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Captivity compromises orca welfare. This is now widely accepted, even by the world’s biggest orca display franchise, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc. in the U.S., which has pledged to end its orca breeding program and to phase out its display of captive orcas. Still, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the orcas in captivity today, at SeaWorld and elsewhere, are still suffering because of their confinement.
Only in April, an orca known as Morgan was filmed frantically smashing her head off the metal bars that locked her inside the tiny medical tank at Loro Parque in Tenerife. Then last month, witnesses saw her stranding herself on the side of her concrete tank for a disturbingly long period of time, like male tank-mate Tekoa, the most excessively raked orca in captivity, had done previously. Why? It may be the only way they can escape severe aggression from the other orcas in their tank.
Now, a damning report has been released by the Free Morgan Foundation, documenting evidence of how fractured the teeth – and minds – of Morgan and the other orcas at the Spanish entertainment park are. Photographic evidence within the report shows that this tooth damage is self-mutilation caused by abnormal repetitive (stereotypic) behaviors: Orcas chewing concrete and on the metal gates, jaw popping (snapping mouths shut) and hitting their skulls against concrete and metal. Stereotypies develop when an animal’s biological needs, which have evolved over hundreds and thousands of years, are not met. To see so many stereotypies in these captive orcas illustrates that they are bored, frustrated, and forced to share small spaces with individuals they are not getting along with. They are struggling to cope with life behind bars.
SeaWorld is Banning Captive Breeding – Why Not Others?
So why then is Loro Parque, as well as every other entertainment park that currently keeps or is aspiring to keep orcas captive worldwide, including Marineland Antibes in France, not agreeing with SeaWorld?
Despite the fact that four of Loro Parque’s orcas were born at SeaWorld parks, and that all five (including the youngest born at the Spanish park) are only loaned to Loro Parque and are included in SeaWorld’s breeding ban, Loro Parque is fighting the decision. Worse, it is still allowing SeaWorld’s sexually active males to chase the ovulating females around its little tanks, particularly Morgan, the sixth orca confined at Loro Parque who was captured from the wild in 2010, (yes, she was rescued, but she was supposed to have been returned to the wild, or at the very least, an attempt was to have been made). SeaWorld has laid claim to Morgan as one of its “assets” so she is counted in the ban, although there doesn’t appear to be any legal basis for SeaWorld’s claim (which some might say is stealing!).
Animal Welfare Concerns
Loro Parque has stated that it “would like to underline the importance of relying on scientifically proven data to make statements about animal well-being,” arguing that “in order to make any correct conclusion [as to a captive orca’s well-being], it is a requirement that professional veterinarians and renowned experts work intensely for an extended period of time, conducting observations” [emphasis added]. These comments were provided in response to the video of Morgan beaching herself in the intense Spanish sun, which she has been filmed doing twice, once with what was possibly blood streaking down her chin.
Suzanne Rogers is an animal welfare expert and consultant who advises veterinarians, veterinary practices, non-profits, and alliances on animal welfare. In an interview, Rogers told One Green Planet, “It is a common misconception to assume that veterinarians are trained in animal welfare. Being a vet is not the same as being an animal welfare expert. This is why signs of poor welfare are often missed when facilities are relying on vets who have no formal training in animal welfare science.”
Another dangerous issue that Rogers stressed is the fact that these vets often have no experience with free-ranging cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), or specifically orcas. “Even in captivity, cetaceans are wild animals; they are not domesticated,” Rogers explained. “Therefore, to assess their welfare, you need someone who is an expert in the behavior of each individual species, both kept in captivity and free-ranging in the wild. If a vet is assessing a captive orca, he or she needs to be familiar with wild orca behavior as a benchmark for what is normal. Many vets do not have this experience so can’t tell the difference, and they can’t discern when an abnormal behavior has arisen.”
Workers painting the concrete walls at Loro Parque that were damaged from orcas chewing on the sides. This also clearly shows the metal bars of the tank gates that orcas chew and bash their heads against.
