In 2010, the SeaWorld Water Park in Orlando, Florida, witnessed the death of a killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau. This was not the first time the killer whale, Tilikum, attacked a trainer, thus sparking a debate over whether or not killer whales should be kept in captivity. Killer whales, also known as Orcas, are actually part of the Delphinidae family and are the apex predator of the ocean (Parsons). But in recent years, they have been known for their SeaWorld shows where they perform tricks alongside humans such as tail walking, flips, jumps, and bowing. SeaWorld claims that because of their close interaction with killer whales, the animals have benefitted from their research and conservation funding. But with the Brancheau’s death, animal activists argue that captive killer whales do not have appropriate living conditions, leading to increased stress and an unhealthy lifestyle. Even after a trainer death and public boycotts against SeaWorld, the killer whale show still sells tickets and remains one of the most popular attractions of the park. Even though SeaWorld claims that killer whales receive wonderful treatment, the living conditions of the orcas will always be a second priority to the amount of tickets sold, because SeaWorld cares more about money. And thanks to public’s desire for convenience at any cost, SeaWorld’s profits have increased without any backlash against their orca treatment until recently.
SeaWorld believes that they benefit orcas by conducting research and allowing the public to witness them "naturally." SeaWorld assures the public that the orca performance is not their main focus, but rather that the reason they have orcas in captivity is to learn about their biology through research conducted by the trainers. They claim that killer whales receive great treatment through a healthy diet, physical activity, and social interaction with other killer whales. Since most of the trainers are biology majors, they are qualified to work with the killer whales and record important information like daily measurements of the orca’s blood and physicality. For example, Steven Clark and Daniel Odell researched if sexual dimorphism, where animals are unable to differentiate between a male and female, occurred in captive killer whales. They discovered that no signs of sexual dimorphism occurred even when the dorsal fin collapses (Clark and Odell). By using their research, SeaWorld educates the public by lecturing audiences about basic knowledge on killer whales. After learning and seeing the orcas, SeaWorld hopes that the public will walk away from the show with a better appreciation for the orcas and their environment.
But the supposed benefits SeaWorld points out are blatantly false after looking at the detrimental living conditions and proves that there is little concern for the orca’s health. Because they are one of the biggest mammals in the ocean, they require large tanks, immense diets, social interaction, and extensive physical exercise in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle (Parsons). SeaWorld fails to reach these requirements because the current living conditions do not provide any of these necessities. Some of the problems with SeaWorld’s living conditions include a lack of space, detrimental lack of social interaction, and improper amounts of physical activity. They claim that they are able to maintain a healthy diet for the killer whales by providing them fresh fish at a rate incongruent with the orcas’ weight and amount of daily activity, even though there has been speculation that the orcas are overfed. The largest tank size for the killer whales currently holds seven million gallons of water, which measures to 357.7 square feet (SeaWorld). Orcas, who have been documented to swim nearly 100 miles in a day, need much more space in order to get the necessary activity to maintain a healthy body (Parsons).
These conditions have resulted in a significant difference in the average age of captive orcas versus wild orcas. In the wild, orcas live to an average of 50 years; the oldest documented killer whale is a female named granny who is 103 years old (Baehr). Captive killer whales average around 20 years old, some living into their forties, but a majority do not make it to 20 years old (Parsons). Some of the reasons for this reduced lifespan are diseases common to humans. In SeaWorld San Antonio, a killer whale died and scientists discovered he had the West Nile Virus. Even though it is debated whether it died from West Nile virus or other problems, the virus contributed to poor health and confirmed that killer whales could contract viruses or diseases (Leger). Another study observed seventeen captive killer whale deaths – thirteen being female, in which some of the reasons for the deaths were pneumonia and infections. The researcher, Sam Ridgeway, noticed that the females experienced more growth than the males. He argued that the females were being overfed which raised their susceptibility to disease and thus mortality rates (Ridgeway).
In addition to a decreased life span, pregnancy complications are another problem common among captive orcas. Instead of giving birth around age eleven like wild orcas, they give birth around seven years of age (Parsons). Even though this age difference may not be very wide, in order to be successful animals, killer whales need to learn from fully matured mothers. It is documented that female killer whales learn to become mothers by witnessing their own mothers’ care during their younger years. For example, Gudrun, a female orca, gave birth to a daughter, Nyar, who was mentally and physically ill. So Gudrun tried to run down Nyar during several shows. Gudrun’s other daughter, Taima, witnessed her aggressiveness and concluded that this was the way to raise calves. So when Taima gave birth to her first three calves, she showed extreme aggression towards her calves, which is obviously unhealthy for the orcas (Kirby).
Another crucial problem of the living conditions is the forced interactions due to the small size of the tanks. In most SeaWorld parks, ten killer whales from different pods share the tank. Thanks to current research, it has been documented that killer whale pods contain highly social constructs and remain close to their members (Blackfish). All of the orcas in SeaWorld San Diego come from differing pods, producing harmful interaction with other killer whales that can lead to behavioral problems in the future.
Because of the constant interaction with other orcas and the stress produced from these condtions, aggression is a common trait among many captive orcas, especially males. In 1989, an audience at SeaWorld San Diego witnessed an incident where Kandu V, a male killer whale, rushed at a newcomer female orca, Corky. Kandu V was attempting to show his dominance by raking his teeth on her. Luckily, she was able to swim out of the way, but Kandu V’s speed carried him into the wall, injuring his jaw and rupturing an artery. The show halted and the audience was immediately ushered out, but forty-five minutes later, Kandu V lay dead at the bottom of the pool (Johnson). It is plausible that Kandu V would have done that with any female, but the question remains, how can SeaWorld justify creating scenarios for killer whales to fatally injure themselves and others. Corky’s incident happened in 1989, yet SeaWorld made no change to their pool, and audiences continued to buy tickets. Tilikum experienced a similar incident in his first years of captivity when multiple killer whales raked him, which scientists believed has resulted in psychological problems for him (Blackfish). In either scenario, forced raking hurts captive orcas mentally and physically.
