The last killer whale (otherwise known as orca) bred in captivity under Seaworld’s controversial breeding program died this past Monday at the company’s park in San Antonio. Kyara, a three month old orca-calf, was born in April and was being treated by veterinarians for an infection but her health dramatically declined over the weekend. Aside from Kyara, SeaWorld now has 22 orcas in captivity.
At least 150 orcas have been taken into captivity since 1961 but an incident involving a five ton orca named Tilikum killing its trainer in front of park visitors in 2010 brought the issue into the limelight. A documentary, Blackfish, exposed SeaWorld’s mistreatment of orcas and argued that Tilikum’s violent outbursts were directly brought on by the stressful conditions of his captivity. Prior to the release of Blackfish, there has not been much debate over marine mammal captivity. Now, many people are enraged about the captivity of these majestic creatures. The question remains: should these magnificent creatures be kept in captivity?
Orcas, technically classified as dolphins, are one of the world’s most powerful predators. They have strong family bonds with similar life spans to humans. Orcas are known to travel in family groups or “ecotypes” of up to 40 individuals and their elaborate vocal communication and cooperative hunting strategies make them extremely sociable mammals. Orca ecotypes are extremely different from each other, with different diets, behaviors, language and physical traits. The different ecotypes also tend not to breed with each other.
In the wild, orcas can live between 50 and 80 years. In contrast, a 2015 study found that orcas in captivity live much shorter lives with a median survival rate of just 6.1 years with those in U.S. facilities reaching an age of 12 years. The study concluded that “survival to age milestones is remarkably poorer for captive killer whales than for wild whales.”
Male orcas can reach 32 feet and weigh up to 22,000 pounds. They also travel up to 100 miles a day. According to researcher Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington DC, “these marine mammals need to travel such distances not just to feed but to stay healthy.” Scientists also say that the lack of stimulation and cramped unnatural conditions of captivity make orcas stressed out resulting in stereotypic behavior such as biting and swimming in circles repeatedly. Stereotypic behavior is an abnormal behavior carried out by animals kept in captivity. It’s most common in wide-ranging carnivores and many scientists believe it is directly linked to stress.
It seems that the easiest solution may be to release the captive orcas back into the wild but this may not be so practical in reality. In March 2016, SeaWorld announced it would be ending its controversial breeding program and begin phasing out its whale performances. Their remaining orcas in captivity were not released into the wild citing safety concerns for the orcas. Researcher Naomi Rose said that whales bred in captivity have never had to procure their own food or develop learned behaviors that would help them survive in the wild.
Instead of simply releasing the whales, there are currently efforts underway to create sea pen sanctuaries for captive orcas. Sea pen sanctuaries are similar to the land sanctuaries which host elephants and chimps. In this case, it would a large space in the ocean, in a bay or a cove. This would allow the orcas “experience the currents and swim and dive and interact with other ocean animals,” says Jared Goodman, director of animal law for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The sea sanctuaries will allow the orcas to return to “some semblance of natural life.”
Written by Danielle Bayer