As part of her work to better educate vets and other expert professionals, (perhaps like the “renowned” ones that Loro Parque is vague about in its statement), Rogers is organizing the World’s first international conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh’s Royal School of Veterinary Sciences and its International Centre for Animal Welfare Education. One of the talks listed on the conference program, to be given by Nancy Clarke of The Animal Welfare Science, Ethics & Law Veterinary Association, is all about “creating a culture within veterinary education to achieve humane behaviour and good animal welfare.”
As well as stating it seeks advice from vets regarding the welfare of its orcas, Loro Parque has said in its blog that the “opinions of organizations that evidently only pursue their anti-zoo agenda” cannot be relied upon. The entertainment park does not seem to have considered that perhaps some of these organizations, such as the Free Morgan Foundation, are comprised of experts of both free-ranging and captive orcas. These experts are able to recognize what is normal behavior, what is detrimental to an orcas health and most importantly, why.
Evaluating the Needs of Captive Orcas
Dr. Ingrid Visser, Founder of the Orca Research Trust and co-Founder of the Free Morgan Foundation, has spent decades studying free-ranging orcas in several locations around the world. She has also spent the past few years observing orcas in captivity and documenting their behavior. Along with Rosina Lisker, a paralegal based in Germany, Visser also sits on the Free Morgan Foundation Board. Lisker has observed free-ranging orca in Argentina, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., and has observed orca in captivity in Spain and France. Both wrote the 2016 report that uses globally accepted animal welfare indicators, such as the display of stereotypic behaviors and physical damage, to evidence how tragic the lives of Loro Parque’s orcas really are.
“The Five Freedoms is an animal welfare framework developed to assess the absolute basic biological needs of animals with the purpose of improving animal welfare,” Visser described, referring to a framework that Loro Parque says it adheres to on an information board in its park. “Their version, the ‘five principles’,” Visser explained, “is far from the most up-to-date animal welfare framework, which in itself is telling. The next step up is the Five Domains and it is a more comprehensive model for assessing welfare.” The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums actually recommends that “zoos and aquariums [apply] the ‘Five Domains’.”
However, the report has put forward strong evidence showing that Loro Parque does not seem to be fulfilling even the minimal Five Freedoms for SeaWorld’s orcas. According to Visser’s and Lisker’s report, Loro Parque has breached at least four of the five welfare freedoms that it claims to meet: The freedom to express normal behavior, freedom from physical (including thermal) discomfort, freedom from fear and distress, as well as freedom from pain. Freedom from injury (or disease) doesn’t even appear on the park’s modified list and based on the report, they couldn’t fulfill it if it did.
The final freedom is the freedom from hunger and thirst, (with orcas obtaining water from the food that they eat). Although it cannot be definitively determined at this time whether an orca is hungry or thirsty, Morgan’s lunging out of the water at feeding time, as detailed in the report, as well as the mouth-open begging behavior exhibited by some orcas, might suggest that they are.
“The orcas do not have the space to exhibit body postures and behaviors that are normal of free-ranging individuals, such as hanging vertically or swimming at top speeds,” Visser noted, mentioning the medical tank specifically. She clarified that it should only be used as a temporary tank for medical procedures, but that she has seen the orcas crammed into it, sometimes together, for unethically long periods of time. “The inappropriate social groupings, even in the other, slightly larger tanks, can also affect the display of natural behaviors and can lead to excessive aggression. Plus there is no shade to protect their delicate skin. All of this can (and does) lead to pain, fear, and distress; from being locked into the tanks, attacked by another orca and from the wounds that arise from the enclosure, such as dental damage and self-mutilation.”
The Impact of Dental Damage
The physical discomfort and pain caused by the dental procedures is of particular concern; in fact, the dental damage incurred by the orcas through stereotypic self-mutilation and the resulting treatment is the centerpiece of the report. Lisker is mindful of the comparison between orca and human oral injury, “Imagine what it’s like as a human having a toothache. If severe enough, it might feel as if your entire head is exploding and it can affect both your mental and emotional states as well. We can only assume that orca feel similar pain when their teeth are damaged. They have to bear all these injuries, as well as the daily drilling and irrigation procedures, apparently without medication.”
