Rehabilitation and release for marine mammals – a stacked deck

Imagine that you’ve experienced a significant trauma, like a car accident.

A traumatic injury begins a journey of rehabilitation for marine mammals

A traumatic injury begins a journey of rehabilitation

You are taken to a hospital, where the hospital finds that you require emergency care and a prolonged rehabilitation with physical and occupational therapy.

After two and a half years, you can finally walk again, and you are able to resume your normal life.

But imagine that the hospital staff, instead of discharging you, claims that you must stay in the hospital indefinitely because the decision about your future was made at the two-year mark and that there is nothing mandating that your condition be re-evaluated.

Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape o the spoon.  - E. M. Forster

Spoon-feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. – E. M. Forster

Imagine that during those two years of rehabilitation, the hospital staff, instead of teaching you how to feed yourself, insisted on spoon-feeding you your every meal.  Imagine that the food they fed you wasn’t anything you’d ever eaten, but was merely what the hospital insisted on providing.  And, to add insult to injury, imagine that you could have fed yourself, but that the decision to spoon-feed you was based on nothing to do with you as an individual, but was based purely on hospital policy and practice, a practice that was a function of cost, convenience to and, perhaps, an ulterior motive of the institution, rather than a decision based upon your well-being.

That is the life of many stranded marine mammals, especially cetaceans.

So, there are several questions:

  • Who makes the recommendations and determinations regarding the releasability of stranded marine mammals?
  • What are the criteria of releasability and are these criteria being followed?
  • When is this decision made?
  • Once made, can the decision be changed (or is the deck stacked against release)?

Who? For marine mammals who have the (mis)fortune of becoming stranded and rescued in the United States, it is up to NOAA to determine whether they can be released to the wild.  The criteria for “releasability” are not well-defined in regulation and, like many federal programs, are better-defined in guidance issued by the agency.  NOAA’s guidance on releasability provides more detail, where it states that it is not NOAA that actually performs the evaluation or makes the recommendation, but rather,

The attending veterinarian and their Assessment Team (i.e., veterinarians, lead animal care supervisor, and/or consulting biologist with knowledge of species behavior and life history) representing the Stranding Network Participant, Designee, or 109(h) Stranding Participant will assess the animal and make a written recommendation for release or non-release.

Part if not much of the team performing the evaluation and making the recommendation to NOAA is often occupied by SeaWorld staff.   NOAA reviews the written recommendation and uses it to make its determination.  Contrast that with the trainer message in the SeaWorld video below, where the trainer seems to go to great lengths to suggest to its paying audience that NOAA, without assistance from SeaWorld or others in the network, makes the recommendation to keep marine mammals at SeaWorld.

What?  The evaluation criteria in the guidance states that “[b]ehavioral clearance also should include confirmation that the cetacean is able to recognize, capture, and consume live prey when such tests are practical” and that “[b]asic behavioral conditioning of wild cetaceans for husbandry and medical procedures may be necessary during rehabilitation as long as every effort is made to limit reinforced contact with humans.”  In contrast with the guidance, the predominance of husbandry and maintaining human contact are evidenced in the SeaWorld video below, where the trainer states to the audience, “So, we teach [Fredi] lots of behaviors.  A lot of the behaviors we first started teaching her are called “husbandry” behaviors.”

When?  Further, releasability is a determination that is conducted no later than six months after a stranding, continued, theoretically, during the remainder of the first two years after the event, and effectively terminated after two years.  In your case, as with marine mammals, if the “hospital” has you at two years, they likely have you for life.  Especially if they never teach you how to feed yourself.

Meet Fredi, Ace, Ava, and Piper.  They stranded in separate events.  Fredi stranded in 2011 and Ace, Ava and Piper stranded in 2012.  They were all deemed unreleasable by NOAA on recommendation by, you guessed it.

This is a video of the event in which Ace, Ava and Piper and members of their pod stranded on a beach in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Ave, Ace and Piper, as Fredi before them, were turned over to SeaWorld.

See how they were doing in 2013.  And how SeaWorld wants to “invite you all back over the next days, weeks, months, and years, to come back to see how these guys are growing, and learned over time, because hopefully, one day you’ll see these four pilot whales do their own segment in the Blue Horizons show.”

I think I can hear you, thinking, along with many others who are becoming aware of the many secrets of the aquarium industry, that it is less than clear that SeaWorld, as part of its rehabilitation program, made any effort to teach Fredi, Ava, Ace and Piper to catch their own fish.  And doesn’t it suggest that SeaWorld did not follow NOAA guidance in its program?

It’s hard to know.  Obtaining documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (whining here) isn’t always successful, especially if your fact-finding is constrained by being able to afford the cost of the request.

