Tears of joy were shared between anti-captivity activists everywhere today. I’m still shedding a few now. SeaWorld announced that they will be ending their orca captive breeding programme. Their last generation of captive orcas have been born. What an achievement for our campaign. A decision that has long term scope and in coming decades and likely my lifetime, will see orca captivity in North America be a thing of the past. I wholeheartedly wrap my arms around every single person who signed a petition, shared a post or told a friend about the ethical and moral dilemmas of keeping these magnificent animals in captivity. I thank you and I congratulate you on our success.
But let’s revisit how we got here. Let’s not get too consumed in our victory that we overshadow the things we need to remember as the fight continues for the current orcas still suffering.
I saw many people congratulating SeaWorld today; one person even said they were ‘proud’. No. I’m am elated at the decision and full of positivity for the coming fight, but I won’t give a scrap of recognition to SeaWorld.
The truth is SeaWorld’s captive breeding programme was coming to an end already. Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest male orca who was responsible for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, is sick. Really sick. He has a “cold” as SeaWorld officials put it, but what Tili actually has is a lung infection and will likely die of pneumonia. Captive orcas rarely survive these sorts of infections. Their immune systems are considerably weakened from years in confined spaces and malnutrition.
What they don’t tell you is that captive orcas are generally riddled with infection anyway. A prominent issue with all captive orcas is dental health. During times of stress and anxiety (let’s face it, that’s all the time) orcas grind their teeth. They also chew and bite parts of their tank which causes their teeth to break and shatter. Much like human treatment, their teeth then have to be drilled to the root. This is done without/with very little anaesthetic and the holes are left open.. orca fillings anyone? Exactly. These holes become a breeding ground for bacteria. Bits of dead fish get stuck inside and rots and inevitably leads to infection. SeaWorld’s answer to this problem is to stuff dead fish (“food”) full of a cocktail of antibiotics and feed it to their orcas almost everyday (please see an earlier blog post of mine that lists these drugs). Sometimes it’s not enough. It isn’t enough for Tili and was never really going to be. I’m surprised he’s still alive now.
Tili has been isolated in a tiny pool for over a year. He is released only to splash the crowds during shows. He has no interaction with humans or other whales. He spends most of his time floating on the surface. He is forgotten. This is how he is going to spend his last days.
SeaWorld stand to lose much more than a performer when he finally leaves us. They also lose their last viable sperm stock. Tili is masturbated and his sperm artificially insiminated into other female orcas to produce offspring destined to a life of ostentatious performance in captivity. Captive born orcas have a very high mortality rate and the programme has been far from a booming success. Ulises, San Diego’s wild caught captive male is another option, but his low sperm count and submissive nature (orcas are matriarchal anyway) doesn’t make him much of a hit with the ladies. He’s been responsible for two calves through artifical insemination, but after Tili has gone, he’ll be on his own.
Tili and Ulises are SeaWorld’s last male wild caught orcas from the original 1970s captures. The gene pool has been steadily shrinking and inbreeding is rife. The outlook for captive breeding is bleak.
So yes, SeaWorld made a seemingly positive decision today, but not really. Forced to face the end of captive breeding anyway, they made a decision that is mounted on PR motives.
This isn’t it, SeaWorld. Don’t think you’ve silenced us. We won’t forget about your current prisoners. Retirement of your current captives is our next goal and your next step. We’re coming for you. It might be too late for Tili, but he has made his voice heard and you’ll be hearing ours, now and long after he’s gone!