This aggression has made it unsafe for trainers to be up close and personal with the killer whales, leading to incidents like Dawn Brancheau. During a routine show, Tilikum thought that he performed his trick correctly and awaited a treat (a fish) commonly received after following a command. But Dawn Brancheau believed that Tillikum did not perform the trick correctly, so she did not award him the fish. Positive reinforcement (awarding for correct behavior) is often used to train captive killer whales and dolphins to perform tricks. This is a common animal behavior control methods and is widely used for multiple animals – the main animal being a dog. When Tillikum was brought to the back pool to prepare for his next trick, he grabbed Dawn Brancheau and killed her. There are many theories as to why he did it. In the beginning, SeaWorld argued that Tillikum smelled fish on her hair and thought her hair was a treat, explaining why he dragged her underwater. But researchers believe that Tillikum became aggravated, which triggered his built up aggression from the living conditions, causing him to take out his frustration on the trainer. (Couwells and Todd). There is one debatable incident of a wild killer whale being aggressive toward humans. There have been multiple documented attacks on humans from captive killer whales with Dawn Branchea being the most recent (Blackfish). Luckily, audience members did not witness this horrific accident, but it obviously made its way onto the news. Still, the public continued to attend killer whale show after this incident. It was not until the release of the documentary, Blackfish, in 2013 when people started to question killer whale captivity.
This questioning has made SeaWorld aware that the public is starting to understand the notion that orca captivity conditions are considered inhumane. So SeaWorld has created their Blue World Project, which consists of building a new killer whale tank that includes a depth of 50 feet, 1.5 acres of surface area, a “Water Treadmill” (a fast current that allows killer whales to swim across moving water), the largest underwater viewing experience, and 10 million gallons of salt water (Blue World Project). Though according to Slate, SeaWorld greatly exaggerated how they were actually planning on protecting Orcas.
While SeaWorld is retiring San Diego show, they are reopening a "new orca experience" in 2017, which is essentially a public attempt to fix their tarnished image and continue selling tickets. This change will only occur in San Diego, leaving orcas in Texas and Florida stranded in poor conditions. That being said, it is nice to see that they are finally changing the orca's living conditions, though the reason they are doing so reiterates their ignorance. They are changing for business profits rather than moral reasoning. If the public realized the truth about orca captivity, they would stop coming to the killer whale shows, and thus, SeaWorld would loose money. If SeaWorld actually cared about the orcas more than the profit they yield, they would have initiated this change years ago.
Unfortunately, the public does not view this type of treatment as inhumane because we still desire convenience over cost. Orcas are not a common animal that can be easily seen, and even in areas where they are well populated, it is still difficult to catch a glimpse of these amazing creatures. Thus, it is very tempting for a family to go visit SeaWorld, which is why they continue to sell tickets. Due to the lack in education about orcas and the fact that it is difficult to see orcas in the wild, the public will continue to reject the notion that orca captivity could qualify as inhumane treatment.
The future of this dilemma looks bleak for both sides because a majority of the killer whales are been born in captivity and will never be able to live a healthy lifestyle in the open ocean. As the public understands the suffering of captive orcas more, we will need to make a decision to either support or refute orca captivity, as it is not acceptable to go to a killer whale show yet oppose killer whale captivity. The public has the power to change SeaWorld because we are the ones providing the profits. Losing money is the primary reason for changing the current killer whale living conditions. And, as long as money remains the driving force behind SeaWorld, unsuitable living conditions will continue to occur, though hopefully soon the killer whales will be SeaWorld’s top priority – not the tickets.
This article was written by Sam Taylor, a USC graduate, Fast and Furious expert, and future owner of his own brewery.
- Baehr, Leslie. "The World's Oldest Known Orca Whale Was Just Spotted Along The Canadian Coast." Business Insider [New York City] 14 June 2014: n. pag. businessinsider.com. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.
- Blackfish. Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Perf. Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre. NFP marketing & distribution, 2014. DVD.
- "Blue World Project." Blue World Project. SeaWorld, 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. <http://blueworldproject.seaworld.com/seaworld-announces-first-of-its-kind-killer-whale-environment/>.
- Clark, Steven, and Daniel Odell. "Allometric Relationships and Sexual Dimorphism in Captive Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)." Journal of Mammology 3 (1999): 777-785. JSTOR. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.
- Couwels, John, and Brian Todd. "SeaWorld Trainer Killed by Killer Whale." CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. <http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/02/24/killer.whale.trainer.death/index.html>.
- Johnson, Greg. "Killer Whale Bled to Death After Breaking Jaw in Fight." Los Angeles Times 23 Aug. 1989: 11. Print.
- "KILLER WHALES - Conservation & Research." KILLER WHALES - Conservation & Research. SeaWorld , n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014. <http://seaworld.org/en/animal-info/animal-infobooks/killer-whale/conservation-and-research/>.
- Kirby, David. "A Killer Show." All Animals - Aug. 2012: n. pag. www.humanesociety.org. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.
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- Ridgway, Sam H.. "REPORTED CAUSES OF DEATH OF CAPTIVE KILLER WHALES (Orcinus orca)." Journal of Wildlife Diseases1 (1979): 99-104. Print.
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