How Aquariums Can Actually Save Animals in the Wild

When pup 681 (later known as Luna) first arrived at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, she wasn’t able to use her paws to eat, and the animal care team had to hand-feed her. In November 2014, she progressed from taking small pieces of clam from a trainer’s fingers to moving food placed on her paws into her mouth. Her menu also expanded to include pieces of shrimp. Sea otters eat 25 percent of their body weight daily. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

The orphaned baby sea otter was as sad and winsome as any cartoon animal Disney ever put on screen. Last October, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium rescued a tiny pup that appeared to be abandoned by her mother on a beach near Santa Cruz. Stranded and crying, she was thought to be less than a week old and weighed just over 2 pounds, the smallest baby otter found in years.

Luna the sea otter was rescued as a tiny pup by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She resides at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, where she is tended to by animal trainers 24/7. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

The aquarium gave pup 681 (she was the 681st rescued in the facility's history) intensive care for four weeks, but its Sea Otter Program does not provide long-term animal care. At the end of the month, mammal trainers and veterinarians took her to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, one of the few U.S. facilities with the available space and staff to care for infant otters.

A trainer helps Luna during feeding time at the Shedd Aquarium. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

In December, the Shedd staff started a naming campaign, hosting a vote online with names for the public to choose: Cali, Ellie, Luna, Poppy, Ana, Anya. Meanwhile, trainers ministered to the pup 24/7, ensuring she developed certain behaviors like grooming, foraging, feeding and even regulating her own body temperature. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted her choice: "Luna, of course." Luna Lovegood, after all, is a heroine at the Hogwarts school of wizardry. Like magic, the name won.

Luna appeared on lots of news outlet lists of the cutest animals of 2014. But it's not just about cute. "Luna has captured the attention of millions of people and highlighted the plight of sea otters," says Tim Binder, who oversees animal care and the rescue rehab program at Shedd. "She's become a great ambassador for research and been a great ambassador for the conservation work not just for Shedd but for all zoos and aquariums."

Luna was a rare occasion when public opinion seemed to turn, if just slightly, toward supporting a belief that many in the animal conservation world hold: that captivity, when done right, is a valuable conservation tool.

It's a hot button issue, to be sure. SeaWorld is perhaps the biggest red target for those who say animal captivity is inherently wrong. The criticism of SeaWorld's theme parks—from the influential 2013 documentary Blackfish to Harry Styles of the British boy band One Direction shouting "Does anybody like dolphins?" and then "Don't go to SeaWorld" onstage in San Diego on July 9—has set in motion plenty of public outcry. For the past few years, attendance and revenue have generally declined, although earlier in 2015 there were signs of a potential bounce-back.

But it's also caused waves of consternation in nonprofit aquariums and zoos. "The film is not fully accurate, and it portrays events that happened 30 years ago as contemporary," says Binder. "The unfortunate thing is that people are taking that film at face value."

Their concern is that aquariumgoers now feel conflicted and confused when they see sea mammals in captivity and with animal trainers, after seeing and hearing emotion-evoking claims about poor treatment of "captive" animals. But many of the animals and fish in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are rehab and rescue animals, some deemed "non-releasable" by wildlife officials.

"Almost all black bears, brown—grizzly and Kodiak—bears, puma, bobcat, harbor seals, walrus, sea otters and moose are rehab animals," says AZA executive Rob Vernon. With a few zoo and aquarium-born exceptions, most sea lions and gray seals in accredited AZA facilities are non-releasable, rehabilitated animals. Fish like sturgeon or pupfish in AZA tanks are part of zoo and aquarium-based breeding and release programs for the federal or state endangered species recovery program.

"No matter what rescue animal you see at the Shedd—Luna, Nickel the sea turtle or our blind sea lion—they've all survived because the trainers have taught them how to help them live," says Ken Ramirez, animal care and training adviser at Shedd.

Lana Vanagasem, manager of penguins, sea otters and dogs at the Shedd Aquarium, is one of six to eight animal care experts on a rotating schedule who provided care and attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the sea otter pup. ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Shedd's otter program was launched in 1989 as an emergency rescue during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Over the years, all but one of its otters have been rescued as pups. And indeed, the study of Luna by Shedd's aquarists has directly contributed to the preservation of her species. The Southern California population from which Luna came is threatened. By studying her, Shedd scientists have gleaned new information about otters and their upkeep—for example, we now know exactly what's required for an otter to grow from 2 to a healthy 30 pounds, from the caloric intake to the activity levels needed. Wildlife managers can use that information to help manage otter populations in the wild.

The majority of public zoos and aquariums consider conservation and research to be their key missions. For example, last year the New England Aquarium rehabilitated and released 733 sea turtles (of both threatened and endangered species) stranded on the beaches of Cape Cod. It was part of an annual event that typically releases 90 of the creatures (2014 was a banner year). The New England Aquarium has also been studying the North Atlantic right whale in the wild for the past 40 years and is involved in changing government policy to decrease human-caused mortality by entanglement, marine gear and vessel collision. On top of that, the aquarium has designed fishing gear that's less likely to snare whales.

Last summer, the Vancouver Aquarium rescued a marooned false killer whale (not directly related to the killer whale) calf that it named Chester. The aquarium has been rehabbing Chester, who was deemed non-releasable by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In a YouTube-worthy tale of animal friendship, Chester is now rooming with Helen, a rescued Pacific white-sided dolphin. Vancouver animal care staff say the integration has exceeded their expectations. "I am extremely impressed by his medical behaviors already," reports head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena.