A change is clearly needed that will end the deck-stacking in favor of “unreleasability.”  And that change will likely come only if we insist that the deck should not be stacked, it should be neutral, and cetaceans should be taught to hunt, with husbandry used only to administer procedures beneficial to the once-free, now captive marine mammals.

But if the deck should be stacked at all, shouldn’t it stacked in favor of freedom?  Just as with your car wreck, cetaceans no more than you should have to worry about becoming victims of a system that spoon-feeds, and then blames the one injured for it.

Shouldn't the deck be stacked in favor of release?

Shouldn’t the deck be stacked in favor of release? Image by Emmanuel Jose

What you can do:

Contact and call upon your legislators to update the regulations that implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Some suggested updates:

  • Specify that if the institution who will be receiving the marine mammal is part of the display industry, it is not a member of the review and recommendation team (or a more straightforward but also more dramatic change – and one I like better – would be to remove all members of the display industry from being part of the review teams).
  • Specify the behaviors that must be taught, if practicable, including a requirement that natural feeding behaviors be taught during rehabilitation, with a directive to remove the animal if there is no effort to teach natural behaviors, like feeding and hunting.
  • Require that the two-year “rebuttable presumption” be removed in favor of a neutral evaluation of the animal at each independent time period.
  • Require that reports of the rehabilitation agencies be made publicly available on NOAA’s website (rather than enduring the – ugh – FOIA process).

13 responses to “Rehabilitation and release for marine mammals – a stacked deck

  1. Brilliant Martha. I am wondering if a petition might be created, the type that includes auto sending to legislators? Just a thought.

    • I like that idea very much! I didn’t go into it, but legislators are already calling for an update to USDA regulations. We might target those same ones.

  2. Georgia Prosser Lawrence

    As always Martha you have a brilliant article!

  3. At Sea World it’s finder’s keepers and enough of that starvation/deprivation kind of husbandry to create a new act to market. They are a sad throwback to the freak shows of the last century only with slave labor.

    • What a typical response from some people in the anti captivity community. At SeaWorld, the animals are not starved or deprived of anything. They do get fed every day and they are not punished by having food withheld from them if they don’t do their behaviors. I know this because I’ve seen it first hand during the shows usually around the time that mating season happens.

      • To woodencoasterfan: Mating season??? Do you mean when they masturbate the males to collect sperm, or when they manually stimulate the vulva of the females before inserting the sperm collected from the males? The only natural mating season that happens anywhere near a SeaWorld facility might be the SanDiego facility which is near the ocean. It would involve the *free* whales in the ocean who could possibly be mating. And even that is far fetched because the humpbacks, grays, fins and blues who are in that part of the Pacific Ocean are there to eat. They mate and give birth in warmer, tropical waters.

        The only “mating” going on at SeaWorld is the artificial and contrived type in kind in which the captive whales have no choice. Just as they were given no choice to be there in the first place–they were either stolen from the wild and their families or born in captivity.

  4. I haven’t seen members of the anti-captivity community assert that the dolphins (including orcas) or other whales are not fed every day, so to suggest that the observations about food deprivation are as simple as suggestions that they are not fed “every day” is a red-herring. You are no novice to this issue, so this should come of no surprise to you.

    Food deprivation is, rather, the pattern of withholding food from dolphins at specific times and providing it others in order to elicit behaviors. These “behaviors” are most often the tricks performed for audiences, because, of course SeaWorld wants shows that will be pleasing to the audience because a “full” dolphin is less motivated to perform than a hungry one. So a full measure of food is withheld prior to a show so that the performers are fed during the show as a reward. Other “behaviors” might be submitting to teeth drilling or teeth-flushing without pain medication, the obtaining of sperm from the male donors, or the artificial insemination of females.

  5. Being a former dolphin and sea lion trainer who walked away to start a rehab facility, I have seen both sides of the coin. While it’s been a number of years, and I’m sure that husbandry practices have improved greatly, I must say that my experiences with captive animals left me with the feeling that I was contributing to enslavement. It broke my heart to leave those animals behind with owners that did not care about them, but I needed to walk away and do something to help the ones that I could. Captivity is wrong, plain and simple. Animals with physical problems are the exception, but then I wonder if that isn’t the major exploitation- using their disability to line someones pockets.

  6. Just read the article – very well explained! I have recently seen ‘Black Fish’, so have become aware of the desperate plight of the captive sea mamals at SeaWorld. I live in the UK so can not contact my local legislator. Any progress on the petition?

  7. Pingback: Vancouver Aquarium Uses Rescued Cetaceans to Justify Captivity | Vancouver

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