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Our love of orcas is making them miserable
Whales and dolphins are smart, social, and thrive in the open sea. Why do we force them to live in tiny pools?
Tokitae, stage name Lolita, was less than a year from freedom when she died. She had been captured in 1970, when she was 4 years old, and spent the remaining 53 years of her life performing for enchanted audiences at the Miami Seaquarium theme park, in what has been described by some as the smallest orca enclosure in North America. She was 22 feet long; her enclosure was only 80 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet deep.
For a while, she had another orca, Hugo, as a companion, but he died in 1980, at just 12 years old, after a brain aneurysm many believe was caused by his habit of repeatedly bashing his head against the sides of the pool. Though orcas in the wild form close social bonds with family members whom they spend their lives with, Tokitae lived alone and, at times, with dolphins after Hugo’s death.
Since the 1990s, animal rights activists pushed for Tokitae’s return to her home waters in the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, to her mother and her family. She was a wild animal, a member of an endangered species — but she was also property. There wasn’t anything animal advocates could do as long as the Seaquarium didn’t want to let her go.
But after Miami Seaquarium was acquired by a new owner in 2021, the park reversed course. Tokitae was to be released to an ocean sanctuary in the Salish Sea, where she would be able to properly swim and dive for the first time in 50 years.
Like for most of the 166 orcas captured from the wild since the 1960s, mostly in the waters around Iceland and Puget Sound, that freedom never came. Tokitae died in captivity at the Seaquarium this past August from old age and multiple illnesses. (Miami Seaquarium did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.) All this because humans had fallen under the spell of marine mammals like orcas and wanted them in a place where we could see them on demand.
Tokitae’s death renewed public outrage over the conditions in which cetaceans — highly intelligent, social marine mammals like whales and dolphins — are confined for human entertainment. In the US, such sentiment has been brewing for at least a decade, since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish — an exposé of the marine park industry. It was prompted by the 2010 killing of Dawn Brancheau, an animal trainer at SeaWorld, the country’s biggest and best-known marine park chain, by one of the park’s orcas, Tilikum, in front of a live audience in Orlando. The film alleged that the inadequate environments and lack of natural social connections in marine parks were driving the animals to madness.
SeaWorld Entertainment has called Blackfish inaccurate since its release. In an emailed statement to Vox on behalf of SeaWorld, Libby Panke, senior vice president for the PR firm FleishmanHillard, vehemently denied the claims made in the film, calling it “dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.” SeaWorld also claims that some of the subjects appearing in Blackfish were “disgruntled former employees,” including some who “had never even worked with whales.”
Nevertheless, the film struck a chord with the public. Twenty-one million people tuned in when it premiered on CNN. Musicians pulled out of performing at SeaWorld, and corporate sponsors like Southwest Airlines ended longstanding partnerships. Attendance and profits declined after Blackfish, and the year after the film, SeaWorld announced plans to double the size of its orca tanks.
Now, the days of captive orcas are, at last, coming to an end — for the most part. China is the only country where orcas are still bred for entertainment in captivity. The last wild-caught orcas were captured and confined in Russia in 2018 and later released; in North America, the capture of wild orcas had ended by the 1980s.
But thousands of other cetaceans, mostly dolphins and beluga whales, remain in marine theme parks across the country and the world, entertaining humans; for these species, there is no end to captivity in sight. Meanwhile, marine parks are struggling to justify their existence, increasingly couching their purpose in terms of education and conservation goals that appeal to present-day consumers. Panke pointed out that SeaWorld does conservation work that benefits wild populations, including wild animal rescue and rehabilitation, which, she said, has helped more than 40,000 injured or orphaned marine animals (although in some cases, SeaWorld’s website states, animals deemed nonreleasable are kept in captivity). But many critics still believe that these parks are about bringing in money, no matter the cost to the animals.
A cetacean in captivity is “stripped of everything that makes it magnificent,” Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told me. “We are not being truly educated about these animals when we see them in small tanks.”
Parkgoers love watching marine mammals perform flips or splash them with their giant bodies, Cowperthwaite said. “Because we’re having fun, we imagine they must be having fun, too.” But the animals are just working for their keep.
“Our whole lives, we’d been hearing animal rights folks and their protesting,” Cowperthwaite said. After Blackfish, the public was finally willing to hear what the anti-captivity crowd had been saying all along.
Westerners used to hate orcas. Captivity taught us to love them.
