Swimming in Hot Water
Every year millions of people travel to aquariums and marine parks like SeaWorld to see Shamu. They clap and cheer as he leaps through the air and splashes the audience with his massive tail flukes as he cruises by. The audience laughs and seems thoroughly amused by these playful antics. However, there is a dark side to orca captivity that most people know nothing about. There have been injuries, illness and even death within these establishments. Although many people argue that captivity is a place where orcas can flourish and thrive, marine parks cannot replicate life in the ocean.
The social structure of orcas in captivity is much different from in the wild. In the wild orcas live in tight knit groups called pods that consist of mothers, uncles, sisters, brothers, aunts and even grandmothers. Dr. Naomi Rose who is a senior scientist for the Humane Society International said, “Orcas are probably the most socially bonded mammals on the planet, even more so than human beings. The offspring of the matriarch stay with her for their whole lives.” (Rose, “Fall”) They stay with their natal pods for their entire lives. Wild pods are set up as matriarchal societies, where the matriarch or oldest female will be the leader. The other members of the pod will follow her unquestioningly because this is how an orca society works. The orcas in captivity try to replicate this to an extent. In every park (with the exception of Loro Parque), there is what is considered a dominant female. She is usually the oldest female in the park, though not necessarily the biggest. She controls all the other whales in the park. She will “displace” them if they do not do what she wants. A good example of her control would be on a day when she is not feeling like performing in a show, all of the other whales will follow suit and refuse to perform as well. If the other whales do not follow her lead, she will “rake” them. This is when an orca scrapes the side of another orca with her teeth, often times making them bleed. Most of the male orcas in captivity bear scars on their flanks from rakings. Males are often the target of raking from females because they are naturally sub-dominant and are usually the lowest ranking members of the group.
Keeping incompatible animals together in such tight quarters can have serious consequences. The most infamous case of whale-to-whale aggression occurred at Seaworld San Diego on August 21, 1989. The dominant whale at the park was an Icelandic female who was about fourteen years of age Kandu V. She was with her one-year-old calf Orkid when Corky II a twenty five year old Northern Resident female showed interest in the calf. Shortly thereafter in front of a fully packed audience Kandu V rammed Corky II with her head severing a major artery and breaking her jaw in the process. Over the next 45 minutes horrified onlookers watched as Kandu V bled to death. (Kirby, pp.171)
There has only been one verified attack on a human by an orca in the wild, in captivity, there have been 106 reported incidents. They range in severity from an orca grabbing a trainer’s foot to an orca being responsible for a trainer death. The four most serious incidents are human deaths that have transpired as a result of orca captivity. The first one was at the now defunct Sealand of the Pacific in 1991. A young trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped and fell in the orca tank after a show and was repeatedly submerged by the park’s two female orcas Haida II and Nootka IV. They continued to “play” with her body and eventually the male orca Tilikum joined in. The second death is considered to be somewhat of a mystery. Seaworld staff came into work on the morning of July 6th, 1999 and found a man’s naked dead body draped over the back of the male orca Tilikum. Apparently, the man had snuck into Seaworld after it closed and jumped into the orca tank. The official cause of death was hypothermia, although divers reportedly had to retrieve his scrotum from the bottom of Tilikum’s tank. The third attack, which was kept concealed for quite some time after it occurred, was at Loro Parque on Christmas Eve 2009. Twenty nine year old trainer Alexis Martinez was in the pool with fourteen-year-old male Keto doing a training session. Keto had apparently executed a number of behaviors incorrectly and was not rewarded with a primary reinforcement. Keto then went “off behavior” and in an attempt to get him back “under control”, a second trainer called him to the stage. Once Keto was back “in control”, the second trainer told Martinez to exit the pool. Keto reportedly saw that Martinez was going to exit the pool and went after him. The autopsy report stated Martinez had suffered “a violent death.” He had fractures of the ribs and sternum, the collapse of both lungs and puncture marks “consistent with the teeth of an orca.” The most recent and probably the most notorious human death linked with a captive orca took place in February 2010. Senior trainer Dawn Brancheau was doing an afternoon “Dine with Shamu” show at Seaworld Orlando with Tilikum. The show went off without a hitch; the audience was then directed to go downstairs to the underwater viewing area for their “photo with Shamu.” Dawn was lying on the ledge of the pool with Tilikum doing a “relationship session” while she waited to send him down for his photo when something went wrong. It is unclear whether he grabbed her arm or her ponytail but he pulled her into the water and began to shake her. He refused every callback and continued his assault. Eventually he swam into the med pool where the floor was raised and Brancheau’s body was retrieved. Her official cause of death was drowning, although her autopsy report stated left upper extremity was removed, fracture of the skull, ribs and neck, and complete avulsion of the scalp. This specific whale has been involved in three out of four human deaths; he is an example of the dark side of captivity. (Jacobs, www.orcahome.de)
