The uncertainty of science: Two different science research teams strongly disagree about the positive or negative effects of living in captivity for killer whales.
In a decision hailed by animal-rights groups, the US marine-park company SeaWorld Entertainment announced last week that it will no longer breed killer whales. But whether captivity harms the planet’s biggest predator is an area of active scientific debate.
The latest arguments centre on two 2015 studies that drew dramatically different conclusions about the lifespans of captive killer whales (Orcinus orca), relative to those of wild populations. Although many factors affect well-being, an apparent discrepancy between the survival of captive and wild animals has long been cited by activists as evidence of the poor welfare of captive killer whales.
One of the studies is authored by a team largely made up of researchers at SeaWorld, which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida, and owns several animal parks that keep killer whales; the other is by two former killer-whale trainers at the company who feature in the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which is critical of SeaWorld. In letters published last week, authors from each paper accuse the others of cherry-picking data to support positions on whether the animals should be captive — charges that each team in turn rejects.
Obviously, each science team has its own agendas. The result unfortunately is that the science is cloudy and unclear.