Americans have been paying to see cetaceans since 1861, when showman P.T. Barnum, a founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, captured nine beluga whales off the East Coast. They were transported by train inside boxes filled with salt water, and eventually placed in tanks in the basement of Barnum’s New York City American Museum for spectators to view. Seven whales died one after another from the poor conditions; the final two died in a fire.
In the late 1930s, tourists flocked to Marine Studios in Florida (originally opened to allow film directors to shoot underwater footage) to see the first captive bottlenose dolphin, author Jason Colby writes in his book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator. By the 1950s, dolphin trainers were teaching the animals to do increasingly elaborate tricks like jumping over hurdles and through hoops or taking a fish dangling from a human’s mouth. Marine Studios rebranded as Marineland, the world’s first “oceanarium.” More soon followed. Between 1960 and 1970, aquariums and marine parks sprung up across the US, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere, displaying animals like dolphins, seals, walruses, and beluga whales. The first captive dolphin in the UK was displayed in the early 1960s; by the end of the 1970s, over 30 UK facilities were keeping cetaceans.
Orcas, though, were still more commonly seen as pests. Pacific Northwest Indigenous tribes like the Lummi considered them part of their family, but Western fishers feared them or saw them as competition for salmon. Even their Latin name, Orcinus orca, is foreboding, translating to “belonging to Orcus,” a Roman god of the underworld. All cetacean species are carnivorous, but orcas were long singled out as hunters and killers, best to be dispatched before they could hurt human beings (though they’re colloquially called “killer whales,” they’re actually the largest species in the dolphin family). As a result, writes author David Kirby in his book Death at SeaWorld, “nearly one-quarter of all orcas captured for display during the late sixties and early seventies showed signs of bullet wounds.”
The first orca to survive in captivity for longer than a few days was a result of one of these killings gone wrong. In 1964, Kirby writes, the curator of the Vancouver Aquarium commissioned an orca sculpture. Seeking out a model for the artist to work from, hunters shot a wild orca in nearby waters with a harpoon gun but missed his vital organs — so they towed the injured animal to shore using the harpoon rope as a leash. Thousands of visitors came to see the orca at a makeshift pen by Vancouver’s Burrard Dry Dock Pier, marveling at how docile the “killer” was. He died after 87 days in captivity.
The orca, it turned out, wasn’t dangerous, but misunderstood — and people clamored for the chance to see one themselves. By then, many marine parks had captive dolphins or seals, but an orca would offer spectators something novel. In 1965, Kirby recounts, when a fisherman caught a male orca calf in a fishing net in Puget Sound, the Seattle Marine Aquarium paid $8,000 for the baby, whom they named Namu. Orca hunter and aquarium owner Ted Griffin became the first person to swim with and ride a captive orca — something that later became a staple at marine theme parks — when he got in the water with Namu.
A few months later, a young female orca named Shamu (She-Namu) was captured to be a friend for Namu, but the two didn’t get along. She was sold to a marine park that opened in San Diego earlier that year and had already proven an immense success: SeaWorld. There, visitors watched trainers swim with captive orcas, igniting a dream the public never knew they had about taming these giant, magical animals.
In the orca frenzy that followed, over a hundred were captured from the wild and transferred to various parks’ pools. Ted Griffin’s well-documented Pacific Northwest orca captures led to the accidental deaths by drowning of a number of orcas, who were tangled in the nets used to catch them and couldn’t reach the surface to breathe. In Penn Cove, off the coast of Washington state, where Tokitae was captured, four babies and one adult orca were killed this way.
Captivity enabled scientific study of orcas — which fueled calls to set them free
Marine parks enabled the scientific study of live cetaceans — leading to revelations about their remarkable intelligence that would ultimately contribute to calls to shut down the industry. Before captivity, scientists could only learn about orcas by killing and dissecting them, Colby writes.
“We learned an awful lot about dolphins and whales from research with captive animals,” said Lori Marino, a scientist and president of Whale Sanctuary Project, which works to rehome captive cetaceans into seaside sanctuaries. Captivity taught us about cetaceans’ gestation periods, their sensitivity to human-created noise, and more about their physiology and life cycles — knowledge later used to monitor their population health in the wild. We also learned that dolphins and orcas are among a small number of species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror — a test often used as a proxy for whether an animal has a sense of self.
