Is captivity the real killer?

Killer whalesOrcinus 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.

 References:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. Carwardine, M. (2001). Killer whales. London: BBC Worldwide Ltd. ISBN o-7894-8266-5.
  4. 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.
  5. Zimmermann, T. (2010, July 30). The Killer in the Pool. Outside.
  6. 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.
  7.  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.

17 Responses to “Is captivity the real killer?”

  1. Meagan Lane says:

    It would seem too logical that we have moved past the need to keep such large intelligent animals in captivity but sadly not! Good stuff on seeing blackfish and glad you also enjoyed it!
    Thanks for you comment tessae

  2. tessae says:

    I’ve only seen Orcas in the wild, and given all the whale watching tours and such you can do around the world (obviously no guarantee of seeing them) I had thought that like Jean-Michel Cousteau, we’d moved on from keeping such large animals in captivity.

    I saw Blackfish at the film festival and it really shocked me! Such a powerful story.
    Keep spreading the news!

  3. Meagan Lane says:

    Thanks kpenrose! I definitely think captivity has a great role in conservation and education, but it just isn’t justified or acceptable for this species 🙂

  4. kpenrose says:

    Some animals are just not meant to be in captivity – especially when they’re large socially complex creatures with long life expectancies. I really enjoyed you post 🙂

  5. Meagan Lane says:

    Hi Steve,

    I am glad you enjoyed the post and even happier I was able to broaden your knowledge on orcas.

  6. smcgain says:

    Hey Meagan, i really enjoyed this post and despite having a reasonable knowledge on animals, i apparently knew very little on the wonderful orcas and the idea of captivity and how it can both negatively and positively affect them.

  7. Meagan Lane says:

    Thanks Kathryn, I will definitely go research a bit more about that. And I agree with your comment to Rachel, I do not think it is possible to keep these captive animal in captivity as it is seemingly impossible to replicate their natural environment.

  8. Meagan Lane says:

    Hey Lucy,
    Thanks for your comment! Glad to hear I have encouraged you to get the book! I am not too sure about respiratory problems, but it seems like a significant contributor. I do know many have died young from stress related diseases such as ulcers, and even due to ramming their head against pool gates or walls repeatedly.

  9. Kathryn says:

    Hi Megan,

    The ones I saw were in Osaka, however they’ve also been kept in Atlanta (USA). Some of them have died after a year or two, I believe. There’s a little bit about them on wiki, and I’m sure I saw a news article or two a few years back. More aquariums seem to have acquired them since I was in Osaka, which I’m really sad to see. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_shark#In_captivity

    Rachel: when you say we need to “replicate the natural environment as much as possible”, I’m not really sure how that’s possible for animals like this. They’re a migratory, social species which lives in large groups and travels vast distances. I just don’t see how it would be possible to replicate either of those crucial elements of their natural environment in captivity.

    Cheers,
    Kathryn

  10. Lucy says:

    Hi Meagan!
    Really good post, I was blown away by how young they die. I know that the whales get a lot of respiratory problems, which makes me think of how similar that is to professional swimmers. Which makes me wonder if it’s linked to the chlorine that is in the water, which is a form of bleach.
    And I’m defiantly going to get that book!

  11. Meagan Lane says:

    I am overwhelmed with excitement by the effort you took to respond to this post and actually watch the documentary trailer, thank you.

    1. For the good of conservation awareness, is this really worth it?
    For me, the quick and urgent answer to this is no, it is not worth it at all. I struggle to find any strength to any arguments that SeaWorld continues to cling to. Yes the effects of captivity seem, and in fact are, ridiculously obvious.

    2. Who are the people in charge of marine parks, and do they have any management criteria to abide by?
    Very good question, that has quite a complex answer. SeaWorld vigorously defends all research hinting to the fact that they shortening the lifespan of these whales through captivity. They do this by pulling minute flaws in the research to try and discredit the work completely. They are a multi-billion dollar enterprise that actually sets it’s own safety and management procedures to comply by and unfortunately their money seems to win them a lot of battles within court rooms. Follow the death of Dawn in 2010 an Occupational Safety and Health Administration report concluded that many safety measures were not up to standard and made many recommendations, including the recommendation that all trainers must remain out of the water when working with killer whales. SeaWorld went to court with this report and the battle still continues to this day. The full details surrounding the political and management side of SeaWorld in revealed in thorough detail in the book, Death at SeaWorld- Shamu and the Dark Side of Captivity, if you are interested in learning more I strongly recommend you purchase this book (online, not available in print in Australia).

    Thank you for your time and consideration and productive comments.

  12. rvorwerk says:

    Wow, this article was certainly an eye-opener. I just had a look at the Blackfish official video too and am certainly very enthusiastic to watch it.