Captive orcas tend to start breeding at a much younger age than they naturally would in the wild. In the wild orcas reach sexual maturity at around fifteen years of age in both males and females. Females typically have their first calf then and continue to have one calf about every five years until they reach menopause at forty to fifty years of age. The average age for captive females to have their first calf is somewhere between eight and ten years of age. This causes problems because the mothers are very young and inexperienced. Kohana is a ten-year-old captive born female who is on a breeding loan at Loro Parque from Seaworld. She has birthed two calves in just two years, both of whom she rejected from birth. This kind of behavior in captive mothers is surprisingly common. Taima who was a transient/Icelandic hybrid started attacking both of her sons when they were just a few months old forcing park staff to permanently remove the calves from her care. Those kinds of behaviors have never been observed in wild orcas. (Kirby, 283)
When a calf is born at in captivity, the staff and media will go out of their way to portray the image of a new addition to the “big happy shamu family.” Unfortunately, this is quite often a deceiving image. To keep a healthy genetically diverse community of whales at these parks, they have to be able to prevent inbreeding. To ensure that inbreeding does not happen, parks will periodically move the whales around from park to park. This often means breaking families apart. Sons and daughters will be taken away from their mothers to go to a park that has an unrelated orca with whom it can mate. In the last decade an alternative to this has become available, artificial insemination. Most of males are now trained to present their penis for semen collection. The females are trained for insemination and ultrasound. The first successful AI whale was born in September 2002. A male calf later named Nakai was born to Kasatka at Seaworld San Diego, his father Tilikum lives at Seaworld Orlando.
Despite claims by aquariums that their animals receive “superior veterinary care”, captive orcas plagued by a variety of health problems. Dehydration is a constant issue because in the wild orcas receive their water from the live fish they eat where in captivity they are fed dead thawed fish. To combat this problem marine parks have developed several techniques to keep their whales hydrated. They will often give the whales flavorless, colorless jello as a treat during shows. Another way to they and keep them hydrated is to put a tube down their throats and hose water directly into their stomachs. The orca Tilikum is even trained to drink fresh water from a cup in order to stay hydrated. Most receive medication daily, which is stuffed into the gills of the fish in their morning feedings. The most common medications fed to them are antibiotics. The orcas are frequently observed biting on the concrete stages and metal gates that separate the pools. This causes severe tooth breakage, which leaves the pulp of the tooth exposed and susceptible to infections. To try to avert infection, the trainers and veterinarians will perform what is known as a “modified pulpotomy.” During this procedure, an orca’s tooth is drilled down through the pulp with a multi-speed dremel drill. It is considered successful once the hole begins to pour blood. From that point on, the orca will have to have their teeth flushed out with an antiseptic solution several times daily to prevent food plugging. (Rose, “Killer”)
Dorsal fin collapse is a condition that is almost completely exclusive to captive orcas. The dorsal fin contains no bone and is made of connective tissue and collagen. In the wild orcas swim up to one hundred miles per day, the water pressure from the constant movement of their travels helps in keeping their dorsal standing to its full height. Dorsal fin collapse affects one hundred percent of male captive and sixty to seventy percent of female captives. While captivity supporters often claim that there is no link between poor health and dorsal collapse, many experts disagree. Less than one percent of wild orcas have been observed to have a bent or collapsed fin and it is usually associated with injury or poor health. For example, shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill two adult male orcas who were exposed to the toxins were seen with collapsing dorsal fins. Within two years, their fins had completely fallen over to rest on their backs. (Kirby,180)
The biggest debate about keeping orcas in captivity revolves around longevity. In the wild female orcas have a life expectancy of fifty years with a maximum of eighty to ninety. Wild male orcas have a life expectancy of thirty years with a maximum of fifty to sixty years. So far, no orcas have lived to fifty years in captivity. The oldest captive orcas are wild caught Lolita and Corky II; they are both believed to be in their mid-forties. The oldest male orca in captivity is an Icelandic caught male names Ulises who is thought to be around thirty-five years old. There is a statistic called MDC (mean duration in captivity) this calculates how long an animal is alive in captivity. As of 2012, the MDC for all whales deceased and living in captivity was just eight point five years. (Jett, Ventre)
When an orca is taken into captivity, its life is changed forever. It once frolicked with mom and could look forward to a long life of stability and freedom. Now its life has become something different altogether. It will be placed in a tank with whales it does not recognize who do not even speak the same language. It could face abuse, loneliness and most likely premature death. If it is forced to breed, the babies may be taken from it. . It will be forced to work literally until the day it dies. Out of the two hundred and four orcas that have been kept in captivity, only forty-six remain alive today.