Just a few weeks ago, TripAdvisor made a bold move for animal rights when they announced that they would no longer be selling tickets to cruel animal attractions. The nation’s most popular travel booking site, along with its tour subsidiary Viator, plans to end sale for any type of attraction which involves “physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species.” This includes elephant rides, tiger petting, or swimming with dolphins. Sales for some attractions will stop immediately, though the company’s policies won’t go into full effect until next spring.
The policy change was sparked by pressure from animal welfare activists and public oppression towards attractions that promote animal abuse. Although TripAdvisor previously denied its responsibility to influence tourists’ behavior, the growing stigma against programs like elephant rides was too much for the company to ignore.
Things like elephant rides through the jungles of Cambodia, swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean, or even photo opportunities with lions, tigers, or monkeys do not seem inherently cruel. But these animals often live their lives in confined, unnatural environments. This lifestyle can cause these wild animals psychological and physical trauma, which can shorten life spans and endanger the lives of their human caretakers.
In May of this past year, World Animal Protection started to campaign against TripAdvisor, claiming the company was profiting from the exploitation of wildlife through the sale of tickets to cruel wildlife attractions. The UK-based animal welfare nonprofit accumulated to 558,000 supporters, influencing TripAdvisor’s change of heart towards its animal attractions. It’s a big win for animal welfare activists.
But is it enough?
In 2013, the movie Blackfish exposed the dark side of orca shows at the marine park franchise SeaWorld by documenting the deaths of several trainers. The documentary follows SeaWorld’s largest orca, Tilikum, and creates a portrait of an intelligent, yet psychologically damaged animal through interviews of former trainers and scientists.
Tilikum’s history is long and hard, from when he was bullied by two dominant females in SeaLand of the Pacific in Canada in the 90’s, to the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. On February 24th, the 2-ton animal grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her into the tank. It took SeaWorld staff over thirty minutes to get Tilikum to leave the “Dine with Shamu” pool and enter a pool where the bottom could be raised and her body could be collected. Even so, it took ten minutes to get Tilikum to let go of his trainer. Her scalp had been severed from the rest of her head and it had to be retrieved.
The death of Dawn Branchaeu was not the work of a brooding killer, but rather an individual changed by the confines of captivity. These large animals were simply not meant to be contained in such close proximity to each other. Ken Balcomb, a field Biologist and member of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, rightfully blames the stress of captivity for Tilikum’s aggressive behavior. “You put them in a captive situation where they are locked in a small space with limited contacts,” he says. “Basically, you’re building a psycho.”
“Just like people, trained animals become bored with daily routines,” Bruce Stephens, writer of an animal behavior handbook warning against cetacean monotony, wrote. “If you fail to provide the animals with the excitement they need, you may be certain they will create their own excitement.”
In March of 2015, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish was published. The book, written by former SeaWorld senior trainer John Hargrove, is an account of over a decade of personal experience with these animals. When two fellow trainers were killed by orcas in marine parks, Hargrove decided that SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and ultimately unsafe for trainers. In the novel, he includes vivid descriptions of the lives of orcas in the wild, contrasting their freedom in the ocean with their lives in SeaWorld.
The truth began to reach the public: SeaWorld’s orcas were dangerous. Even with recent advancements, like the phasing out theatric shows in the upcoming years and ending the orca whale breeding program, these animals are at risk of irreversible psychological damage.
Everything about SeaWorld’s orcas contrasts sharply with facts we know about these whales in the wild. In their natural environments, there is not a single account of an orca attacking a human, or injuring one another. These highly social beings live in tight-knit family groups called “pods,” lead by a matriarch, or the mother of the rest of the pod. The daughters, sons and grandchildren of these matriarch whales stay together for their entire lives.
In a captive environment, SeaWorld calls their whales a pod, however these animals are not related to one another. They are artificial pods, confined within concrete walls. In the wild, one home range of a pod of orca whales located off the west coast of North America was estimated to cover about 87,000 square miles of ocean. Compare that to the 63 square meter minimum surface area per killer whale that is required by the Code of Federal Regulations.
The details of TripAdvisor’s new policy mean that the travel site currently books for SeaWorld (which is listed as #10 of “415 things to do in Orlando” on the site) but not for its boutique Discovery Cove theme park, which features swim-with-dolphin programs. The only difference: Tourists touch and interact with the dolphins at Discovery Cove. At SeaWorld, they do not.
World Animal Protection New Zealand campaigns manager Nicola Beynon said while the new policy is significant, “we hope it will only be a matter of time before TripAdvisor will also come to realize that it has to end sales to all cruel wildlife attractions such as SeaWorld where the animals endure a lifetime of abuse and highly stressful training to perform.”