Killer Whales Should Not Be Kept in Captivity

Killer Whales Should Not Be Kept in Captivity
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The release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 shined the national spotlight on the perils and problems of killer whale capitivity. Focusing primarily on killer whale aggression against trainers at SeaWorld and the associated fallout in the wake of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau's death in 2010, the film made a strong case against keeping killer whales in captivity.

Last month, a new book was published that dives even deeper into the subject, making Blackfish look like a shallow swim by comparison.

When I turned to the first page of Beneath The Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, I expected to read an account purely written to tug at the heart strings, not appeal to a rational brain. I was pleasantly surprised to read a book featuring a healthy mix of gripping narrative and science-based evidence. With the help of journalist Howard Chua-Eoan, once an assistant managing editor at Time Magazine, former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove has written a damning exposé that further fuels the fire that Blackfish started.

It has convinced me that killer whale captivity must be radically changed or perhaps ended entirely.

Killer whales, also known as orcas, aren't really whales at all. Though in the same infraorder, Cetacea, they are actually dolphins -- the largest dolphins, in fact. They generally weigh between 6,000 and 15,000 pounds when fully grown and stretch 30 feet long from fluke (tail) to rostrum (nose). In the wild, they are apex predators, hunted by no animal apart from man.

In captivity, however, the tides are turned on man. In the half-century that humans have kept orcas in tanks, there have been dozens of documented incidents of aggression, resulting in six deaths. In the book, Hargrove's personal experiences, including many firsthand accounts of orca aggression, take center stage. But as a zoologist, I was more interested in Hargrove's insights into orca behavior, as well as the facts and figures associated with killer whale captivity. Personal anecdotes are persuasive, but they don't stand up to evidence-based argument.

I learned, for example, that orcas form complex societies reminiscent of those seen in chimpanzees. But in captivity, these hierarchies are severely muddled. Often, a dominant female (orcas are matriarchal) asserts herself, usually violently. In the cramped conditions of captivity, other whales suffer lacerations from her intimidating tooth rakes.

Captive orcas also suffer from a wide range of health problems not seen among wild ones. Their shallow pools render them vulnerable to higher-than-normal levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which suppresses their immune systems. They also spend more time exposed to the air than in the wild, often moving slowly due to the restrictive size of their habitats. Thus, orcas are prime feeding targets for mosquitos. In fact, two captive orcas have died from mosquito-borne illnesses. Perhaps the most emblematic health problem associated with captivity is the collapse of the orca's daunting, shark-like dorsal fin. Though not actually harmful, the deformity affects over half of killer whales in captivity. Less than 10% of animals in the wild are afflicted. 

Killer whales are extremely intelligent creatures, one of the few capable of passing the mirror self-recognition test. It's no surprise, then, that they are easily subject to boredom in captivity. One of the ways this manifests is paint nibbling. Whales often use their teeth to peel the paint off of their enclosure's inner walls, similar to a human biting his fingernails, if his fingernails were made of concrete. Almost all the whales in SeaWorld wear down their teeth, Hargrove says, dealing damage that requires regular dental procedures to prevent the growth of potentially deadly bacteria.

All of these issues contribute to a startling statistic. While most animals in captivity outlive their wild counterparts, orcas in captivity live shorter. Orca activists claim the gap is wide, while SeaWorld claims that there's no gap at all. The best estimates say that captive lifespan is slightly reduced, but improving. Male and female killer whales survive an average of 31 and 46 years in the wild, respectively.

I found Beneath The Surface to be surprisingly nonsensationalist. Hargrove isn't branding SeaWorld as evil, nor is he advocating complete orca liberation. The 57 whales at SeaWorld and other marine parks around the world "cannot be released into the wild," he reasonably asserts. "[T]hey would likely not survive in nature."

Instead, he urges SeaWorld and other parks to construct coastal sea pens and ensure that orcas are kept in sufficiently stimulating and social environments.

Animal captivity is neither inherently bad nor immoral. But the evidence is mounting that certain animals, particularly larger and more intelligent ones, are not well suited to it. Killer whales definitely fall into this category.

(Images: AP, Loadmaster)

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