What Should We Learn from the Sea World Tragedy?

free whaleMany of us grew up going to circuses, rodeos, exhibitions like Sea World or have taken our children to these events where we can see animals perform and entertain us.  We may have dreamed of running off to join the circus or even tried rodeo events.  

There are thousands of other exhibitions that keep animals for display or entertainment like tigers or lions featured in Las Vegas casino hotels, parrots and other birds in "gardens" or "aviaries", marine mammals in "parks", zoos or "conservatories" that are said to be "educational" or to conserve or "study" species of wildlife, canned hunts where wild usually exotic animals are contained in a small "natural" area where they can be easily killed by trophy hunters, or roadside attractions that promise one of a kind exotic animals.

Now and then we might spend a few minutes debating the propriety of using wild animals in this way. Like when the Sea World Adventure Park employee, Dawn Brancheau, was tragically killed last month during a show featuring a whale kept in a pool that would be the equivalent of you and me living in a small pool. Or when Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy was injured by a tiger he used in his popular, long running Las Vegas show.

When these things happen, so called animal experts make the round of cable television and radio talk shows, and assure us it would be naïve just to release the animals, that many are bred in captivity. That seems to end the discussion. As if that is even the issue.

No one is suggesting wild animals that can’t care for themselves in the wild should be released. But why not recognize the cruelty of breeding and keeping wild animals in captivity and forcing them in many cases to perform or live in pseudo "habitats" or cages on display for public viewing? Or using domestic animals like horses or cows for entertainment?

At one time, really just a few years ago in some states, animal fighting was considered a sport, an acceptable use of animals for entertainment. It is true that hog dog fighting, cock fighting and other animal fighting were not even illegal in some states until very recently. But we are learning.

We know wild animals belong in the wild. That is where we can learn the most about them – when they are living in the wild. Whether wildlife is wild caught or bred in captivity, they are still wild animals. We know that in breeding them and holding them in captivity, we are denying them their natural behaviors and cruelly confining them. Consider this: According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, 136 orca whales have been captured since 1961. 123 of those lived only 4 years while in the wild their lifespan is on the average 35 years. 

We know we can entertain ourselves without using live animals. So why? Money, of course. Wild animals captured or bred in captivity can be extremely valuable; the animal entertainment industry, not to mention use of wild animals as pets, is a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise. The profits from animal cruelty are staggering.   

But there have been some changes for the better. 

As an example, elephants are highly intelligent, very sensitive, social animals that belong to complex family units. They suffer mentally and physically and die at a much younger age when held in captivity and not allowed to have social companions, families, and roam and engage in other natural behaviors.  Zoos in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit have stopped exhibiting elephants and allowed them to go to sanctuaries. This is a start, but only a start.

lion in Las VegasCurrent federal regulation of exhibitors

The federal Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. 2131-2157, is supposed to regulate the care and treatment of animals held by exhibitors, but the regulations set a very minimal standard.  The AWA requires exhibitors to be licensed and subject to periodic inspections by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a branch of USDA, charged with enforcing the regulations, through its Animal Care Division. The regulations, 9 CFR 1.1, 2.4, 2.131, Subpart D 3.75-.92, Subpart E 3.100-3.118, and Subpart F 3.125-3.142, however, provide only vague, very minimal standards for keeping animals for exhibitions. The AWA regulations do not apply at all to birds, reptiles or other amphibians. Nor do they apply to horses and ponies.

The focus of the few AWA regulations is public or worker safety and disease prevention.  Also, there are only about a hundred or so APHIS inspectors for the thousands of animal-related businesses regulated by the AWA which include not only exhibitors, but also companion animal breeders and research facilities as well. 

Despite the numerous complaints about the treatment of animals held for exhibition, APHIS’ approach has been to encourage compliance with regulations, not penalize or shut down exhibitors that keep animals, usually wild animals, trapped in cages or small enclosures where they receive if not abusive treatment, very minimal care and are denied their natural behaviors.  APHIS’ view is that exhibitors are a business that should be encouraged and supported. The idea behind the regulations is simply to provide basic (1) food, (2) water, (3) enclosures that won’t cause injury to the animal but are constructed more to prevent the animal from getting loose and maybe injuring others, and also that have lighting and ventilation; (4) sanitation to control infestation and disease, (5) vet care for injuries or illness, mainly to prevent spread of disease, and (6) safe transportation.

The regulations are not about the animal’s welfare which would be best served by living naturally in the wild; instead, these regulations are about how to contain and keep wild animals to protect the public and keep the animal basically alive and free of disease and at the same time enable and even encourage the exhibitors to operate their businesses. For example, AWA even encourages and provides regulations for its "Swim-with-the-Dolphins" program. 9 C.F.R. §3.111.

Cages in which animals are housed 24/7 are permissible.  For example, 9 CFR 3.128 requires only an "[e]nclosure…. constructed and maintained so as to provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement." The size of pools for marine animals and resting areas, if applicable, as another example, is determined by a mathematical calculation that requires space based on the length of the animal. §§3.101-.104.

birdThe AWA does not have any specific qualifications or regulations for caregivers or trainers who handle wild animals.  The AWA prohibits "physical abuse", but it is not clear what that means. 9 C.F.R. 2.131 There are no regulations prohibiting the use of bullhooks, prods, whips and other such devices. How many times can a lion or elephant be hit or prodded before it constitutes "physical abuse"? And, anyway, who will know about and stop the physical abuse?

The only other AWA regulation aside from some transportation regulations that really touches on handling and physical treatment of the animals cautions against causing "trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort." This is no explanation of these terms or what behavior or handling should be avoided.

The regulations state that "[y]oung or immature animals shall not be exposed to rough or excessive public handling or exhibited for periods of time which would be detrimental to their health or well-being." Does this mean adult animals can be so handled? 9 C.F.R. 2.131

The regulations ban use of drugs and otherwise state "[a]nimals shall be exhibited only for periods of time and under conditions consistent with their good health and well-being." 9 C.F.R. 2.131 The behavior by an exhibitor or employee that would violate this provision is anyone’s guess.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also regulates zoos by accreditation of members that comply with voluntary standards.

Neither AZA nor APHIS has put a dent in the rampant trade in zoo animals, particularly surplus animals from breeding programs; the animals end up victimized in canned hunts, sleazy exhibitions, slaughterhouses and the like.

elephantsThere is little federal regulation otherwise of ownership or use of wild animals. The AWA requires a dealer’s license for any one importing, buying, selling, or trading animals foreign to the United States including those selling domestically bred exotic animals. Basically, the USDA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regulate the permitting process for import or export of wild animals. Anyone selling wild animals found in the U.S. must also obtain a license.

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which amended the Lacey Act, 16 USC §3371et seq. effective December 19, 2003 prohibits the interstate sale and transportation of big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars without the proper permit or accreditation.  

The Endangered Species Act, 16 USC §§1531-1544, bans the trade, possession or transport of endangered species and regulates threatened species. The ESA does apply to endangered or threatened species of birds, reptiles or amphibians. 16 USC §1538. The ESA also enforces CITES by banning trade in species listed in Appendices I, II.  Go here for more on the permitting process that allows circuses and other organizations to use even endangered or threatened species for entertainment.  The Endangered Species Act does not prohibit private ownership of endangered animals.

There is also the Wild Bird Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§4901-4916, discussed along with CITES and the trade in wild animals, both legal and illegal, more fully here and here.  

Check out exhibitors licensed by APHIS and inspection reports

Check out USDA licensed exhibitors and inspection reports.