SeaWorld is an interesting case study. The organization has a documented history of poor environmental stewardship—killer whales and their pods were disrupted by the repeated SeaWorld captures of the same Puget Sound pods in the 1960s and 1970s—but also a pretty good track record of conservation. SeaWorld says it has not taken any whales or dolphins from the wild in the past 35 years.

Over the past 50 years, SeaWorld has rescued more than 26,000 ocean animals. SeaWorld scientists have published some 300 research papers that have been shared with the scientific community, including ones on killer whales' metabolism, reproduction and vocal learning. SeaWorld is an institution accredited by the AZA. The SeaWorld park in San Diego was first accredited by the AZA in 1981, and each of its other parks has continually met AZA standards in a vetting process that takes place every five years.

Critics contend that for a long time, SeaWorld didn't take conservation seriously enough. "While SeaWorld has done good work over the years with marine mammal rescues off Florida and California, its record with regard to research and conservation work that helps wild orca populations is not very impressive," says Tim Zimmerman, the associate producer of Blackfish and writer of the Outside feature "Killer in the Pool" on which the documentary was based.

"Prior to Blackfish, as best we could calculate, SeaWorld spent considerably less than 1 percent of its annual revenues on conservation work," Zimmerman says. "And very little, if any, of that was devoted to helping the endangered southern resident killer whales, which are a threatened population in part because of the generation of young female breeders that SeaWorld and other marine parks removed from the population in the 1960s and 1970s."

Similarly, he argues, most of the research SeaWorld conducted on killer whales didn't benefit wild populations. Rather, it was directed toward captive husbandry and breeding that "could help SeaWorld better care for and expand its captive killer whale population. In short, Blackfish helped push SeaWorld to start matching its actions on conservation and research with its long-standing claims regarding conservation and research."

After Blackfish was released, SeaWorld promised to donate $10 million to fund research and conservation for killer whales in the wild. (SeaWorld says that the announcement was unrelated to the film.) Recently, it committed $1.5 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as part of that pledge. And earlier this month the company announced it will no longer accept any of the 18 captured Russian beluga whales it had planned on housing as part of a breeding loan from the Georgia Aquarium, which, in turn, has been trying to import them from their home at Russia's Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station. A statement from SeaWorld says the decision not to accept the animals "reflects an evolution in SeaWorld's position since this project began more than eight years ago."

SeaWorld gives universities and research organizations access to its animals. Scientists conduct studies on subjects such as killer whales’ metabolism, vocal learning, sleep patterns, life history, reproduction and the impact of toxins and viruses on wild whales. SeaWorld

Many of SeaWorld's online critics see this about-face as a vindication of recent protests. Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite says that since the film's release, SeaWorld has been in "damage control mode." However, she adds, "although we consider that progress, we continue to wonder why SeaWorld needs performing orcas to continue conservation work."

Meanwhile, the Blackfish backlash has affected not only how people view animals in captivity at both for-profit water parks and conservation centers like SeaWorld but also nonprofit zoos and aquariums, particularly when these latter programs are designed to entertain animals as well as humans. Consider Shedd, which was targeted in a Blackfish-inspired "Empty the Tanks" protest in 2013, during which activists called for the release of captive whales and dolphins. Shedd's long history of marine wildlife rescue and rehab programs includes extensive studies of its beluga whales; aquarists there say that their training program is essential for the beluga's welfare. Though some people might view the training process of the whales as abuse for human entertainment, the aquarists say this is a misunderstanding.

"Sometimes someone might say, 'Aww, you made him do something he didn't want to do,'" says Ramirez, who has been training animals for 30 years. "But if you see someone throw a tennis ball and a dog chases it, you wouldn't say, 'The dog didn't want to do that.' That's dog behavior."

He adds, "A lot of people aren't aware that in modern training at zoos and aquariums today there is no punishment. Most training is done through gaining the cooperation of the animal and building that relationship through positive reinforcement."

In the larger scheme of things, keeping wildlife in captivity poses little threat to the survival of the species. The Dolphin Research Center and the World Wildlife Foundation have stated that the main menaces to whales and dolphins are climate change, whaling, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, pollutants, toxic contamination and the oil industry. Aquariums and research institutes do not make their lists. The main immediate dangers to the mammals are "almost certainly entanglement or entrapment in fishing gear," says Randall Reeves, the chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Of course, the practice of purposefully capturing sea mammals for display, study and entertainment raises ethical issues, many of which are still being heatedly debated. The wild killer whales that were the subject of Blackfish are still being disrupted by captures in Russia today and sent to new aquariums in China and Moscow, says Erich Hoyt of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, in England, and the Far East Russia Orca Project.

But aquariums that host and study rescued marine mammals might have a role to play in saving, for example, New Zealand's Maui dolphin and West Africa's Atlantic humpbacked dolphin, which are so endangered that Reeves warns they could disappear within a decade. As Bindi Irwin, a SeaWorld "youth ambassador" and daughter of the late Australian naturalist and TV personality Steve Irwin, asks, "If we didn't have animals in captivity, would we be inspired to save them?"

Correction: A previous version of this article said Luna was brought to Shedd Aquarium in December. Luna was named in December, but arrived in October.