Both authors were gravely concerned to find that more than 40 percent of all of Loro Parque’s orcas’ teeth are damaged, with Morgan’s teeth being in the worst condition – the teeth on the right side of her mouth show 70 percent damage. “Despite continued assurances by Loro Parque that ‘all is well’ for the SeaWorld orca and Morgan the wild-born orca,” the report stated, “the data presented here is indicative, once again, that there are underlying and fundamental issues that compromise the welfare of these orca. The very same welfare indicators identified by the captivity industry, as markers for compromised welfare, are prevalent and excessive at Loro Parque…”
As well as finding evidence that Loro Parque is not meeting at least four of the Five Freedoms, the report also presents evidence that Loro Parque has violated at least 23 bottlenose dolphin-specific welfare measurements. These measurements are taken from the only formal welfare assessment that exists for any cetacean species in captivity. According to the report, although orcas are not bottlenose dolphins, they are from the same family and so the measurements can be applied across both species.
A “health and welfare assessment” by Dr. Andrew Greenwood, a vet contracted by Loro Parque, has also discussed the orcas’ teeth. His findings from September 2015, however, have major discrepancies when compared with the photographic evidence included in the Free Morgan Foundation report. Greenwood did not appear to evaluate the damage to the teeth in the context of the orcas’ behaviors or their enclosures. As a result and unlike the Visser and Lisker report, there is no explanation from him as to why the tooth damage may be present and neither is there any assessment as to what implication it has for the orcas’ welfare.
Blue paint on Skyla’s teeth from where she’s been chewing the tank walls.
The captivity industry has alleged that tooth damage in orcas is perfectly normal, as worn teeth have been observed in some free-ranging populations. These occurrences have been attributed to the way that the orcas feed in the wild and the type of prey that they feed upon, such as sucking fish up into the mouth, with the scales acting like sandpaper against the teeth. However, the orcas at Loro Parque are descended from populations where tooth-wear is uncommon and as described in the Free Morgan Foundation report, “The extreme damage observed in the teeth of all captive orca cannot occur due to feeding…because trainers feed them by dumping handfuls of fish directly into the back of their mouths.” Rather, broken teeth in captive orcas are a consequence of the orcas’ stereotypic chewing behavior that has resulted from frustrated needs and reduced welfare.
Demanding Action for Orcas
Visser and Lisker have now submitted their report to the U.S. government as ultimately, SeaWorld is responsible for the orcas at Loro Parque, rendering the U.S. government accountable for protecting the orcas’ welfare. The Free Morgan Foundation has also sent an open letter to Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld, to once again request a meeting to open dialogue with SeaWorld about its orcas. The same letter was also addressed to Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), whose organization partnered with SeaWorld on the park’s decision to end orca captivity. It is hoped that members of the HSUS will speak out for the Loro Parque orcas as well.
Of course, all members of the public can speak out and Lisker wants to keep reminding people: “Please don’t buy a ticket to places that keep whales and dolphins captive. Although our report focuses on orcas, you can find similar problems for all other captive cetaceans, in all facilities around the world.”
There is an alternative for the orcas currently in captivity too. It is strongly suggested within the report that Loro Parque should place its orcas “into a seaside sanctuary, where they can continue to receive the medical care they will require…experience the natural ocean, large enclosures, reduced stress and by default, their welfare will be enhanced.” The Free Morgan Foundation has even offered its Support to SeaWorld and Loro Parque should they decide that this is the best course of action. And both Visser and Lisker believe that it is. “To do otherwise,” they wrote, “would only be disingenuous and hypocritical of SeaWorld’s and Loro Parque’s claims to be doing the best for these animals and to be companies that give priority to animal welfare.”
In-text image source: Free Morgan Foundation
Lead image source: Shutterstock