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Six Flags Wants To Import Orcas!
Six Flags Wants To Import Orcas!
Karen Farkas
Plain Dealer Reporter

"Certainly we have other marine mammals that are just as much fun to come and see," spokeswoman Debbie Nauser said.

But it was clear last summer that people missed the killer whales, which had been staples of Sea World for decades. Shamu was replaced by performing dolphins, and the lack of interest in that show and others often left the marine side nearly empty while people were elbow-to-elbow on the amusement ride side.

Six Flags responded. It has applied for permits to import Shouka, an 8-year-old female orca, from Marineland Antibes in France, and Kshament, a 10-year-old male, from Acuario Mundo Marino in Buenos Aires, on breeding loans.

The large international network of animal rights organizations, which monitors permit applications, has mobilized against the proposal. The groups sent detailed letters of opposition to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will determine if the permits should be issued.

They believe their best chance is to convince federal officials that Kshament was not legitimately acquired. Although the Mundo Marino said he was saved in 1992 after becoming stranded, opponents say they have information that he was forced to the beach. And even if he was stranded by accident, he should have been treated and released because he only was sunburned and dehydrated, they said. Argentina prohibits the live capture of marine mammals. That should put in jeopardy the required export permit needed from that country, said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States. The permit is governed by the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species, a treaty signed by 140 countries.

"We are worried an illegal trade on 'rescued' marine mammals may be starting in our country," wrote Garbriela Marina Bellazzi, president of the Wild Earth Foundation in Argentina.

Since Shouka was born and raised in captivity and lives with her family, there are not a lot of grounds for opposition, Rose said. But if Kshament's permit is denied, Shouka should not be imported because orcas need companionship. "They have never allowed a display to start with only one orca," she said.

Nauser of Six Flags said Kshament needs a mate since his female companion died last year and Shouka will soon be of breeding age. "We are going to improve their situation from a breeding standpoint," she said. "The genetic diversity of the species is a good thing." In addition to entertainment, there is a strong educational component, Six Flags officials said. And that is why several local teachers sent letters of support to the federal agency.

"We recognize and respect the opposing viewpoints," wrote Alicia Lopez, academic director at Aurora schools. "However, we ask that you please consider the opinions of educators and others who bring another perspective - quality student learning experiences that take place outside the classroom setting."

Teachers also wrote that many children will never have a chance to see an orca in the wild. That didn't sway Michael Harris, president of the board of the Orca Conservancy in Silver Spring, Md. "Enlightened marine mammal research and educational institutions around the world concur that the best way to take care of wild animals is to take care of the ecosystem on which they depend, not to put them in tanks to perform tricks for paying customers," he wrote to the agency. "The only lesson people learn is that wild animals are on the Earth to be dominated by humans in wetsuits. These are not ambassadors,' these are indentured servants."

There are currently 22 killer whales in the United States; 21 at Sea World parks and one at an aquarium in Miami. Sea World created the audience for huge mammals, said Tim O'Brien, an editor at Amusement Business magazine who covers theme parks.

"Where the adrenalin pumps on a new coaster, the emotion pumps when you get a new whale," he said. But O'Brien said he thought Six Flags would come up with a different concept from killer whales. "I am really surprised they are spending so much time and effort to bring them in, but it must be important for them to repeat what Sea World was," he said.

Six Flags has all the proper permits to operate a killer-whale facility, and most of the trainers who worked with the killer whales at Sea World are still there. Letters of support were also sent by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Marine Mammal Commission.

Six Flags' new general manager, Rick McCurley, was general manager at Six Flags Marine World in California, which had two killer whales. A 33-year-old female died in 1999 of a fungal infection and a 23-year-old female died in 2000 of a brain abscess.

An official from the National Marine and Fisheries Service said it is still reviewing comments that were sent in by the Dec. 31 deadline and will seek more information from Six Flags. A public hearing has been requested by the opponents.

Even children who submitted letters to the agency disagree on whether the whales should be at the park. While several wrote that Six Flags should have whales because they are fun to watch and do tricks and splash, one boy differed. "Dear Sir, leve the whales," he wrote. "they need to be in there natr hbtat."