I’ve been a long term supporter of WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation), so when they called me to renew my membership last week, without hesitation, I did.
A favourite animal of mine since I was a little girl, I’ve been losing sleep over the issue of killer whale captivity since my first (and last) visit to Orlando’s Sea World in 1996. I was 11 years old at the time, which is apparently old enough to recognise the reality of a cleverly disguised hell hole.
I remember taking my seat in tackily adorned Shamu Stadium, excited to see a killer whale for the first time after I’d unfortunately bought into the ‘Free Willy’ hype. Out swam Tilikum in, what I expected to be, all his magnificence, but instead I was struck with an uncomfortable feeling and a strange silence between my mum, dad, brother and I amongst the cheering crowd.
Tilikum’s two metre tall dorsal fin was collapsed entirely onto his left hand side. He was discoloured and seemingly sombre. I turned to my mum, who was already quietly crying and tried to comfort her (and myself I suppose) in assuring that Tilikum “wouldn’t perform if he didn’t want to”. I come from a wonderful environmentally conscious family that, I suddenly realised, had bought me here to make up my own my about aquariums.
I guess I wasn’t willing to let the reality ruin my expectations at first so I sat through the show, I took my pictures and not a lot more was said. It wasn’t until I got home and reflected on the holiday of a lifetime that I began to realise that something didn’t sit right with me and I wasn’t willing to make excuses for Sea World. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I knew at 11 years old that killer whales simply do not belong in captivity.
Since the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in 2010 and in the anticipation of the cinematic release of the ‘Blackfish’ documentary, I’ve felt attitudes changing towards killer whale captivity. It has now become an issue of animal and human welfare that I fear will eventually lead to a predominantly negative perception of the species (for the purpose of this blog entry, I will refer to the killer whale as the orca).
As of 2011, there were 42 orcas in captivity worldwide. 137 have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961. 124 of these are now dead. The average life span of these 124 individuals is 4.5 years – in the wild males live an average of 30 years and females 46.
Far from positive figures. Shouldn’t that tell us something already? Then again, if we didn’t learn from the string of shambolic attempts at early captures, why would we learn from this? The first three orcas taken from the wild in the North Eastern Pacific in the early 60’s survived one day, three months and one year respectively. The fate assigned to the first, 17ft female Wanda, was to be transported to Marineland in LA where she would repeatedly swim into the walls of her tank until she died. Captures continued to an extent that resulted in the removal of 48 orcas from the Southern resident community, which is still endangered today.
After the realisation that orcas could be trained and theme parks could cash in on their exploitation, captures continued, with seven taken from the L-25 pod in 1970 off the coast of Washington. The capture of these seven resulted in the death of four juveniles and one adult female as she drowned in a net trying to reach her calf. Concerned (with good reason) about public opinion, the deaths were concealed by slitting the orcas bellies, filling them with rocks and weighting them down with anchors and chains. The truth was uncovered when the bodies washed ashore 3 months later.
The only good to come out of the ruthless deaths was the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, which protected wild orcas with the requirement of permits. This led to a reduction in captures in US waters, but subsequently resulted in marine parks finding an alternative source in Iceland. 48 orcas were taken from the wild from the late 70’s to the late 80’s, including Free Willy star, Keiko. I won’t shatter all your happy ending memories of that movie by telling you Keiko’s story.
The years gone by have seen the deterioration and the death of almost all captives, not to mention obvious welfare issues. I was mortified to see the state of little Nakai, one of Sea World’s San Diego orcas in a news article published last year. Nakai’s injury was so severe, his jaw bone was exposed – an injurySea World claimed occurred when he “came into contact with a portion of the pool environment”. I’m almost certain that was a brawl wound, most likely the result of a clash with the two other orcas he shares a tank with. Orcas thrive in a very complex social structure in the wild and simply cannot be forced into confined spaces with other individuals. Whatever the truth is, neither is acceptable.
