According to section 3.109 of the Animal Welfare Act, it is illegal in the U.S. to house social marine mammals in captivity without "at least one compatible animal of the same or biologically related species." This isn’t just a suggestion or a good idea — it’s a federal law. Despite this, there have been many long-standing cases of flagrant disregard for this particular government regulation.
One such case, the subject of a recent article by TakePart.com contributor Dave Kirby, was that of Shouka, a 19-year-old female killer whale born in captivity at Marineland in Antibes, France. Killer whales, or orcas, are known to be one of the most social mammals on the planet. In 2002, when Shouka was 9 years of age, she was loaned to Six Flags Worlds of Adventure in Ohio. For the 10 years that followed, Shouka would live without another orca as a companion.
Six Flags obtained Shouka under the assumption that they would soon be importing another killer whale named Kshamenk (pronounced "shah-menk") from Mundo Marino in Argentina. Shouka was imported to Ohio while the Kshamenk deal was still pending approval from the Argentine government. When the legality of importing the animal came into question, Kshamenk was never relocated, leaving Six Flags with no suitable companion for an orca, and leaving Shouka utterly alone.
By 2004, Shouka had been living alone for two years when she was transported to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California. With no other killer whales living at Discovery Kingdom, Shouka had made the cross-country trip to once again be housed with no companionship.
The following year, Six Flags finally found a friend for Shouka in Merlin, a wild-caught, male bottlenose dolphin. Because orcas are technically the largest members of the dolphin family, Shouka and Merlin were biologically similar enough to be considered appropriate companions. Though past cases of orca-dolphin cohabitation have shown to be less beneficial than orca-orca arrangements, park officials hoped it would be an improvement over the past three years of Shouka’s life.
But a 2008 inspection by the Animal and Plants Health Inspection Service reported Shouka as being "single housed" — meaning the park was keeping the animals separate though, reportedly, "next to each other a majority of the time." Making matters worse, in November 2011 Six Flags separated the two animals completely citing "recent compatibility issues" and ensuring it would seek another "suitable companion" for Shouka. This didn’t happen.
In the months that followed, outrage erupted online. Media coverage grew and a petition was formed on Change.org acquiring more than 7,000 signatures. This evidently had an impact, and on August 20, 2012, Shouka was transported from Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to SeaWorld in San Diego. She arrived safely and is to be introduced to the eight other orcas living at SeaWorld. This is clearly a victory for Shouka and for animal rights activists everywhere, but it was far too long coming, and other cases of this kind of illegal treatment continue to go un-prosecuted.
The reluctance with which these kinds of animal rights laws are observed and enforced in the U.S. needs to be addressed. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
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