Is captivity the real killer?
Killer whales, Orcinus orca, are among the most intelligent, social and ecologically complex animals on Earth. With the second largest brain of any species, weighing in at an astounding 5,000 g1, they can travel up to 160 km/day in stable matrilineal family groups, using echolocation and sophisticated hunting techniques.2 So where can you find them? Well, behind the fairytale facade of SeaWorld, and other marine parks and aquariums, you can witness these 4-6 tonne creatures perform the equivalent of circus tricks for your amusement.
Last week I attended the Melbourne International Film Festival to watch the raw and powerful documentary titled Blackfish. Blackfish centres on the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010, involving the killer whale Tilikum. This eye opening and truth seeking film identifies the real dangers of keeping this species in captivity to the whales and their human trainers.
The official movie trailer for Blackfish can be found on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G93beiYiE74
Tilikum: The largest captive killer whale at the center of controversy.
Source: milan.boers, Shamu (Tilikum), Licensed under Creative Commons. Downloaded from http://www.flickr.com/photos/milanboers/3507418462/ on 15th August 2013.
Much debate surrounds this controversial issue of keeping these elegant creatures within the confines of a concrete pool. Many scientists, veterinarians, former trainers, animal activists and environmentalist are opposed to the captivity with the opinion that killer whales are too big, smart, sentient, mobile and social structured to be performing for tourists in captive facilities. However, aquarium and amusement park owners, managers, investors, current trainers, government officials and some scientists insist that captive whales are essential in educating the public and receive “world class” care that offers a better alternative to the ocean.
Believe: The “Shamu”, stage name for killer whale, spectacle at SeaWorld Orlando.
Source: Blondie5000, killer whale trio, Licensed under Creative Commons. Downloaded from http://www.flickr.com/photos/blondie5000/with/2913325383/ on 15th August 2013
There is no denying the knowledge and benefits that the close contact with these whales has provided, including the gestation period of killer whales, advances in veterinary care and breeding techniques and contributions to conservation and research via funds. Despite this, many factors now suggest that captivity is in fact the real killer in the pool:
- The life expectancy of killer whales in captivity is shorter than nature intended. In the wild female killer whales can live up to 80-90 years, with males having a maximum lifespan of 60 years.3 However, research has now shown that of the 190 whales held in captivity since the 1960s, only 5 have survived past the age of thirty.4
- Within a social grouping of killer whales, a pod, the mothers are known to be the leader, with males, and at times females, remaining at their mothers’ side until death.5 Separation is a major issue evident in the artificial interactions or complete isolation within captivity. Isolation, separation of calves from mothers, and artificial social parings within captive populations are thought to be linked with psychotic behaviour that is linked with boredom, leading to unusual aggression, or stress related diseases.6
- Dorsal fin collapse, also termed the “marine park flop”, is seen in majority of male, and even female, captive killer whales. However, in the wild the estimated total dorsal fin collapse is only around 1% (6). Research now suggests that dorsal fin collapse is associated with lowered blood pressure due to reduced activity patterns, greater exposure of the fin to the ambient air and alterations in water balance caused by the stress of captivity dietary changes.7
As nature intended: A pod of wild killer whales with erect dorsal fins.
Source: roberthuffstutter, killers at large, Licensed under Creative Commons. Downloaded from http://www.flickr.com/photos/huffstutterrobertl/with/8277593143/ on 15th August 2013
Whilst science is screaming that captivity is harming these whales, and the trainers working with them, the show still goes on.
A resonating quote from Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of the Ocean Futures Society, states that, “maybe we as a species have outgrown the need to keep such wild, enormous, complex, intelligent, and free-ranging animals in captivity, where their behavior is not only unnatural; it can become pathological, maybe we have learned all we can from keeping them captive.”5
Which side of the pool do you swim on?
If you are seeking more information in relation to this topic please refer to the entertaining, engaging and enraging book, “Death at SeaWorld- Shamu and The Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity”, written by David Kirby.
- Marino, L., Sherwood, C. C., Delman, B. N., Tang, C. Y., Naidich, T. P. and Hof, P. R. (2004), Neuroanatomy of the killer whale (Orcinus orca) from magnetic resonance images. Anat. Rec., 281A: 1256–1263. doi: 10.1002/ar.a.20075
- Kirby, D. (2012). Wake. In Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the dark side of killer whales in captivity (p. 322). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Carwardine, M. (2001). Killer whales. London: BBC Worldwide Ltd. ISBN o-7894-8266-5.
- Kirby, D. (2012). Superpod. In Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the dark side of killer whales in captivity (p. 395). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Zimmermann, T. (2010, July 30). The Killer in the Pool. Outside.
- Hoyt, E., Garrett, H. E., & Rose, N. A. (2009). Observations of disparity between educational material related to killer whales (Orcinus Orca) disseminated by public display institutions and the scientific literature. Orca Network.
- National Marine Fisheries Service. Northwest Region (2008). Recovery plan for southern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). Seattle, Wash: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Regional Office.