But now, Marino argues, captivity just isn’t necessary. “If you study what a dolphin or whale can do [under experimental conditions] in a tank, it tells you about captivity. But if you want to know what they do, you have to go to where they are doing it, and that’s in the wild.”
Research on captive cetaceans drove interest in the animals in their natural habitats, too. The first scientific survey of Puget Sound’s orca population took place in the 1970s, an era when the wild whale-watching industry — now worth over $2 billion a year globally — got off the ground. Virtually everything we know about cetacean social and family relationships, culture, and tool use is from field study, Marino said. This past summer, for example, Iberian orcas started ramming into yachts, in what many scientists believed was a new cultural fad.
After years of seeing the amazing things orcas and other cetaceans could do in marine parks, and having the chance to stand on the other side of thick glass and look into a killer whale’s eyes, the public wanted to protect them in the wild, Colby writes. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, providing ecosystem-level protection for aquatic mammals and making it illegal to harass or kill them. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that came after centuries of intensive commercial whaling in the US drove many whale species to endangerment. It was also a moment when the public was primed to care about conservation, with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
But that didn’t mean the public was clamoring to release cetaceans from marine parks, where they were kept in pools that represented a small fraction of the range they would swim in the wild. It wasn’t until the death of the orca trainer at SeaWorld in 2010, as depicted in Blackfish, that a turning point came, said Naomi Rose, a senior scientist for the marine life program at the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been advocating to improve conditions for marine mammals for 30 years.
The public reaction to Blackfish was so strong, Rose said, because it showed a side of captivity that wasn’t apparent before. The public perception had been that these mammals were happy to perform. “Not just happy, but thriving!” Rose said.
Blackfish alleged that orcas at marine parks frequently hurt their trainers — information that, some ex-trainers have said, was downplayed by SeaWorld. While there have been at most a handful of encounters with orcas in the wild that have resulted in injuries for humans, there has never been a documented example of an orca in the wild killing a human — but orcas have done so when kept in a concrete pool. In 2010, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) brought a case against SeaWorld for “willful” safety violations (later downgraded from “willful” to “serious”). An OSHA news release stated, “SeaWorld trainers had an extensive history of unexpected and potentially dangerous incidents involving killer whales at its various facilities.”
In response to claims that the company kept information about staff injuries from its trainers, SeaWorld told Vox that “there were only 12 incidents” of injury to its orca trainers between 1988 and 2009, most of which were not caused by orcas, and that “any claim that these injuries were somehow hidden from trainers is absolutely false.”
In the wild, orcas live in stable, matrilineal family groups and have dialects and calls that are specific to their home range. Marine parks had little regard for these complex social arrangements, regularly moved animals around, mixed orcas from Iceland with ones from Puget Sound, and separated calves from their mothers. In the wild, they travel an average of 40 miles a day and dive up to 500 feet, but regulations for captive orcas only require that they have pools that are twice as wide as the orca’s length, and half their width in depth.
SeaWorld employees has told guests that the average lifespan of an orca in the wild was only 25 to 35 years, Blackfish showed, making their lives in captivity seem better by comparison. In reality, they can live far longer lives, with females often living between 50 and 100 years and males living for 30 to 60.
After the groundswell that followed Blackfish, California banned the breeding of captive orcas and the use of orcas already in captivity in theatrical presentations (educational programs are still allowed). In 2019, Canada made it illegal to keep any cetaceans in captivity; the country’s last captive orca, Kiska, died earlier this year after spending years alone in a concrete tank.
In 2016, SeaWorld ended its captive breeding program for orcas, and the organization told me in a statement that all of its newly built parks will be “whale-free.” Experts say killer whales in marine parks more broadly will soon become a thing of the past. Despite a few breeding programs at other parks outside the US, more orcas are dying in captivity than are being born. Eventually, the only orcas humans will be able to see are those in the wild. But what does that mean for other marine mammals still living in captivity?
Today, marine parks are struggling for relevance
Today’s marine mammal parks have overhauled their taglines. They now state that orcas and other cetaceans aren’t there for entertainment, but rather serve as ambassador animals that play an important role in research and education, with the ultimate goal of helping wild populations.
An orca show at SeaWorld today both is and is not different from what visitors might remember from before the early 2000s. There’s still a “splash zone,” where the water displaced by a large orca’s splash can get people in the front rows soaking wet. The orcas still do various tricks in exchange for food. Cinematic orchestral music still plays. The main difference is that, for their own safety, trainers no longer get in the water with the animals. Humans and orcas no longer perform “dances” together; trainers are not rocketed out of the water and into the air by the animals. It’s not as spectacular, but it’s still a spectacle.
