San Diego’s SeaWorld joins the Vancouver Aquarium in a category both would have preferred to avoid. The California Coastal Commission (Commission) recently “ordered SeaWorld San Diego to halt captive breeding of orcas as a condition of getting a permit to build a larger exhibit space for the 11 marine mammals,” as reported by Tony Perry at, a year after the breeding of cetaceans in captivity was banned at the Canadian aquarium.

The public record of the Commission’s deliberations, available online at, includes several letters from SeaWorld’s attorneys, providing their interpretation of federal and state laws governing the care of cetaceans, which preclude the Commission’s ban as preempted by federal law.

In a letter dated October 1, 2015,  SeaWorld’s ongoing breeding programs are described by SeaWorld’s Sr. Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Hendrik Nollens:

Breeding is a natural and important part of an animal’s life. It is a sign that they are socially compatible, in good health and thriving. Likewise, offspring are significant and enriching to groups of animals, especially for species that depend on extensive social contact and cooperation. Due to long gestation and nursing periods, cetacean populations do not grow rapidly. In fact, the SeaWorld killer whale population, spread throughout 4 parks, has only grown by ~3% per year over the last 15 years.

The scientific information gleaned from facilities like SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium cannot be obtained from animals in the wild.  An impressive list of scientific publications resulting from research in Canada that are included on Vancouver Aquarium’s website.

Since 1956, Vancouver Aquarium researchers have been conducting original studies of marine mammals on site in order to advance our knowledge necessary to enhance environmental conservation. Much of our research would be impossible to perform in the wild and there are few opportunities for researchers, in academic or government research departments, to access captive animals.

With the ban on the breeding of captive cetaceans, these are just a few of the studies which will no longer be possible:

  • Vergara, V., Barrett-Lennard, L.G. 2008. Vocal development in a beluga calf. Aquatic Mammals 34(1):123-143
  • BCW Kot, L Dalton, N Fernando, M Haulena, IF Jen, R Kinoshita, P Martelli, J Ramer, W Van Bonn. Applications and limitations of marine mammal sonography: a radiographer’s perspective. Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology 2011; 37(8):S15
  • BCW Kot, L Dalton, N Fernando, M Haulena, IF Jen, R Kinoshita, P Martelli, J Ramer, W Van Bonn. Applications and limitations of marine mammal sonography: a radiographer’s perspective. 2012. Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association, Hong Kong SAR, China.

Zoos and aquaria have a rich history of researching exotic and endangered species in captivity to the benefit of other captive species as well as those in the wild.

Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park maintains a Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal (formerly the Conservation and Research Center) started primarily as a breeding center for endangered birds and mammals. Today, the black-footed ferret, Eld’s deer, and several species of Pacific island birds are being bred to maintain genetic diversity and provide reserves for highly endangered species.

I remember performing reproductive examinations by rectal palpation of exotic hoof stock at Front Royal while I interned at the zoo during my senior year in veterinary school.

Zoos throughout the world participate in joint research projects to provide the most up-to-date and comprehensive care for the animals housed in their facilities.

I distinctly remember when Fritz, a giraffe at the Oklahoma City Zoo, died while I was researching blood parasites of birds as a Research Fellow at that zoo.  We received calls from around the globe requesting various tissues from Fritz for ongoing studies that would ultimately benefit other giraffes, including this 2013 newborn calf born at the very same zoo.

The humane care of animals is of paramount importance to everyone involved with animal care in every animal enterprise. Bans, promoted and adopted under the banner of humane care, often harm rather than help the very animals they are intended to benefit, along with their human caretakers.