Orcas in Captivity: Animal Cruelty for Profit

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Orcas: Captivators not Captives

Orcas have long been a focus of human curiosity, a curiosity that has resulted in orcas being targeted for capture, training and captive breeding purposes since the 1960s. While over the years there have been many stories about orcas—both heart-warming and tragic—the year 2010 has unfortunately seen more than its fair share of orca-related misfortune.

This year began disastrously with the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau from the actions of the whale Tillikum, who had previously been involved in incidences that resulted in the death of two people. Since that tragedy there have also been the far less-publicized tragedies of three SeaWorld orcas that have died in captivity as well.

At SeaWorld facilities between July and October 2010, there have been a total of three orca deaths, which brings the rate of orca deaths for the company to 24 whales in 25 years. It is sad to see that while orcas continue to live miserable lives and die prematurely, much of the public still continues to support keeping these giants hobbled in a tiny alien environment.

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Problems with Whales in Captivity

Environment

Orca natural habitat is vast expanses of ocean. Wild orcas travel up to 100 miles (160km) in a day, and dive to a depth of almost 200 feet (60 m). They spend less than 20% of their time at the water's surface. In contrast, orcas in captivity reside in a collection of small tanks filled with chlorinated water. This habitat can be equated to a human being relegated for life to an area maybe as big as a few rooms and full of chemically treated air.

Food

In nature, orcas eat a wide selection of prey, depending on the area they inhabit. Their food can include a variety of: 30 different species of fish, sharks, squid, seals, sea lions, walruses, sea otters, birds, and even other types of whales. Orcas in most aquariums are fed a monotonous diet, primarily of dead herring. This does not have anything to do with the whale's optimum health; this is merely what is most convenient for humans to feed them.

Socialization

Orcas in nature live in complex social groups and maintain strong social bonds with members of their pod. In captivity, orcas are put into social groups not of their own choosing which will change many times over their lives; in the wild a social group usually only changes due to births and deaths in the pod. Some unfortunate orcas aren’t even given the comfort of companionship at all and left in solitary tanks instead.

Mental Stimulation

Opportunities for mental stimulation for orcas in the wild is vast; they are highly intelligent and demonstrate complex problem solving and abstract concept formation in their daily lives. They are engaged with hunting, socializing with their pod, and playing games each day. In a stark tank devoid of fish to chase and family members to socialize with, there is only training. Researchers believe that the lack of mental stimulation for captive whales causes high levels of stress, aggression, and mental illness.

The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?"

Orcas in Captivity: Revealing the Myths

Proponents of captive whale programs claim that they are important for conservation, education, and breeding purposes. But, is exhibiting an animal in a prison-like environment really conservation at all?

Keeping a whale in captivity doesn’t keep it safer than it would be in its natural habitat; in fact research on wild orcas has shown us that the health and behaviour of captive whales differs greatly from wild ones. To support conservation for orcas, more effort should be put into making their habitat safer for them. To educate the public about them, people can watch documentaries about wild orcas or go and see them in the wild with reputable whale watching tours. When orca habitat is safe for them, they breed on their own without human help just fine.

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"No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal".
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What you can do to help:

  • Show your support on your website, blog or social media with a support badge to let people know you care about captive whales.
  • Share your message of support or suggestions for how people can create change.
  • Write a letter and/or donate to your local animal rights organization.
  • Write a letter to your local aquarium facility and let them know why you won't be spending your money there.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good persons to do nothing."

Note: Image of captive orca, Lolita, performing at Miami Oceanarium taken by Piotr Domaradzki 1998
Image of two "transient" killer whales photographed off Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Photo by Robert Pittman.