On a large screen above the pool, a video plays about orcas’ habitats, physiology, communication and hunting styles, and distinct sub-populations and cultures. At the end of the show, SeaWorld details some of the research their captive whales have participated in and how it helps wild whales. Watching a video of one of these “educational encounters,” I notice that the part people still cheer and clap for are the big splashes and the waves that leave small children soaking wet.
SeaWorld told Vox that the changes made to its orca shows “reflect the evolution of how accredited zoos and aquariums care for and display animals, informed by experience and scientific understanding. These changes were not related to Blackfish … Evolving animal presentations into more of an educational experience for guests is consistent with a more contemporary view of how best to inspire the public to conserve wild species.”
To me and others, this feels like a rebrand rather than a meaningful change in how marine parks treat their animals. “The reason they’re focusing on research and education is they know they can’t justify keeping these animals in tanks just for entertainment,” said Marino. In California, the only way to legally display orcas is by making the shows educational. Other cetaceans aren’t included in California’s law, but, Marino believes, the benefits of performances for those species is just as dubious. “It’s hard to find solid evidence that … seeing a dolphin jump in the air has educational value or translates to conservation of any kind,” she said.
Because Blackfish focused on orcas, and because orcas’ size relative to the size of their enclosures can make people uneasy, most of the backlash to keeping cetaceans in captivity has focused on that species. Today, there are fewer than 60 orcas alive in captivity worldwide, compared to roughly 300 beluga whales and 3,000 dolphins. In the hierarchy of how cetaceans adjust to captivity, orcas do the worst, followed by beluga whales, and, finally, bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are smaller, often swim in shallow waters, and live in fission-fusion societies where they are socially gregarious, Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute explained. Where orcas prefer to spend their whole lives with their families, dolphins in the wild mix and match who they spend time with.
“They cope better with captivity,” Rose said of dolphins. “It doesn’t mean they cope well.” Dolphins have higher mortality rates in captivity than in the wild, and are still forced to live in environments that are small and sterile compared to their natural habitat.
“Safari parks can put zebras in a savannah and they have no idea they’re not in the wild,” said Rose. “But you can’t give cetaceans the ocean.”
The Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, a nonprofit research and education facility, feels more ethical to visit than a marine mammal park because of its apparent scientific orientation. Some of its 27 dolphins are rescues who were injured or orphaned in the wild, while others were bred in captivity. The center’s research focuses on dolphin cognition, behavior, and husbandry, marketing director Allie Proskovec explained in an email.
Some of its studies — like one showing that interaction with a trainer can improve welfare outcomes for an isolated dolphin — seem only applicable to captive animals rather than to their health in the wild. Another Dolphin Research Center study that found human-made noise makes it impossible for dolphins to communicate, impairing their ability to socialize and hunt — the kind of finding that could lead to meaningful changes in marine policy. But we’ve known underwater noise is disruptive to marine life since the 1980s.
Whether or not it’s worth keeping dolphins in captivity for findings like these is debatable — especially when some animals aren’t just involved in research. The Dolphin Research Center also offers “dolphin encounter” experiences for $225 per person. Such “swim with dolphins”-style programs are still quite popular among tourists, whether at a research-oriented facility or a vacation package in the Bahamas. Cetaceans are, admittedly, not inexpensive to feed and care for; maybe performing tricks or swimming through the water while a person holds onto a dorsal fin are just part of life under capitalism (although the Dolphin Research Center, as noted previously, is a nonprofit).
Even anti-captivity activists recognize the role that marine parks have played in changing our view of cetaceans, particularly killer whales. “The fact that [wild] orcas are now totally protected by law and the slaughter of other whales has decreased is, to a large extent, because the public was given the opportunity to meet, know, and love whales,” Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit that has employed radical direct action tactics to stop whale hunting, wrote in 1982.
But why did humans need to put these animals in cement and glass pools to care about them in the first place?
Humans love to see and be seen by our fellow creatures. What if we simply stepped away?
