The debate over the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld has turned into a battle over scientific studies now that a new report has concluded that whales showcased at the marine-themed parks live just as long as whales in the wild.
The peer-reviewed study, which appears in the July edition of the Journal of Mammalogy, concluded that the life expectancy of a SeaWorld killer whale is 41.6 years, compared to 29 years for killer whales in a southern community of the waters of the Pacific Northwest and 42.3 for whales in a northern community.
SeaWorld officials declined to say whether the study would appear in future advertisements but they did post it on the company investor relations website.
"The results demonstrate unequivocally that killer whales in captivity have similar life expectancies to those in the wild and provide invaluable knowledge concerning normal reproductive patterns of the species," said Todd Robeck, vice president of theriogenology at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.
The study was immediately criticized by animal rights groups, which pointed out that the study was written by Robeck, two other SeaWorld employees and the vice president of biological programs for the Minnesota Zoo, Kevin Willis.
"SeaWorld's claims simply don't hold water," said Jared Goodman, the PETA foundation's director of animal law.
PETA noted that a previous study published in the April edition of Marine Mammal Science concluded that the life expectancy of killer whales in captivity was much lower, only 11.8 years.
But the latest study by Robeck and Willis disputed the methodology used in the study touted by PETA.
Robeck said that the study cited by PETA looks at the life expectancy of whales held by many other parks around the world since 1965. He said his study focused on the life expectancy of SeaWorld whales for the past 15 years.
Robeck added that reproductive patterns among the SeaWorld whales indicate that they are not under duress.
"The evidence is that they are healthy and thriving," he said. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with this population of whales."
SeaWorld has been under attack by PETA and other animal rights groups since the release in 2013 of the documentary "Blackfish," which accused the marine-themed park of abusing and neglecting its killer whales.
In response to criticism and a drop in attendance, SeaWorld launched a campaign to dispute the "Blackfish" accusations. The company has also hired a new chief executive and announced plans to build larger orca tanks at SeaWorld San Diego.
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