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Why We Need to End Captivity of Killer Whales or Orcas

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Allorah is an advocate for humanitarian efforts, including human rights, wildlife conservation, and environmental sustainability.

An orca entertains the crowd at a marine park.

An orca entertains the crowd at a marine park.

Why Captivity Is a Killer to Killer Whales

Crowds have gathered at marine parks for decades to experience an up-close and personal view of the majestic nature of a class of sea mammals known as cetaceans. Among these is the orca, also known as the killer whale.

Studies have been conducted which prove that the orca, once portrayed as a dumb fish, is, in actuality, one of the most intelligent mammals roaming the planet with a complex psychological profile. Dr. Lori Marino, marine mammal behavioral biologist, asserts in her article Cetaceans and Primates: Convergence in Intelligence and Self-Awareness in the Journal of Cosmology that cetaceans’ brains are larger than most mammals, including elephants, in relativity to their body size (1071). Further, she explains that cetaceans possess “a highly expanded cortical region (the structure involved in high-level processing of information, self-awareness, and generally, abstract intelligence)” (Marino 1071).

This means that cetaceans can solve abstract problems and even make conscious choices about their behavior. Cetaceans even have an entire portion of their brain that does not exist in any primate, the paralimbic cortex; the majority of its function is widely unknown but provides the cetacean with more cortical area for neuro function (Marino 1072). This means that the orcas have more brain tissue that allows higher brain function to occur.

In captivity, the higher function of the brain that allows orcas to solve problems and make conscious choices indicates that they are prone to psychological dysfunction in captivity. Captivity has been proven harmful to the orca due to the capacity of its brain to exhibit complex communicative and matriarchal social structure, abnormal aggressive behavior in captivity, and negative emotional expressions resulting in physiological consequences calling for the need to explore alternative solutions to captivity.

Natural Pod Life Is Paramount

The orca is a highly social creature whose natural social order becomes disrupted through captivity. The orca depends on its behavioral interactions with pod mates to survive psychologically and physically (both of which are distinctly interrelated). Everything from playing to hunting is shared by orcas throughout organized groups called pods (Smith 26).

In captivity, orcas are fed frozen fish, eliminating the social interaction gained from hunting. Wild pods are comprised of anywhere between ten and 50 orcas who are all genetically linked, will remain members for the duration of their life, and are led by a matriarch, only changing if a female leaves to form her own pod or a male chooses to mate (A Fall).

In captivity, marine parks average less than ten whales per “pod,” the majority of which are not genetically related. Each pod also has its own dialect of communication as well as cultural customs that are unique to the pod (Marino 1068; A Fall). “Pods” made by marine parks like SeaWorld are artificial, grouping unrelated whales into faux wild circumstances.

The orcas within these faux pods cannot communicate with one another and make normal social interaction between orcas impossible. Mothers are regularly separated from calves, and members of the same pod are almost never kept together once captured in the wild (“Orca Captivity”). Dr. Naomi Rose, Marine Mammal Scientist, states: “Their entire social system is disrupted in captivity. Putting strangers together and separating them and moving them to another park. All of that disruption creates patterns that are completely abnormal” (A Fall). It is easy to see how an orca can become frustrated, angry, and even violent in captivity, suggesting that these social disruptions cause emotional trauma that results in subsequent aggressive behaviors.

Emotional Distress Turns to Physical Aggression

Orca behavior in the wild starkly contrasts with their psychologically abnormal behavior in captivity. Orca whales in the wild are generally non-aggressive towards humans, though, in captivity, they have proven extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Only one incident of orca aggression in the wild has ever been reported and did not result in injury or death (“Orca Captivity”; A Fall).

In captivity, there are over one hundred incidents of recorded Orca aggression towards humans, four of which have resulted in human death (“Orca Captivity”). Male orcas held in captivity are at an extreme disadvantage. They are twice the size of females though the female orca is dominant since their social structure is matriarchal.