“We always coexisted and never thought of [orcas] as a threat. We never thought of them as taking our fish,” Tah-Mahs Ellie Kinley, president of Sacred Lands Conservancy and an enrolled Lummi tribal member, told me. “It was all creatures’ fish.” The Lummi name for orcas can be translated as “our relatives under the waves,” Kinley explained, and there are many stories where killer whales become human. Yet for many Westerners, orcas were creatures we had to learn not to fear.
“We don’t love anything we don’t know. We don’t protect anything that we don’t love,” said Richard Louv, author of Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs. Humans, he told me, are desperate not to feel alone in the universe. We want to not just appreciate the natural world around us, but to have some kind of connection with it. Often this means harming the very things we’re trying to connect with. National Parks are being “loved to death” by tourists. Snorkelers can damage coral reefs through physical contact and runoff from sunscreens. Even whale-watching trips (boats that take tourists to see whales and other marine life in their natural habitats) are contributing to underwater noise pollution and potentially disrupting the animals with their very presence.
“We’re well-meaning in so many ways, but our love is clumsy and can be disastrous,” said Cowperthwaite, the Blackfish director. Think of how visitors at the zoo, looking at our primate cousins, often can’t help but tap on the glass, she said. “We’re not only there to see them — we’re dying for them to see us.” It’s that desire to be seen in return that made so many children go to SeaWorld and dream of becoming orca trainers, what makes us imagine that animals would love us back if we only got close enough for them to have the chance.
But “to truly understand a species and what a species needs, maybe the greatest thing we could do is step away,” Cowperthwaite said.
Today, there’s a movement to free captive cetaceans from marine parks and bring them to sea pens and sanctuaries, where they can have an approximation of their normal lives. Because the animals have lived in captivity and rely on human care, they can’t survive fully in the wild. The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to establish a site in Nova Scotia that could become home to orcas, belugas, or a mix of both. Their hope is that it will become a model for more sanctuary projects — perhaps some even run by organizations currently putting the animals on display, Marino said.
In September, I went on a whale-watching tour near where I used to live, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, where so many orcas were captured a half-century ago. Our boat communicated with others to find out where the whales were. We sped over to the orca pods like paparazzi. At first, it was magical. Three generations swam and hunted together, including a young calf who was learning from her elders. Ten minutes passed, and then 20, and when the whales moved on, we followed them to a second and then a third location. I felt like we overstayed our welcome.
Our boat drifted as we snapped pictures next to a few other boatfuls of passengers doing the same. Both the benefit and the drawback of seeing whales from a tour is that it’s on our schedule; many tours offer to let customers return for free if there aren’t whale sightings. I began to wonder if seeing animals on our terms took something away from the experience — whether in a cement tank surrounded by other people, or on a boat in the ocean, cameras and binoculars at the ready.
A few times, the killer whales hunted close to shore. I saw kayakers who happened to be in the right place as the animals swam beneath them. People walked out from their homes to the beach to watch the orcas, who were no more than a few hundred feet away. A few hikers, ambling along the coast as the orcas passed, sat on the cliff to enjoy the moment. What a gift to encounter a wild animal by accident, just two species sharing the same part of this immense planet for a moment, before we go our separate ways.
3 winners and 1 loser from the fourth Republican presidential debate
A Haley-Christie alliance emerged. But it’s a long way away from threatening Trump.
Time is running out for the Republicans who want to stop Donald Trump. The Iowa caucuses are six weeks away, and the former president continues to have large leads in polls of both national and early state Republican voters.
So naturally, the four challengers to Trump who debated in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday spent the vast majority of their time sniping at each other — with each continuing in the quest to become the one true Trump alternative.
Lately, Nikki Haley has seemed to be the emerging leader in that race for second place — a surprising change from most of the year, when Ron DeSantis held that position. The new status quo became clearer Wednesday night, because both DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy were laser-focused on attacking her in increasingly nasty ways.
These attacks didn’t seem to do much to reverse Haley’s rise — a rise that, we should remember, has moved her from “very far behind Trump in polls” to “very far behind Trump in polls, but slightly less so.”
Winner: The Haley-Christie alliance
When a new frontrunner — in this case, a frontrunner for second place — emerges, they get a target on their back. That was clear from the debate’s opening minutes, in which both DeSantis and Ramaswamy attacked Haley as beholden to big donors. (She had a ready response, saying they were just “jealous” those donors were supporting her and not them.)
But the attacks kept coming, posing the risk that this debate would be a pile-on in which everyone tried to take Haley down.