    As a zoology and ecology student, this issue certainly prompts two main different angles of thought:

    1. For the good of conservation awareness, is this really worth it?
    Like you said, Lanem, zoos and marine parks are among some of the best methods to educate other humans about animals, however David Attenborough has successfully educated the world as well! Raising awareness through effective communication is certainly key to preserving these species that are under threat. However, after reading this overview, I am shocked at the treatment of killer whales, and the blatantly obvious effects that have arisen from poor treatment. The constant reminder throughout the Blackfish official trailer of healthy, wild killer whales with erect dorsal fins, compared to the captive whales with the ‘marine park flop’ is certainly very thought-provoking as to how these marine parks are still open!

    2. Who are the people in charge of marine parks, and do they have any management criteria to abide by?

    I can’t help think of this issue from a management perspective. With numerous studies as you mentioned of a significantly decreased life span and hints at psychotic behaviour in captivity, how are these marine parks still open? Without lingering on the reality of this too much, surely there are studies going into finding a healthy lifestyle for killer whales, whilst still being able to raise awareness?

    This is truly where the conflicting balance kicks in. We need to keep raising awareness of species, and zoos and conservation parks are the way to go, of course, when managed properly. However, when we obtain results such as these, the solution would be to replicate the natural environment as much as possible, to ensure upkeep of life as well as no significant damage to the actual species.

    This is certainly a great topic, and one that needs to be further discussed! Great article!

  13. Meagan Lane says:

    Your statement regarding that people probably don’t realize the harm captivity causes is fairly accurate. I suppose the glimpse of positive news is that various animal advocate groups are working vigorously to prevent orca captivity such as:
    – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
    – Human Society of the United States (HSUS)
    – Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)

    In terms of what you can do? My first suggestion would be to read to book I linked at the end of the blog. It goes through the entire history of orca capture and captivity and highlights what is being done to prevent it, and also how SeaWorld is defending it’s facade in the face of trainer deaths and injuries. It is brilliant in educating any reader on the many ethical, ecology, and political issues surrounding the captivity debate. Spread the word, become involved, there are many blog groups, websites and social media groups that post about this issue regularly. Some links are:
    http://www.keepwhaleswild.org/
    http://www.wdcs.org/stop/captivity/

    Many of these sites allow you to sign petitions, donate to animal advocate groups and show further ways that you can help be involved.
    Thanks for your insightful and proactive comment.

  14. Rachael Vorwerk says:

    Wow, this article was certainly an eye-opener. I just had a look at the Blackfish official video too and am certainly very enthusiastic to watch it.

    As a zoology and ecology student, this issue certainly prompts two main different angles of thought:

    1. For the good of conservation awareness, is this really worth it?
    Like you said, Lanem, zoos and marine parks are among some of the best methods to educate other humans about animals, however David Attenborough has successfully educated the world as well! Raising awareness through effective communication is certainly key to preserving these species that are under threat. However, after reading this overview, I am shocked at the treatment of killer whales, and the blatantly obvious effects that have arisen from poor treatment. The constant reminder throughout the Blackfish official trailer of healthy, wild killer whales with erect dorsal fins, compared to the captive whales with the ‘marine park flop’ is certainly very thought-provoking as to how these marine parks are still open!

    2. Who are the people in charge of marine parks, and do they have any management criteria to abide by?

    I can’t help think of this issue from a management perspective. With numerous studies as you mentioned of a significantly decreased life span and hints at psychotic behaviour in captivity, how are these marine parks still open? Without lingering on the reality of this too much, surely there are studies going into finding a healthy lifestyle for killer whales, whilst still being able to raise awareness?

    This is truly where the conflicting balance kicks in. We need to keep raising awareness of species, and zoos and conservation parks are the way to go, of course, when managed properly. However, when we obtain results such as these, the solution would be to replicate the natural environment as much as possible, to ensure upkeep of life as well as no significant damage to the actual species.

    This is certainly a great topic, and one that needs to be further discussed! Great article!

  15. szabadai says:

    As a scientist and animal lover, what can I do??

    I really love orcas and marine life and I find the treatment of these animals in captivity very shocking. I feel like there are people who maybe don’t realise the distress (physical, psychological, etc) that these animals are put through by performing. How can we guarantee the safety of these majestic beings? How can I make a difference!?

    Thank you for posting about this doco, I’ll definitely have to check it out now!

  16. lanem says:

    I agree with you that the education argument is not strong enough, however this is the main argument that SeaWorld and other marine parks and aquariums continue to stick with in order to justify the captivity of these beautiful animals. There are many other more ethical ways to educate the public about killer whales and other current captive dolphin species, such as regulation approved whale watching tours. I am astounded that you have seen whale sharks in captivity, I hadn’t heard of this practice at all, where was that at? I couldn’t agree more with your last statement, and it’s sad to think that in all our technological, moral and ethical advances in modern society and the treatment of animals that we still continue to allow such barbaric acts.

  17. Kathryn says:

    Great post, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen whalesharks and mobulas in captivity, and while they’re presumably much less intelligent than orcas, it’s still really depressing. There’s no humane way to keep an animal that size, with those migratory and social inclinations, in captivity. The education argument isn’t strong enough, in my view – we have David Attenborough for that. If anything, seeing animals like this in aquaria just reinforces the idea that animals are only important in so far as they can serve our own purposes, rather than that they have inherent value.