If you want to go to SeaWorld, you'll no longer be able to buy your tickets on TripAdvisor. The travel website just announced it will stop selling tickets to any attractions that breed, import, or capture cetaceans--marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The ban on such sales will take effect by the end of this year, and follows similar policy changes by Virgin Holidays and British Airways, which no longer partner with SeaWorld. 

In 2016, TripAdvisor ended sales to attractions where humans have direct contact with captive wild animals, such as riding elephants or petting tigers. A year ago, it also banned sales of tickets to shows that are demeaning to animals. This new ban is an extension of that policy in a world where people are increasingly concerned about the morality of consigning marine mammals such as orcas and dolphins to a life of captivity. These creatures are highly social, may have intelligence comparable to humans, and would normally spend their lives roaming the open ocean at will. 

"The extensive evidence presented to us by the experts was compelling," Dermot Halpin, president of TripAdvisor Experiences and Rentals said in a statement. "Whales and dolphins do not thrive in limited captive environments, and we hope to see a future where they live as they should--free and in the wild. We believe the current generation of whales and dolphins in captivity should be the last, and we look forward to seeing this position adopted more widely throughout the travel industry."

I sometimes find myself wondering whether feel-good policies such as this one have any useful effect in the real world. But in this case, TripAdvisor has a very specific purpose. It's looking to encourage a change in policies at aquariums, and it's a change that makes a lot of sense. The travel website seeks to join animal rights groups and others in pressuring aquariums and zoos to transition from traditional displays in tanks and pools to seaside sanctuaries, which provide a better and more natural environment for cetaceans, though perhaps less convenient for visitors. Seaside sanctuaries are certainly more expensive than the small, plain tanks many captive marine mammals live in now. Those aquariums that do create seaside sanctuaries for their cetaceans--and follow a strict no-breeding program, do not capture or import new cetaceans and do not train them to perform in shows or allow physical interaction with visitors--will be granted exemptions to the ban.

"Our aim is not only to prevent future generations of whales and dolphins from being raised in captivity, but also to encourage the industry to move towards alternative models, like seaside sanctuaries, that will better provide for the needs of the current captive population," Halpin added. "Seaside sanctuaries have enormous potential, but they need more backing from the tourism industry. As long as facilities with captive whales and dolphins continue to profit from keeping these animals in smaller, cheaper and less natural living environments, then they don't have enough incentive to adopt serious change. We hope our announcement today can help turn the tide." 

SeaWorld is disappointed.

The move has been met with praise from animal rights groups and, not surprisingly, dismay from SeaWorld. "We are disappointed by TripAdvisor's new position that ignores the educational value and conservation mission of professionally accredited zoos and aquariums, SeaWorld's chief zoological officer Chris Dold told the New York Times. "SeaWorld maintains the highest standards of care for all animals, including cetaceans. And regardless of TripAdvisor's position, SeaWorld will continue to advance education and animal conservation efforts."

When it comes to cetaceans especially, SeaWorld is still under a public relations shadow resulting from the 2013 film Blackfish, which criticized the company for its capture and treatment of orcas, and raised serious questions about whether these extremely intelligent mammals should ever be kept in captivity. Pressured by animal rights activists, SeaWorld has stopped its breeding program for orcas. But it still breeds dolphins and thus falls under the new TripAdvisor ban.

Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had harsh words for TripAdvisor. He told the Los Angeles Times that the travel site "is letting voices of a radical minority dictate corporate policy, rather than listening to the voices and preferences of their customers."

It's a very revealing statement. First of all, AZA says this on its website: "We envision a world where all people respect, value, and conserve wildlife and wild places." To me, that seems at odds with Ashe's implication that pleasing customers should be TripAdvisor's--or any company's--only concern. In this instance, TripAdvisor appears to be the one envisioning a better life for wild creatures. 

And TripAdvisor is not alone. British Airways, Virgin Holidays, and the recently defunct Thomas Cook all instituted similar policies, and others are certain to follow the trend. Perhaps, as Ashe says, these companies are still in the minority, but they are hardly radical--they're a force to be reckoned with. They may well succeed at pressuring aquariums like SeaWorld to change their ways.

Published on: Oct 3, 2019
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