The fourth candidate onstage, Chris Christie, prevented that from happening. After Ramaswamy needled Haley on her support of arming Ukraine, insisting she wouldn’t even know the names of key regions in the conflict, Christie jumped in, calling her a “smart, accomplished woman” and scorning Ramaswamy as the “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”
It was an interesting move from Christie, who barely qualified for this debate and whose campaign seems to be headed nowhere, since polls show that most Republican voters loathe him. Christie also took on DeSantis at one point, needling him for refusing to give a straight answer on whether Trump was mentally fit to serve another term in office.
Christie is clearly friendliest toward Haley of the remaining contenders — she, like Christie himself, spent her key years in politics in the pre-Trump GOP. Christie is also still getting about 11 percent of the vote in New Hampshire polls. Might he, at some point, decide to drop out and give Haley an endorsement boost at an important moment — just as he did for Trump in 2016?
Winner: Far-right conspiracy theorists
Someone who has not been doing so well in the polls lately is Vivek Ramaswamy. Since an initial surge of interest in him, his poll standing has dropped. So it was apparently the right time for him to launch into an absurd recitation of conspiracy theories Wednesday — why not?
“Why am I the only person, on this stage at least, who can say that January 6 now does look like it was an inside job?” Ramaswamy asked. (Back here on planet Earth, what happened on January 6 was that Donald Trump’s months-long plot to steal the election from Joe Biden exploded into violence as his supporters stormed the US Capitol.)
Ramaswamy continued by complaining that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by “Big Tech” — apparently yet another complaint about how stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop were treated. (Decisions by Twitter and Facebook to briefly limit the spread of stories about Hunter Biden’s personal information, in fear that they were disinformation spread by hackers, were ill-judged, but there’s no evidence it swung the election.)
He also endorsed, by name, the “great replacement theory” beloved by white supremacists that the left is secretly plotting to “replace” the US’s white population with minorities — claiming this was a “basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.” (It is true that Democrats like immigration and diversity, but the “great replacement” theory typically is conceived of as a plot to perpetuate “white genocide.”)
It’s not clear whether this would get Ramaswamy more votes, though it could get him more attention from the most influential right-wing players who like this kind of stuff: Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson.
Loser: Small-government conservatism
At one point in the debate, attention turned to one of the right’s favorite topics — whether the government should ban gender-affirming care from being provided to trans children.
Christie offered a lengthy, thoughtful, and impassioned response that such care shouldn’t be banned. He argued that Republicans should stick to their small-government principles and that it’s parents who should decide what their kid needs.
“No one loves my children more than me,” Christie said, questioning why Americans should put their children’s health in the hands of “jokers down in Congress” or “some government bureaucrat.” He said he wouldn’t agree with every decision parents would make on this topic, but they should have the right to make them.
After he was done, DeSantis jumped in, yelling: “As a parent, you do not have the right to abuse your kids!”
The crowd went wild.
Winner: Donald Trump
Every minute when all these candidates are attacking each other and not Trump is another minute where Trump has gotten closer to becoming the GOP nominee again. The candidates spent much more time attacking each other than Trump, so he wins again, and his decision to skip the debates — maddening as it is — is vindicated again.
Haley may have done decently enough, but the battle for second place is still for now a sideshow that hasn’t seemed to pose any real threat to Trump.
It’s just a tip
Consumers are mad about tipping, coining terms like tipflation and guilt-tipping. But many people forget: You can say no to the tipping tablet (though it doesn’t mean you should).
If you haven’t heard it or felt it yourself, people are angry about the state of tipping. Consumers have noticed that they’re being asked to tip more often and for higher amounts than before. They buy their morning coffee and the barista flips around a screen that nudges them to add on a little more, or they go to pick up lunch and they’re prompted to leave an extra $1. In particularly confounding situations, some people have found themselves being asked to tip their dermatologist or an e-commerce website. In the media, story after story has been written, recorded, and televised about the current state of affairs in tip culture in America.
To describe this culture, we’ve coined terms like “tipflation” and “guilt-tipping.” Many of the conversations I find myself in about high prices these days end with someone saying, “And then you’re supposed to tip on top of it.”
Contrary to the high emotions around it, tip requests aren’t that big a deal. What every frustrated consumer seems to forget is that you can just say no — plenty of people do. (Whether you should is a separate question, especially for workers whose livelihoods depend on tips.) Tipping in the vast majority of cases is optional. Maybe that tip jar was a little easier to ignore than the tablet, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: The worker behind the counter hoped you’d put money into the jar, you just didn’t feel as icky about not doing it.