Nakai’s injury is an extreme example, but captive orca’s have to endure all sorts of physical traumas; from collapsed dorsal fins, disease, dental problems – all leading to a reduced lifespan. Distressingly, this is all common knowledge within the industry.
So after 50 years of ignoring the welfare implications of captivity, reports of several human deaths caused by aquarium orcas seem to suggest we must now consider the psychological implications. It is the truth that you cannot force a wild animal to do anything, but we’ve arrogantly become experts at manipulating them into doing as they are told; taking advantage of our most intelligent species. We think we know everything about these animals, but of course we don’t. That’s why they still have the ability to shock us.
Surely we shouldn’t be surprised that there have been fatal incidents related to riding around on the backs of huge, intelligent animals? Though this seemed to be the case with the death of Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in 2010. Sea World’s 33 year old (30 years captive) Tilikum had already been linked to two deaths before Brancheau. In 1991 an employee of the park, 20 year old Keltie Burne, fell into Tilikum’s tank (that he shared with two dominant females) and was then tossed between the three orcas until she eventually drowned. Although the orcas had never experienced humans in the water with them at this point, it was still out of character on the basis that orcas share the ocean with humans on a regular basis, unfazed. Logic and ecology suggests that it was only the display of natural behaviour; undoubtedly a case of mistaken identity caused by a combination of stress and instinct.
In 1999 Tilikum was found one morning with the body of a naked man draped across his back. The overnight events are unknown; although it’s understood the man evaded security and entered the tank by choice.
Tilikum’s attack on Brancheau was brutal. As much as Sea World tried to cover up the truth as a ‘trainer error’, it appears that she was dragged from her platform (by here arm according to eye witness accounts) and hauled around the tank. She died shortly after from drowning, severe crush injuries and the avulsion of one arm, as well as having been scalped. I cannot make radical excuses for Tilikum, only logical ones. He acted upon his instincts that day that resulted in the death of an innocent woman, but why? Why after 30 years in close proximity to humans did he choose to act? We have to acknowledge his erratic behaviour and attempt to find the reasons for it.
My opinion? It’s very simple; animals with this level of intelligence cannot be confined to a glass box. They are just as susceptible to suffering from distress and anxiety as humans are and this is inevitably going to have consequences. Are we so ignorant that we do not realise this or is the fruitful cash flow cause to simply ignore it? The fear is that orcas will now be portrayed as dangerous and unpredictable, which in the wild is simply not the case. If there is any truth in that portrayal, we must accept that by manipulating them into performing the same menial tasks, day in day out, in a confined space, they have been slowly psychologically damaged to breaking point. We’ve essentially driven a selection of one of our planets most beautiful creatures insane.
I think this issue, as is often the case these days, has to initially be about regulation rather than a ban. Captivity standards must be improved as a whole; maybe higher welfare standards could result is less inconsistent behaviour. The US, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service defines the average length of an adult orca as 24 feet (7.315 meters), based on which they require a pool with a minimum horizontal dimension (the diameter of a circular pool of water) of only twice that length or 48 feet (14.63 meters) and a minimum depth of 12 feet (3.66 m), giving a minimum volume of 615 m3. A pool of this size may hold two orcas under its rule. Although the majority of aquariums choose larger tanks, Lolita, Miami Seaquarium’s 40 year resident, is currently held in a tank that is less than two of her body lengths wide at any point.
There are always dangers related to keeping any wild animal in captivity and it is our responsibility to ensure the regulations placed on working with them are relative to the species concerned. The fact of the matter is that as well as their visual beauty, fascinating ecology and overwhelming intelligence, orcas are still predators that are designed to kill, which demands respect. Over 50 years of captivity has clearly seen no respect.
Maybe associating orcas with danger and violence rather than ostentatious entertainment is for the best? Lack of public demand removes the need of capture and captivity, but unfortunately it may be at the sacrifice of this magnificent animal’s entire reputation.
All captivity statistics courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC)