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Orcas have been used as captive performers by marine amusement parks such as SeaWorld for several decades. SeaWorld has engaged in extensive efforts to clean up their reputation following the damaging revelations of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” However, the truth about the cramped, frustrating lives experienced by their captive animals is revealing itself at an unstoppable pace … and it is increasingly becoming clear that SeaWorld’s days of housing captive animals for financial gain are numbered.
In recent years, our knowledge of the complex social and familial structures of orca pods has come to the forefront, and increasingly, the reality that SeaWorld and other marine parks do not respect or even attempt to recreate these structures for their captive animals has become painfully obvious.
Wild orcas are born into closely bonded matrilineal pods and typically choose to spend their entire lives alongside their families once they reach sexual maturity. SeaWorld, on the other hand, force them into artificial social groups that may be changed at the whim of park management at any given time. There have also been many documented cases of mothers being separated from their calves … though SeaWorld has attempted to deny this.
The effect that this tragic situation can have on orcas is starkly illustrated by the story of a despairing mother whale, “too depressed to feed her calf, “observed by Dr. Ingrid Visser on a recent trip to SeaWorld San Diego. Visser – a renowned marine biologist and founder of the Orca Research Trust – was in the park filming for a new documentary project, Superpod, when she noticed the sad, listless interaction between this orca and her calf.
The orca was floating vertically in the water, ignoring her calf’s repeated attempts to feed.
Visser said, “Look at the bruising on (the mother’s) belly … That’s just because the calf is constantly trying to get food, so desperately hungry, so bored, it’s a stereotypic behavior now. Here in captivity we see stereotypic behaviors and these are abnormal repetitive behaviors that have no outwardly obvious function, for example, staring at a concrete wall. … There’s no mistaking it if you know what you’re looking at, and that really is painful to watch.”
The orca was later seen swimming alongside her calf.
Needless to say, SeaWorld went on the defensive as soon as they got wind of Visser’s remarks. Aimee Jeansonne Becka, SeaWorld communications director, responded with an accusation that “the so-called killer whale experts have got it all wrong.” She added that “the resting behavior seen (by Visser) is a natural behavior seen in the wild” and that “no-one is more dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our whales than the expert veterinarians and animal care staff working with them every day.”
Earlier this, month the California Coastal Commission granted SeaWorld permission to go ahead with a planned tank expansion program in San Diego but banned them from breeding any more captive orcas in the facility. As Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson pointed out, this puts the marine park in something of a sticky situation: “It would have been better for the shareholders if the permit had been denied and the $100 million not spent because now they get an expensive expansion but with no prospect of securing more orcas. Now if they do not proceed with the pool expansion, they will be stating loud and clear that the expansion was planned as part of a breeding program. It will expose yet another lie as people will realize that all the talk about caring for orcas and wanting to give the more room was just a cover to expand the pools for breeding programs.”
Now that SeaWorld’s days of captive breeding in their San Diego location has come to an end, further change is likely to follow … something that can only spell good news for the depressed mother orca seen by Visser. It is only when these beautiful animals are allowed to live wild and free, in their natural habitat, that we can acknowledge and appreciate them as they truly are.
Lead Image Source: Meetu Singhal/Flickr
In-text Image Source: Daily Mail UK