“There are bigger things in this world going on to get frustrated about,” said Dianne Gottsman, a national etiquette expert.
So why does this rile people up so much? Tipping has become a sort of proxy for frustrations about the economy; it’s a small thing that often feels easier to focus on than the bigger things, like inflation. It can pit workers, consumers, and even businesses against one another in a way that’s uncomfortable for all involved.
It’s also an issue with no easy solutions. Some service workers don’t want tipping to go away, even if it means they’ll be paid a higher base wage. And while it’s easy to suggest businesses simply pay their workers more, that extra pay will come from somewhere — often in higher prices being passed on to consumers.
Why tipping gets people in such a tizzy
One thing is true: Tipping is different from what it used to be, even a few years ago. During the pandemic, there was a groundswell of support for service workers and small businesses, and practically everyone who could overtip did. That support hasn’t lasted — society has pretty quickly given up on worrying about essential workers — but some of the tipping changes have. “That emboldened a lot of companies to be more aggressive in asking for tips,” said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at Bankrate. “It was followed pretty quickly by this big bout of inflation, and now we’re starting to see the backlash.”
Irritation with tipping can be both financial and emotional. Consumers don’t like surcharges, whether it be airline fees or an extra $1 to pick up your meal at the local burrito place. Adding an extra 20 percent onto a price that’s quite a bit higher than it used to be is a hit to the wallet.
It’s also jarring because many consumers aren’t entirely sure what to do. The unwritten rules of the game have changed, and even though those rules are merely suggestions, many people don’t like the change. Technology is a factor here, too — now, a computer screen is often asking people what they want to do, sometimes in circumstances where tipping didn’t used to be a factor at all.
“People are feeling social pressures to leave tips in circumstances that they wouldn’t ordinarily expect to tip,” said Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University and an expert on tipping. What’s more, they’re being asked for money in an information vacuum — the point-of-sale tablet gives no indication of how the person in front of them in line tipped or didn’t. “We’ve had counter tip requests before in the form of tip jars, but that contains information about what other people are doing. Those current tip screens don’t give us that,” Lynn said. (There’s a reason why before the tablets, some workers put their own money into tip jars to try to encourage customers to drop cash in. This is not not something I have done in the past when bartending.)
One Bankrate survey from 2023 found that 66 percent of American adults have a negative view of tipping, though just 16 percent said they would be willing to pay higher prices to do away with tipping. A research article from 2021 found that requesting a tip before a service instead of after was perceived as manipulative, with consumers saying they were less likely to return to the establishments, leaving lower online ratings, and tipping less.
As frustrated as many people say they are with tipping requests, it’s not entirely clear how many of them are changing their behaviors. While consumers may say they won’t go back to businesses because of a perceived unfair tip ask, it’s not clear whether they follow through, Lynn said. People don’t appear to be tipping a great deal more in light of the nudges, either, according to some of the companies behind the tablets.
According to data on payrolls from commerce technology company Square, restaurant workers are making more overall, but it’s largely due to increases in their base wages, not an explosion of tipping. “While tipping ... may have increased modestly, it’s definitely not doing so at the rate that some of the more clickbait-y headlines I’ve seen would have you believe,” said Rachel Deal, a spokesperson for Square. (You can see some examples here and here.)
“If tipping culture had really exploded as some people may think, you would expect restaurant workers to be really wealthy,” said Ara Kharazian, research and data lead at Square. “They’ve definitely had a lot of wage growth, but it’s been pretty modest, all things considered.”
Data from Toast, a Square competitor, shows something similar. Tips at full-service restaurants and quick-service restaurants are actually down slightly from 2018. Toast suggests tipping fatigue, inflation, and service charges may play a role, as well as beliefs companies should just pay their workers better. The latter is a nice sentiment, but forgoing tipping your server after a meal at a restaurant isn’t going to magically lead to an overnight pay raise for them.
For workers, the tip thing can be tricky
Reporting for this story, I decided to reach out to some workers who are on the other side of the tablet to hear what they think about the current state of tipping culture in America. The general sentiment: yes, it has gotten to be a lot, but also, tips are really helpful in getting them through the day-to-day.
