SeaWorld claim on whales correct, but missing critical context

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“Whales live as long at SeaWorld” as they do in the wild.

— SeaWorld on Tuesday, March 24th, 2015 in an ad

More and more, critics are making the case that keeping killer whales in captivity is harmful to the animals and dangerous for the people who train them. SeaWorld, the theme park that showcases the trained whales, is now fighting back.

A new ad, part of a multimedia blitz for the company, is headlined, “Fact: Whales live as long at SeaWorld,” and it is written in the voice of Chris Dold, a SeaWorld veterinarian. The ad takes specific aim at criticism leveled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, an animal-rights group that has been among the theme park company’s biggest critics. Here’s a portion of the ad’s text:

“You might have heard attacks from PETA saying our killer whales live only a fraction as long as whales in the wild. They say, ‘In captivity, orcas’ average life span plummets to just nine years.’ But the author of an independent study, Dr. Douglas DeMaster, of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, ‘Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity.’ There’s no other way to say it… PETA is not giving you the facts.”

PETA, meanwhile, pushed back, citing the average age of whales that have died since 1965. According to PETA’s documentation of captive whale deaths, the average age of death is 12 years old for SeaWorld’s female orcas — which are expected to survive in the wild for about 50 years. For males — which are expected to survive in the wild for 30 years — the average age of death is 16.

SeaWorld currently has in its care several whales in their 30s and one in its 40s.

Keeping whales in captivity is a complicated issue, and the critical 2013 documentary Blackfish has brought more attention to it. Clearly, longevity is just one factor, and it isn’t the same thing as the quality of the whales’ daily lives. Here, though, we wanted to drill down on SeaWorld’s specific claim that the whales at their parks live just as long as they do in the wild.

SeaWorld’s evidence

We posed SeaWorld’s claim to DeMaster, the scientist quoted in the ad. He’s the science director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal government agency. Most of the independent experts we contacted agreed that DeMaster is the key scientist to ask about this issue.

DeMaster said that SeaWorld is correct — “as long as you use data from 2005 to 2013.” (PETA’s data, by contrast, goes back 40 more years.)

On three occasions — in 1988, 1995 and 2013 — DeMaster has compiled data that comprehensively compared survival among captive and wild marine mammals.

In the 1988 and 1995 papers, DeMaster found differences in the survival rates of marine mammals, including killer whales (also called orcas), depending on whether they lived in the wild or in captivity. The 1995 paper, for instance, found that captive orcas had a 94 percent chance of surviving to the next year in captivity, compared to 98 percent in the wild.

That changed by the time DeMaster completed his latest research, in 2013. By then, he found, the annual survival rate for both captive and non-captive killer whales had converged at 98 percent.

“According to recent information there was an improvement in the annual survival rate, to quite close to what you might see in the wild,” DeMaster told PolitiFact.

DeMaster cautioned that he’s not sure of the reason for the improvement in survival. He doesn’t take a position on whether or not large mammals should be kept in captivity.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis also cited in the SeaWorld ad — which is based on the same data DeMaster used, the federal government’s Marine Mammal Inventory Report — found that the average life expectancy for a killer whale born at SeaWorld was 46 years, which it said was close to the 49-year average life expectancy of a wild orca.

Critiquing the SeaWorld evidence

SeaWorld has support for its claim. But the company glosses over some important caveats.

None of the statistical comparisons take into account quality of life, as opposed to length of life.

“To me the important variable is not how long, rather it is how well, which isn’t a scientific question as much as it is a logical question,” said Dave Duffus, an associate professor of geography at Canada’s University of Victoria.

Our ruling

A SeaWorld ad said “whales live as long at SeaWorld” as they do in the wild.

At its core, this claim is an oversimplification of a much more complex issue. Recent independent data suggests that survival rates for captive and wild orcas are about equal, but that by itself isn’t all that significant, experts told us. The data is limited and comparisons between orcas in captivity and in the wild are tenuous.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details.

We rate it Half True.