SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, a company best known for performances by captivekiller whales, says the project is part of a long-standing commitment to preserving wild animals, too. The Orlando-based theme-park operator says it spends several million dollars a year on conservation, research, rescue and rehab, and that it has rescued more than 18,000 animals during its history. The company generates about $1.2 billion a year in revenue.
“This is what we do,” said Brad Andrews, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Rescuing stranded marine mammals, he added, “gives us an extremely interesting example of what’s going on with the wild populations. They’re like the canaries in the coal mine as they come up on shore.”
An average of 51 live cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — are stranded on Florida shores every year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which analyzed data from 2002 to 2010. A third of them are typically transferred to rehab facilities.
Many years ago, SeaWorld Orlando accepted such sick or injured animals into its facilities for medical care. But it abruptly halted the practice about 20 years ago.
That decision followed a deadly outbreak in the Miami Seaquarium, where a number of captive dolphins and other marine mammals died after contracting a measleslike virus known as “morbillivirus” from some rescued pilot whales.
Some animal-rights activists say they think SeaWorld’s ultimate goal is to add more whales and dolphins to its captive populations, both to add genetic diversity for breeding programs and to expand the size of its collections as it prepares to build new marine parks overseas.
The activists say that taking in sick animals and nursing them back to health is a subtle way for SeaWorld to add new animals, one that does not risk the public backlash that would accompany any attempt to capture a healthy animal from the wild. SeaWorld says it hasn’t collected an animal from the wild since the late 1970s.
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” said Russ Rector, a former dolphin trainer in Fort Lauderdale who has become a critic of the marine-park industry. “The liability for harming your healthy captive animals is enormous. Why else would they risk it?”
SeaWorld says critics’ claims are unfounded. The company notes that, of the small number of cetaceans taken to rehab facilities each year, an even smaller number ultimately remain in captivity.