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The film “Blackfish,” released earlier this year, has now become synonymous with the exposure and condemnation of the stress-inducing lives led by captive whales such as Tilikum – a 23-foot long bull orca who has lived in captivity since 1983, and drowned SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Former SeaWorld Orlando employee Samantha Berg claims that, “Tilikum had a history of pulling people in … he reacts out of frustration and boredom after being cooped up since he was two years old.”

So why exactly do orcas experience such profound frustration as a result of being captured? If – as Fred Jacobs, vice president of communications at SeaWorld claims – the whales’ imprisonment is necessary in order to ensure their conservation, and they do not suffer in any way as a result of their captive status, why do they consistently demonstrate greater levels of aggression in captivity than they do in the wild?

A comparison of their natural behavioral patterns, as opposed to the lives they must endure in aquariums and amusement parks, reveals the answer.

1. They only live up to their “killer” nickname in captivity, not in the wild.

Orcas are often referred to as “killer whales,” in a sensationalist nickname reminiscent of “Jaws. But this is, in fact, something of a misnomer. While orcas are a carnivorous species – feasting on a wide variety of prey such as salmon, squid, turtles, sea birds, manatees, dolphins, and even other whales – there are no documented cases of wild orcas killing human beings.

In the few isolated cases where the wild whales have attacked humans, none have ended in death. It seems that the “killer whale” tendency only emerges when they are kept in captivity, as there have been many recorded incidents involving aquarium whales lashing out at their trainers, several of which have been fatal.

2. They are not provided with adequate social interactions.

Orcas are highly social animals. In the wild, they live in tight matrilineal pods, typically composed of their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Even when they reach sexual maturity, both male and female orcas typically choose to remain with their immediate family group for the rest of their lives.

When orcas have displayed this capacity to form such deep, lifelong bonds with their family members – just like we humans – how can SeaWorld claim that they are not harmed in any way once those bonds are brutally severed?

Putting a group of newly captured orcas – traumatized after having been torn away from their families – into a small enclosure, and asking them to “socialize” with one another could be seen as the equivalent of forcing a group of human strangers who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds into a small room, and informing them that they must now spend the rest of their lives together, whether they like it or not.

3. They receive little to no stimulation.

Marine activist Colleen Gorman, of The Orca Project, observed SeaWorld’s treatment of Tilikum after he had killed Dawn Brancheau, and dubbed him the loneliest whale in the world as a result. During this time, she observed that he was kept apart from the other whales, fed intermittently, and received scant attention from zoological staff.

While he was later able to return to his regular performances, can this really be regarded as an improvement in his life? After all, the stress of performing was arguably the very thing that led him to lash out at Brancheau in the first place.

Gorman says, “I truly hope that SeaWorld will do the right thing and start looking into donating him to a foundation that is ready, willing and able to give him a better life such as one in a coastal sea pen … To think that he has the potential to live for a few more decades, it would be a tragic waste of a beautiful life if he continues to languish in such mundane conditions.”

4. They can suffer from dorsal fin collapse.

Although SeaWorld has claimed that dorsal fin collapse “isn’t an indicator of the animal’s health or well-being,” this phenomenon is rarely seen in wild orcas. It is believed that captive whales experience it because they spend much more time at the water’s surface, swimming in the same direction in a small pool. In addition, they receive less hydration from the frozen-thawed fish they are fed in marine parks, as opposed to the fresh fish they would eat if they were hunting in the wild. All of these factors can cause a captive orca’s dorsal fin tissue to atrophy and flop over onto one side.

5. They lack proper exercise.

Can the captive orca’s exercise regime of repeatedly circling its tank, performing tricks, and taking part in shows with names such as “Clyde and Seamore’s Christmas Special and Cirque de la Mer” ever compensate for the activity levels their wild counterparts can expect to enjoy?

In the wild, orcas can swim up to 100 miles per day – a phenomenal amount, in comparison to the exercise they receive in captivity. Fred Jacobs, however, is dismissive of this natural tendency, and claims that “swimming (100 miles) is not integral to a whale’s health and well-being. It is likely foraging behavior.”

SeaWorld has recently claimed to be alleviating its whales’ lack of exercise by installing a new whale treadmill on their Orlando premises. But if you were a whale, and were given the choice between captivity and freedom, would you choose to turn circles all day on an artificially constructed treadmill?