This leaves a large male with no means of escape from dominant females who, in the wild, could easily swim away from an aggressor. Frustration all too often turns to aggression among the captive orca due to the mentally strenuous unnatural conditions of captivity. These startling behavioral examples and statistics point towards conditions of captivity being psychologically unconducive to the mental and physical well-being of the orca.

Emotional distress promoted by captive conditions produces situations that negatively affect the orca in a physical manner. Stress often results in a compromised immune system for the killer whale, which results in physiological issues unknown in the wild (“Captivity”). Anti-ulcer medication is regularly utilized by marine parks to treat stress as the orca frequently suffers from stomach ulcers in captivity (Smith 25). The small size of the orca tanks in captivity insists that the orca must swim in a consistent, repetitive circular pattern day in and day out—something unheard of for wild orcas.

To get proper exercise at SeaWorld, the orca would have to swim the entire circumference of the tank over 1,400 times in a single day vs. the straight swimming path known to their nature (“Orca Captivity”). The overall consensus of the scientific community believes that forced captive swimming behavior not only leads to emotional distress but also causes the orca to stay unnaturally above the surface of the water, resulting in the collapse of the dorsal fin. The collapse of the dorsal fin in the wild is less than one percent, while in captivity is one hundred percent (“Orca Captivity”). Dr. Lori Marino appears in A Fall from Freedom: Sea Mammals in Captivity and states:

"Dolphins and whales do not belong in captivity. There is no possible way that one can provide for them in captivity. Their natural behavior involves complex social interactions with large groups of animals. It involves traveling to different places with their companions. It involves developing cultural traditions, and exploring. And all of that is taken away in captivity."

Marine parks cannot accommodate the cerebral needs of the orca in a captive environment. This, in turn, causes a domino effect for the orca, leading first to emotional distress, then forced abnormal behaviors, and finally, physiological illness.

Infographic on captive orca statistics.

Infographic on captive orca statistics.

“Pods” made by marine parks like SeaWorld are artificial, grouping unrelated whales into faux wild circumstances. The orcas within these faux pods cannot communicate with one another and make normal social interaction between orcas impossible.

It's Time to Put an End to Captivity

As human beings, we must shift the public perspective of the captive orca population from entertainment to conservation to give it back its natural mental state. Conservation does not involve holding orcas captive but rather their release back into their natural oceanic environment. Dr. Paul Spong, native New Zealand neuroscientist and cetologist, asserts:

“You have to realize that as we learn more about these animals—the whales and dolphins—the idea of keeping them confined in concrete tanks into the future makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I think part of the answer has to be, conduct some really well-formulated experiments to see how possible it is to return the captives to life in the wild again” (A Fall).

We, as a society, need to create and fund more rehabilitation programs with the goal of releasing captive orcas than the few cases that do exist. Captivity has adverse psychological effects on the orca, which are caused by captivity conditions. Separating pod members and breaking the natural killer whale social order promotes abnormal behaviors.

Captive behavior of the orca is abnormally aggressive, often resulting in injury or death to either the orca or human. The emotional stress of captivity leads to stress-induced physiological issues that are not experienced in the wild. Irresponsible practices of captivity programs disregard the complex psychological capacity of the orca, putting the animals and people at risk. To end the suffering of the orca and human alike, the only correct answer is to end captivity.

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A Fall from Freedom: Sea Mammals in Captivity. Dir. Minasian, Stanley M., Narr. Mike Farrell. Films Media Group, 2011. Films on Demand. Web. 25 July 2015.

Marino, Lori D. "Cetaceans and Primates: Convergence in Intelligence and Self-Awareness." Journal of Cosmology 14: 1063-79. Animal Studies Repository. Web. 25 July 2015.

Smith, Jeremy. "Captive Killer Whales." The Ecologist 33.10 (2003): 24-25. ProQuest. Web. 25 July 2015.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation. "Captivity." WDC. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2015.

---. Orca Captivity. Infographic. PDF file.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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