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Changes For SeaWorld: Exploring ‘Zoochosis’ In Animals

Tilikum%2C+one+of+SeaWorld%27s+well-known+orcas%2C+poses+for+an+audience.
Tilikum, one of SeaWorld's well-known orcas, poses for an audience.

Tilikum, one of SeaWorld's well-known orcas, poses for an audience.

Photo courtesy of blackfishmovie.com

Photo courtesy of blackfishmovie.com

Tilikum, one of SeaWorld's well-known orcas, poses for an audience.

Samantha Green, Staff Reporter

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Recent months have proven to be challenging for the SeaWorld Corporation with the 2013 release of the documentary, “Blackfish.” The film depicted negative effects caused upon the park’s orca whales because of their conditions in captivity and how such captivity led to violence from the orcas, as in the case of orca whale Tilikum and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The film drew negative attention to the parks, and since then, they have worked to revise their policies regarding their orcas.

According to the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld has said it plans to double the size of its orca environments; called the Blue World Project, it will cover one and a half acres of land, run 50 acres deep and stretch 350 feet in length. In addition to nearly doubling the gallons of water in the facilities, they will feature an underwater current to provide exercise for the orcas. The project is set to be completed in 2018 and will be followed by a series of other orca-centered projects.

In addition to the construction of the Blue World Project, 10 million dollars will be put towards orca research, with an extensive team of scientists to oversee the progress.

The center of much controversy for the park has been around the orca trainers’ proximity to the animals. As a result, the park has made no attempt to appeal a court ruling that keeps trainers out of the orca pools.

With so many changes being made, one question arises: where did the problems begin? The answer can be found in one term: zoochosis.

The term ‘zoochosis’ was created by the Born Free Foundation, founded in 1992 by Bill Travers. It is a non-scientific term used by animal rights activists to describe irregular behaviors performed by animals held in captivity that would otherwise not be seen in the wild.

The concept is explored in Nanna Påskesen’s short documentary “Zoochosis.” When asked to describe the term, she explained that animals have naturally adapted and evolved over time in order to survive in the wild and these developments have not prepared them for life in captivity.

“The artificial environment of a zoo can then sometimes lead to the animal feeling bored, frustrated and stressed. Due to this, they develop a stereotypic behavior that becomes compulsive and unnatural,” Påskesen said.

These behaviors can include anything from rocking, swaying, pacing and circling.

Why do they perform these actions?

“You can say that the stereotypic behavior is… a way in which animals cope with their unnatural captive environment,” Påskesen said.

Could the violent behaviors of SeaWorld’s orcas be a result of such coping mechanisms? Which animals are most affected by ‘zoochosis’?

“[Animals with]… complex social patterns and family cultures can’t simply cope in a captive situation because their family structure breaks as family members are being transferred to different zoos,” said Påskesen.

This could explain the actions of Tilikum, who was captured and taken from his family in 1983.

“I think the sad history of Tilikum’s life has led him to be psychotic, bored and frustrated,” Påskesen said.

The idea of ‘zoochosis’ has gone hand-in-hand with changing attitudes towards zoos. While there have been significant advancements in the understanding and care of the animals over time, there is still a spectrum of zoos to be considered.

“I do think that there are good zoos that actually contribute to conservation,” Påskesen said. “On the sort of overall basis, I think that people have become aware that the zoos are not all Disney.”

They may not all be full of Disney magic, but some of these zoos could be heading in good directions. Påskesen said that cageless enclosures and enrichment programs for the animals could be in store for the future. Different alternatives to learning about animals also exist, including wildlife documentaries and augmented reality projects.

Påskesen has other hopes for the future of zoos, however.

“I hope…  that the future zoos will only keep endangered species for breeding programs in which they can be reintroduced to the wild. That is what conservation is all about,” Påskesen said.

Will SeaWorld’s changes be enough to protect their orcas? When asked about these changes, Påskesen spoke of the ‘Blackfish Effect’ and how the public’s new understanding of the animals has lent itself to the parks needing to act and to compromise. But will the changes solve the problems at hand?

“I don’t think that their plans are for good at all. The tanks will never be big enough, [and] the orcas will still have behavioral problems and broken family structures,” Påskesen said.

She explained that the park’s money would be better spent retiring, rehabilitating and enriching their animals.

“This is just a quick act where they are throwing money at a situation, which won’t solve anything,” Påskesen said.

In the future, will SeaWorld, among other zoos, be willing to make the changes necessary to protect and enrich their animals? Will the idea of zoos as we know them eventually dissolve? Time will tell. As the world’s attitude towards zoos shifts over time, there could be many changes across the board, whether those include striving for Disney magic or disappearing altogether.

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Changes For SeaWorld: Exploring ‘Zoochosis’ In Animals