6. Their intelligence goes unacknowledged.

The brain of the orca is four times larger than the human brain, weighing in at 12 pounds. As their brains have been evolving for millions of years, while modern-day humans first emerged about 200,000 years ago, it is safe to assume that their cognitive development is at least as advanced as ours – if not considerably more so! The complex familial and social relationships that can be observed amongst a pod of wild orcas show us that these creatures are highly self-aware, adaptable, and intelligent.

Bearing this in mind, the idea of reducing them to objects of human amusement – whose sole purpose in life is to perform tricks whilst inhabiting tiny concrete tanks – is a travesty.

Here’s how YOU can help orcas

The most important thing that can be done for captive orcas is to raise awareness about their plight as the list of reasons as to why orcas should not be kept in captivity could go on forever. In the end, however, all of the arguments boil down to one, simple question:

How would we like it if the situation were reversed?

Would we like it if the situation were reversed?


Lead image source: Wikimedia Commons

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33 comments on “Killer Whales Don’t Belong in Captivity –– Here’s Why”

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Natalie Daley
5 Months Ago

I hope that people are able to release the killer whales. There is a lot of hate for aquariums, and for a good reason.We need to help save our marine life!

dosnet matter
30 Jan 2018

im with you on this but its not as simple as saying just release them. First the orcas are untrained so they would go through a complicated life and secondly the marine park would have to take down the orca pool and replace it which would take alot of money.

Muriel Servaege
1 Years Ago

I find this article very interesting. I wish all orcas lived free.

4 Years Ago

I love this article but what concerns me are the sources. I have been doing research on this subject but it is very difficult to come up with backed-up facts about Sea World and their use of the whales and also the whale\'s lineages. There is loads of info on the internet and most of it is probably true, but without the sources I cannot use the information given. One question I have been trying to answer for myself: Are the current whales of Sea World socially structured by now after having a few generations of captive whale before them? That is just one of many unanswered questions I have.

Angelika Altum
4 Years Ago

yep, I believe I would be frustrated also!

Cliff Hauswirth
4 Years Ago

I enjoy the content of this site but the bar of information on the side blocks verbage how do I remove it

Eilene Kalbfeld
4 Years Ago

Mary Eddy...never happen?? Do you remember the holocaust? Slavery? Sex/child trafficking? The days women were stoned or locked up when menstruating or going through menopause? History repeats itself when forgotten.

Stephen Barrera
4 Years Ago

What a stupidly redundant question.

Melissa Znidarsic Rogers
4 Years Ago

I agree. I see another & another as well. But who are we helping if we dont see a project through??? We build up steam. Gain attention. Make *some* headway. Then move on to the next attention getter. Accomplishing what????

Kay Starr
4 Years Ago

I wouldn't ...Please release them...

10 Dec 2014

i have been doing a report at school and i think the should be let back in the wild too.

Melissa Znidarsic Rogers
4 Years Ago

What about circuses??? The hell those poor animals go through is sooo much worse!!! I'm not saying DON'T go after marine parks, or zoos, but hell!!! Where was this energy when we were begging for protestors while baby elephants were being broken down so they could stand on balls under the "big top"??? How can we help the animals when we start one cause, drop it & run to another one because it's "prettier", like a bunch of people with ADD!!???!!

Kay Wood Edwards
26 Dec 2013

We don't give up on one and run to another. It doesn't have to be one or the other. We try to help all animals being imprisoned and exploited for the entertainment or profit of humans. All animals being abused are included. I have protested circuses for years. That doesn't stop me from protesting, donating or spreading the word about Sea World or factory farms, or zoos, or wild horse round-ups... Maybe when people become aware of one type of abuse, it helps them see another, and another.

Rick London
26 Dec 2013

Melissa, Good question and was one of my first when I became involved/interested. Nobody is leaving anything to help another animal "because it is prettier:. There are different nonprofits that focus on different topics, different animals, different needs, different places, etc. The nonprofits (501c3s) are set and in place. If suddenly the Blackfish group decided it found "a prettier animal to save", the Orcas wouldn't be abandoned. Groups run by Bob Barker, Greenpeace and hundreds or others are working on whales and a few other cetacea. There are groups who strictly focus on circus animals (or they have an "arm of their nonprofit that does that) such as PETA with circus abuse. So you don't have to worry that any one animal is going to be abandoned. As Einstein said, "As goes the whiles, humans are next within 10 years". So it's important; not only due to the abuse, but what it means about our planet and if we can survive on it as well.

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