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Shamu’s Exercise Machine

SeaWorld is planning to install exercise machines for the orcas it holds captive at its marine circuses.

These machines would be like the "endless pools" that create a water current for you to swim against in a small backyard-type pool. According to MiceChat, a forum for people who love theme parks:

SeaWorld has been working ... to potentially construct what they are calling a Killer Whale Treadmill ... which would create water flow speeds up to 30 miles per hour, essentially simulating the sensation of endless swimming. 

This is exciting news for the orcas in SeaWorld’s care as the park develops new ways to exercise the animals in their care and provide them with enrichment. If this test is successful, we hope to see the technology to be rolled out to all the SeaWorld parks.

So now orcas like Tilikum, SeaWorld's biggest killer whale, who has killed three people and now spends most of his time languishing motionless in a small tank at SeaWorld Orlando, could get some longer-distance swimming time.

On his blog, David Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld, compares the plan to giving pigs at a factory farm a small outdoor area where they can get a few minutes of fresh air each day. This kind of minor improvement, he says, presents anti-captivity activists with a problem:

If they applaud SeaWorld for giving its whales more opportunity to exercise and swim for “miles” a day, they are tacitly implying that captivity just needs to be made better, and then it will be acceptable. But clearly, that is not how they feel. On the other hand, if they condemn the “whale treadmill” outright, they will be accused by SeaWorld and its supporters of displaying callous indifference toward improving their lives.

This is, in fact, a classic example of the kind of debate that surfaces regularly between welfarists and abolitionists. Welfarists say let's do what we can to make life a bit better for animals who are being exploited; abolitionists say let's stop the exploitation altogether. It's a classic example of the kind of debate that surfaces regularly between welfarists and abolitionists.

Welfarists argue that any improvement is better than nothing, that maybe someday in the future exploitation at factory farms, circuses, laboratories, etc. will be stopped once and for all, but meanwhile we should work with the exploiters and abusers to make incremental improvements.

Abolitionists say that going along with incremental improvements simply keeps the whole miserable industry in place and that animal protection groups make a big mistake when they make deals with the devil.

A classic recent example of welfarism was the deal struck two years ago between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP), which is the trade association for egg factory farms. I described the agreement thus:

Most of these facilities cram four hens into cages that allow each hen roughly 8 inches by 8 inches of space to live and move around in. It’s absurdly small, and this is how these birds spend their entire lives. About 50 million of them are crammed into even less space – 7 or more birds to a cage. The new agreement would mandate new cages that give each hen a space of 12 inches by 12 inches. That’s the size of a medium-sized floor tile. It’s still wretchedly small, but it’s a little bit bigger.

The HSUS called it "a historic agreement that ... could result in a complete makeover of the U.S. egg industry and improve the treatment of the 280 million laying hens used each year in U.S. egg production."

The abolitionist Vegan Culture blog, by contrast, denounced the deal as "good fund-raising material":

Agreements between animal 'welfare' groups and animal industries, such as this one, only make people feel more comfortable continuing to consume and purchase animal products. Clearly, the industries benefit because it's great public relations for them and consumers can really feel good about supporting them. Also, animal 'welfare' groups enjoy the publicity and end up bringing in vast amounts of donations to fund similar campaigns.

So, how should people in the anti-captivity movement view SeaWorld's plan to provide Shamu with a swimming machine? I'd take the analogies about giving pigs a breath of fresh air and chickens a few more inches of space a bit further. How, for example, might we have responded to a welfare bill 150 years ago that gave human slaves an hour off each week? It's an industry that should be considered nothing more nor less than a criminal enterprise.

The fact is, abolitionists don't have to vote for this one way or another. We don't have to applaud SeaWorld for trying to catch up with public opinion by giving its orca slaves a swimming machine. And we don't have to applaud factory farms for giving hens a few more inches of space. These industries are simply scrambling to ward off bad PR, and we have no reason to get involved.

Sure, if I were a slave, an hour off would be better than nothing. So too, probably, would being beaten with a rod rather than a bull whip. But the anti-slavery movement would never have felt obliged to agree to that kind of "slave welfare" bill.

Should we then feel obliged to give a thumbs-up to any "improvement" for orcas who were stolen from their families and are imprisoned forever by an industry that should be considered nothing more nor less than a criminal enterprise?

Of course not.

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  1. […] doubt motivated by the heat they’re feeling from the documentary “Blackfish,” SeaWorld has announced that they’ll be installing exercise machines for their captive orcas. But does that really […]