“Monday left me broken, Tuesday I was through with hoping…”
The lyrics from Avicii’s “Waiting for Love” can be heard playing over the Orca Ocean stadium speakers at Loro Parque as a young orca bashes her head, over and over again, off the gates of her tiny tank. The song is loud to entertain the paying tourists, but it is not loud enough to drown out the sound of skull smashing off of metal or the orca’s frantic screeches.
This disturbing behavior was witnessed earlier this month at the entertainment park in Tenerife, Spain, which is one of only two parks in the European Union still keeping orcas captive. Loro Parque currently has six orcas, five of which are on loan from SeaWorld, USA. As such, they are included in SeaWorld’s recent decision to ban its orcas from breeding.
The sixth orca, known as Morgan, was born in the wild. In June 2010, she was found swimming alone and emaciated off the Dutch coast and taken to the Dolfinarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands for rehabilitation and release. Instead of being returned back to her native Norwegian waters, Morgan was sent to Loro Parque. Just today, Loro Parque announced that the orca hurtling herself at the tank gates in the video is Morgan.
But why would Morgan – or any orca – do this? Margaux Dodds, Marine Connection Director and Campaigns Coordinator for the Dolphinaria-Free Europe coalition, is deeply concerned for Morgan’s welfare: “She is confined in what looks like a medical tank showing signs of either frustration at being confined or aggression towards the orca on the other side of the gate.” The medical tank at Loro Parque is only 12.4x7x4.2m, while Morgan is more than 4m long and some of the other orcas are even bigger.
Why Morgan was locked inside Loro Parque’s smallest orca tank has not been disclosed, but Loro Parque has claimed that “all we see [in the video] is that Morgan wants to open the door to… be with Tekoa.” Tekoa is the other orca visible in the video and he was one of the original captive-born orcas transported from SeaWorld to Loro Parque in 2006.
As well as calling the video a “manipulation” that is part of a “smear campaign,” Loro Parque asserted that its own veterinarians, as well as visiting veterinary and animal welfare professionals, have found that its captive orcas are not stressed. However, in the same statement, Loro Parque blamed “sexual frustration” as the cause of Morgan’s behavior. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, an animal’s welfare cannot be protected if its needs are frustrated.
Loro Parque has also confirmed that the banging heard in the video is the sound of Morgan “pushing strongly” at the gate, which she appears to be doing with her head.
“Head banging” is frequently observed in captive orcas and has been identified as a stereotypic (abnormal repetitive) behavior born out of frustration and stress. When these stereotypic behaviors cause self-inflicted physical harm, it is known as self-mutilation. A report by orca expert Dr. Ingrid Visser, who co-founded the Free Morgan Foundation, details how at least one orca at Loro Parque has been self-mutilating – that orca is Morgan.
The report also documented aggression between the orcas at Loro Parque, who are considered to be the most dysfunctional group of captive orcas in the world. The constructed artificial environments of captivity exacerbate conflict between orcas as there is nowhere to escape. However, if Morgan was displaying aggressive behavior, it may not have been aimed at Tekoa.
John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld orca trainer and supervisor of orca training at Marineland Antibes, has analyzed the video and found that, “It is unlikely that the orcas in the video are trying to displace each other as Tekoa does not appear to be vocalizing or ramming the gate back. The vocalizations that you can hear from Morgan, however, are very distinct in their sound and are indicative of a highly upset and aggressive whale; not a whale who is panicked or otherwise.”
Reinforcing the fact that head banging often results in self-inflicted physical injuries, Hargrove explained, “Slamming or ramming gates this hard is common with captive orcas and can lead to injury by fracturing their teeth, knocking out a tooth altogether and causing gashes and cuts to the animal’s rostrum. In extreme cases, it can completely slice the tip of the rostrum off, requiring weeks to heal.” Hargrove added, “It is also certainly possible that this behavior can cause hemorrhaging and ultimately death.”
Hargrove recounted how other captive orcas have died from ramming their heads into the sides of tanks and ramming each other. “You must realize that the force at which Morgan is slamming her head into the steel bars is comparable to if she were slamming her head with unbelievable force into concrete,” Hargrove described, noting that it’s subsequently “Not hard to understand how serious and dangerous this behavior is – and it is related to captivity.”
Given the severity of Morgan’s situation, Dodds believes that SeaWorld, the entertainment park claiming ownership of Morgan, should be obliged to give “an explanation as to why she was confined in the medical tank in the first place.” And this would be especially welcome in light of Loro Parque’s comment that the video shows “a completely normal situation in which there is no problem for the animals.”
At this time, it remains unclear why Loro Parque made the decision on that day, at that time, to put Morgan in the medical tank. The blaring music might suggest that she was locked inside while some of the other orcas performed tricks in an entertainment show for the public; this has previously happened to Keto, the large male who killed his trainer.
Or perhaps there was another motivation. The current unrest between Loro Parque and SeaWorld may have factored into Loro Parque’s decision. The Spanish entertainment park has made it crystal clear that it opposes SeaWorld’s decision to end the orca breeding program, claiming that the “permanent prevention of the reproduction of wild animals under human care is an action that goes against the very cycle of life and well-being of the animals.”
Despite this statement, Loro Parque does not appear to consider that the permanent prevention of the freedom and choice of the wild animals under its human care is an action that also goes against the very cycle of life and well-being of the animals – that the orcas have other needs and those needs are frustrated in captivity.
Evidence of this is apparent in the horrific video of Morgan crying, thrashing and beating her head against the tank gates as pop music fills the air around her.
Now that SeaWorld has stopped breeding its orcas, the fate of the orcas at Loro Parque, and particularly Morgan, seems uncertain. And it will remain this way until SeaWorld and Loro Parque release further information. In the meantime, let’s just hope Avicii’s words ring true – that there is, “In every lost soul, the bones of a miracle.”
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