Helen, a barista in Seattle, understands people’s frustration with tipping culture in general, even though it does make a “huge difference” for her pay. (Vox granted her a pseudonym so she could speak candidly about her job.) She doesn’t understand why consumers get weird, specifically, about tipping a barista. “I’ve worked as a server, and servers keep most of their tips even though they don’t make the food,” she said. People like to say with baristas it’s a quick transaction, “but the difference is we’re actually producing something for you.”
She tries not to pay attention to what people do when she spins around the Square device that prompts people to tip, though sometimes she overhears people discussing what to do. “Sometimes, they’ll talk about how much they want to tip and whether or not they think they should tip, but never to me,” she said. When I asked if that was awkward, she laughed and replied, “Oh, yeah.”
Charles, a ride-hail driver in California, said his pay for rides is often so low that it wouldn’t be worth it to drive if not for tips. He’s become strategic about how to try to up tips from riders. He tries to focus extra on customer service; he started carrying water in his car before realizing that was an extra cost to him that wasn’t really helping. Now, he asks for a tip directly in his driver profile.
“It makes a difference because you’re not making ends meet the way Uber pays you or Lyft pays you by themselves,” he said. “[People] see it as tipping culture is overdone, but they don’t see it as Uber has cut your wages to the point you need it.”
Another Uber driver I talked to for this story said he wished the company did pre-tipping. When I pointed out that might make riders unhappy, he didn’t respond. DoorDash has started to adopt the practice, warning customers that their food orders might take longer if they don’t add a tip ahead of time.
Michelle Eisen, who works for the first Starbucks to unionize, in Buffalo in 2021, explained that adding credit card tipping was one of the first acts she and her coworkers campaigned around. It wasn’t something the company had previously offered, and with the rise of credit cards over cash payments, workers were losing out on money they’d made before. The company has since granted credit card tipping, but not for stores that unionized ahead of a certain date, including hers. “They used it as punishment for the workers that were organizing, which is pretty sickening,” she said.
Adding credit card tips has made a “significant difference” for the workers whose stores have it, Eisen said, which is why it’s such a sticking point. She gets it can also be a sticking point for consumers. “In the case of Starbucks, I do think if you’re already spending $7 to $10 on a beverage, which is pretty insane, that throwing another $1 or $1.50 on there so that the worker who made that drink can put gas in their car, I’m in favor of that,” she said. “Do I think a company like Starbucks that makes that much money a year should be able to just pay their workers $2 more an hour so it doesn’t fall to the customer? Yeah. Absolutely.”
We might just have to learn to live with the tablet for a while
Maybe someday tipping culture in America will be abolished, workers will be paid fairly, and everybody will be happy. Businesses will figure out how to make their margins without raising their prices (margins which, for businesses like restaurants, are very low). Service workers won’t feel like they have to do a special song and dance hoping a customer will leave them an extra-nice tip. Consumers will not feel pressured by the dreaded tablet.
However, that day is not today. The world we currently live in is one where a DoorDash driver goes viral after commenting that a woman who ordered a $20 pizza lives in an awfully nice house for a $5 tip. The driver, who was fired, has a right to be frustrated over the low pay and hard work many people in the gig economy deal with. The customer has a right to feel like a 25 percent tip is perfectly acceptable — and is also perhaps wondering whether that pizza didn’t used to be $15 not too long ago.
Tipping is a fixture of the American economy. It can create enemies and allies, and who exactly is benefiting and how isn’t entirely linear. “People assume that tipping is to the benefit of the business, that they’re getting lower labor costs and that just goes to their bottom line. But no, it goes to consumers in the form of lower prices,” Lynn, the tipping expert, said. “So effectively it’s not the consumer subsidizing the business, it’s consumers subsidizing other consumers.”
Gottsman, the etiquette expert, issued a reminder that people have choices in tipping. “It’s a nice gesture if you want to leave it, but that’s called discretionary,” she said, though she also noted there are parameters — when you sit down at a restaurant, you should generally know that unless told otherwise, gratuity is expected. “We can monitor our own daily routine or spending, we can curtail it or go someplace else, or we can decide that, okay, it’s not necessary to leave a tip at the counter, it makes me feel uncomfortable,” she said.
You probably should tip that barista $1 (and, yes, Starbucks should just pay them more). But you can say no. And at the self-service checkout that prompts you to tip without a single worker or explanation in sight, you can say no, too. It really is just a tip.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Each month, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
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