By Dr. Becker
Killer whales, or orcas, are highly intelligent animals. They have a "culture," which includes learning from others and teaching difficult hunting techniques to offspring; in the wild they also live among extended family including grandparents and calves.
Killer whales learn local and complex languages that are retained for many generations, and they use bio-sonar, or echolocation, to find fish in murky water and even single out their favorite food, Chinook salmon.
In captivity, however, killer whales often display signs of stress, including aggression, after they're forced to live in unnatural and unfamiliar social structures.
The documentary "Blackfish", released in 2013, brought the unethical practice of keeping killer whales in captivity — including capturing them from the wild — to the public's attention and was likely instrumental in a monumental announcement recently made by SeaWorld: they're ending their orca shows and breeding program.
SeaWorld Announced End to Killer Whale Breeding Program
In early 2016, SeaWorld announced that the 24 orcas currently living in three of its parks will be the last generation of killer whales at SeaWorld. The announcement came in response to growing criticism of holding the intelligent, social animals in what amounts to prison. The company said in a statement:
"SeaWorld has been listening and we're changing … Society is changing and we're changing with it. SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guests to take action to protect wild animals and wild places."
Unfortunately, the remaining whales will not be released into the wild. Most of them have either been born at SeaWorld or spent the majority of their lives there, and, according to SeaWorld officials, would die if released.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, called for the company to "open its tanks to the oceans" to allow the animals some semblance of freedom.
They also called on SeaWorld to make their changes active starting today. As it stands, SeaWorld plans to end its orca shows at SeaWorld San Diego in 2017 and in Orlando, Florida and San Antonio, Texas in 2019.1
In the infographic below, compiled by Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the U.K., you can see more facts about the toll of killer whale captivity.2
Tilikum Is Dying
Tilikum is one of the most famous killer whales living at SeaWorld. Captured off of Iceland in 1983 when he was 2 years old, Tilikum has spent more than 30 years living in captivity.
The whale, which was featured in Blackfish and also became widely known in 2010 when he pulled his trainer into his tank and killed her, is dying from a drug-resistant lung infection.
Throughout his life, Tilikum was responsible for three human deaths — his trainer's in 2010, another trainer in 1991, and a SeaWorld trespasser in 1999. But Tilikum was not simply a rogue whale out for human blood.
Of note, there are no records of a killer whale harming a human in the wild, but several "attacks" against humans — some fatal — have occurred among killer whales in captivity.
It's quite possible the captive situation stresses the animal and/or angers it to the point that it lashes out.
In this way, Tilikum's life became instrumental in changing the way people view killer whale's in captivity — he demanded that the world pay attention to what was really going on. Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish, wrote in National Geographic:3
"Instead of the iconic, happy killer whale celebrated by SeaWorld and its fans for five decades, Tilikum demanded the world confront his reality, Shamu's reality, which involved separation from family, confinement, boredom, chronic disease, aggression among marine park killer whales, and aggression against trainers.
… Tilikum never set out to become the symbol of an industry, a relationship between man and nature, gone wrong. He was just a wild killer whale calf in an ocean world whose life was suddenly interrupted and derailed by the human world.
And the thing that most saddens me about Tilikum's plight, and his eventual death, is the life he never lived."
Do Their Collapsed Dorsal Fins Reveal the Truth?
In the wild, the shape and size of a killer whale's dorsal fin, along with the unique saddles patches behind the dorsal fin, can be used to distinguish one from another. A regal dorsal fin cutting through the waves is also one of the most impressive and characteristic sights associated with these animals.
Yet, in captivity, killer whales' dorsal fins flop over and collapse. The collapsed dorsal fins of captive killer whales probably occur because of poor nutrition, stress and lack of space, but it also appears as a poignant physical sign of the animal's broken spirit.
In the wild, by the way, collapsed dorsal fins are rare and only found on injured or unhealthy orcas. In captivity, all adult male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins. Other signs that orcas do not belong in captivity include:4
- The animals frequently gnaw on concrete and metal bars due to stress, anxiety and boredom; some break their teeth as a result
- Orcas often fight when they're in tight quarters with other unfamiliar orcas; because they're in captivity, they cannot flee and are often injured
- In the wild, orcas may swim 100 miles a day
- The average age of death for an orca living at SeaWorld is 13, compared to an average of 30 to 50 years in the wild
'Increasing Numbers of Entertainment Animals Are Being Freed'
SeaWorld's announcement echoes a growing trend in the entertainment industry, as increasing numbers of companies stop the use of animals in their shows. For instance, more than 40 U.S. cities now outlaw performances involving exotic animals; worldwide, 30 countries have banned the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.
Feeling the pressure from increasing legislation and activists, unlicensed zoos, circuses, exotic animal pet owners and others are increasingly surrendering animals. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it would retire its elephants by 2018.5
Similarly, the U.S. is the only country that still owns chimpanzees for research purposes, but appears to be moving to join the many countries around the world that have already stopped the practice.
As we learn more about the emotional and intellectual needs of non-human animals, it becomes clear that they deserve basic protections just like humans. The Nonhuman Rights Project is tackling such issues head on; they're petitioning courts to recognize that existing scientific evidence suggests certain nonhuman animals are entitled to basic legal rights, including bodily liberty and integrity.
The group intends to first focus on rights for great apes, elephants, dolphins and whales, "for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy."6 If you'd like to help to keep wildlife wild, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), recommends the following:7
- Tell friends and family not to patronize any use of animals in entertainment and urge them to boycott drive-through parks, zoos, and circuses that participate in irresponsible breeding programs.
- Write sponsors and producers of movies and events that exploit animals, advising them why you will not patronize their product.
- Urge sponsors and producers to use non-animal acts or animatronics.
- Contact your local authorities and county and city officials and work to have local ordinances passed to ban keeping exotic pets.
- Contact your state and federal representatives and ask them to abolish animal auctions.
- If exotic animal auctions occur in your area, contact your local humane society and the USDA to request that they visit auction facilities and cite violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
- Contact your local authorities and county and city officials to have local ordinances passed to ban canned hunting. Contact your state and federal representatives to abolish canned hunting.
- Ask local zoos to establish policies that provide lifetime care for their new births.