards african americans and perpetuation of stereotypes – but it tugged the heartstrings of many, humanizing a group they previously took for granted, and leading them to take action about an issue that they didn’t fully understand. It took a civil war to free the slaves, but Stowe’s novel started a national conversation and led to outrage over the vile Fugitive Slave Act.

Like Stowe, the strength of PETA and other organizations lies in their use of emotion to evangelize to the public. By simultaneously advocating the abolition of exploitation and reduction of animal suffering, our message reaches a much broader audience. The simple message contained in Charlotte’s Web and Babe have probably led to more people empathize with animals than Peter Singer’s classic philosophical work, Animal Liberation. Singer himself, who advocates a pragmatic approach, would likely agree.

Abolitionists often argue welfare measures merely salve our collective conscience. But if those measures can produce meaningful action – like ending breeding programs and banning the capture of new  animals – Zoos, Circuses and Aquariums would close in a generation.

No-one likes feeling like they’re part of the problem

The public responds to rights issues when they are framed in a way that allows them to participate without feeling they are part of the problem. Of course, people ought to reject animal exploitation because it’s wrong, but it’s unrealistic to wait for a collective moral epiphany before taking action.  The heart often seems a great deal more vulnerable than the head.

It’s difficult to tell the public that they are complicit in a system that exploits and abuses. That’s why society is less defensive about fur (most don’t have mink coats), foie gras (not a standard item on most dinner plates), and performing whales. They aren’t part of it, therefore its easier for them to recognize why its wrong. It’s the same reason the public becomes enraged over Cecil the Lion, while continuing to slaughter animals by the billions each year.

Where do Animal Rights Activists go from here?

So, how do we move from ending a breeding program to eliminating animal exploitation? We build on our success. For example, this is the perfect moment to remind the public about whale hunting in the arctic and dolphin slaughter in Japan.

SeaWorld’s announcement matters. Here’s why: it demonstrates that when animal rights activists create campaigns that resonate with the public, we get results. Our voices make a difference, and when we laser focus on issues where we can achieve practical results, it can have long-term impacts. If these companies can no longer make money exploiting animals, they will give up.

It’s such a small gesture – does it matter that SeaWorld ended its breeding program?

Can terminating a breeding program really have far-reaching consequences? In short, yes. But it’s up to us to use this momentum to propel the movement forward. Animal activism must be pragmatic as well as revolutionary. Focusing on a single issue can have tremendous impact, and people who believe in animal rights must focus their energy if we are to achieve meaningful change.

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