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Some SeaWorld mammals survive longer in captivity

July 3, 2014

ORLANDO, Florida (AP) — Animal rights activists have been condemning SeaWorld Entertainment for the condition of captive killer whales since the release of a highly-critical documentary last year.

But analysis of decades of data by The Associated Press shows annual survival rates for some of the most common marine mammals — including killer whales — at SeaWorld’s three parks are near the top of all U.S. parks and aquariums.

SeaWorld’s survival rates for bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions actually exceed estimates for those in the wild.

Breakthroughs in training and medicine that allow the parks’ medical staffs to perform far fewer stressful or invasive procedures are partly responsible for those successes, SeaWorld officials said.

Decades ago, an evaluation of a marine mammal at a SeaWorld park might require a pool to be drained for an X-ray or the animal to be restrained. No longer.

Through behavioral training, and bribes of herring and salmon, the marine mammals at SeaWorld parks have learned to give breath, urine and blood samples on cue.

Dolphins are trained to keep their heads out of the water so endoscopes can be passed into the stomach for a look. An elaborate laboratory on SeaWorld grounds allows samples to be evaluated immediately.

“We do a lot of self-critiquing of who is doing what, how,” said Todd Robeck, vice president of reproductive research at SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., which is the largest holder of marine mammals in the United States.

Killer whales born in captivity at SeaWorld parks have a survival rate nearly equal to their counterparts in the wild, according to AP’s analysis of data from the federal Marine Mammal Inventory Report. However, the survival rate of all SeaWorld’s orcas, including those captured in the oceans, is lower than estimates of those living in the wild.

While the survival rates have steadily improved over the past five decades, they don’t speak to the quality of life that whales, dolphins and sea lions have at SeaWorld parks. Critics say keeping intelligent marine mammals in captivity is inhumane and detrimental to their well-being.

Last year’s documentary, “Blackfish,” explored what may have driven a killer whale named Tilikum to kill veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The documentary argued that killer whales in captivity become more aggressive to humans and to each other.

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Follow Mike Schneider contributed to this report

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