Orcas — better known as killer whales — beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, pacific white-sided dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and seals are some of the many marine animals that have been held captive by marine parks for entertainment purposes. When visiting these marine amusement parks, such as SeaWorld, it is incredible to see the wonderful tricks and obedience displayed by the orcas. Although watching these animals perform is a majestic experience, what goes on behind the scenes is completely barbaric. Marine amusement parks have tried very hard to hide the harsh truths of what actually goes on behind their walls.
The first bottlenose dolphin was captured in 1883 for display in Europe (Dolphins in Captivity, n.d.). Then, the first orca was taken into captivity in 1961. Although this began on a rare occasion, this practice is all but eliminated today. It is estimated that from 1986 to 1989, 2,700 dolphins were captured for commercial display purposes; 1,600 in United States waters and 600 in Japanese waters (Dolphins in Captivity, n.d.). As of 1989, no further permits have been issued for the commercial capture of wild dolphins in the United States, but continue in Japan (Understand Dolphins, n.d.).
The movie, Blackfish, includes an interview with John Crowe, former Whale Hunter, describing his experiences hunting orcas. In 1970, capturing teams would go into the Puget Sound, Washington to capture baby orcas for SeaWorld. They would throw explosives into the ocean to gather the whales into a close group and direct them into the coves. Once the capture teams would take the necessary calves, the capture team dropped the nets so that the remaining orcas could have left, but they stayed mourning for their family members. It was clear to the members of the capture team the connection the pod shared and what human like emotions were expressed. Once the hunt was over, three dead whales were left in the net. As instructed, they cut the whales open, filled them with rocks and tied their anchors to their tail to sink them to the bottom of the ocean.
Taking marine mammals in captivity has resulted in multiple human injuries and fatalities. In 1983, a 2 year old male killer whale was captured in the North Atlantic and taken to Sea Land in Canada; they named him Tilikum. The trainer at Sea Land used a technique of punishment to train Tilikum and the other two female whales. Tilikum, an untrained animal, would be paired with the other two trained orcas and if one of them were to do a trick incorrectly, then both of them would be withheld food. Since Tilikum was new, he would often do tricks wrong; this would cause a lot of frustration between the whales. The more experienced whale would become aggravated with Tilikum and result in raking their teeth against him as a form of fighting. Tilikum would be covered from head to toe with rakes against his skin, full of blood and scratches. They stored all three of the whales in a pool 20 feet across and 30 feet deep which made them immobile — they spent 2/3 of their lives in these cages. The whales suffered from severe food deprivation and lack of mobility which caused them to be frustrated and depressed. It is believed that this environment led Tilikum into a psychosis and resulted in the death of a trainer. On February 20, 1991, Kelty Burn was killed by Tilikum in a public performance at SeaLand. After the incident, SeaLand closed down and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld to be a part of their breeding program, although this was not the only purpose he was used for. Tilikum spent a lot of time in isolation at SeaWorld which only added to his frustration. Despite the accident, the trainers at SeaWorld were not told about the incident with Kelty and Tilikum, but did spend time around him. Unfortunately, Kelty was not the only victim of Tilikum. On February 24, Dawn Brancheu was also a victim of Tilikum’s depression and psychosis. Dawn was always very cautious around the orcas and abided SeaWorld safety guidelines; when her colleagues heard of her death, they were astonished (30 Years and 3 Deaths: Tilikum’s Tragic Story, n.d.).
Dave Duffus, an Osha expert Witness and Whale Researcher states “The situation with Dawn Brancheu did not just happen, it’s not a singular event. You have to back over 20 years to understand this” (Blackfish, 2013).
Tilikum is just a prime example of how the marine mammal captivity industry started out as being for display and entertainment, but has resulted in serious injuries and casualties. The animals do not just act out of a one-time situation, but on a buildup of severe depression and frustration caused from being held in captivity in an unhealthy environment.
Cetaceans usually swim up to 100 miles a day; but in captivity, they would need to swim around their tank at an estimated 1,900 times a day to meet the equivalent (PETA). In the wild, Cetaceans spend 80–90% underwater, but spend 80–90% on the surface in captivity due to lack of space and looking for food which is supplied by their trainer (Animal Welfare Institute). Not only is the space for orcas and dolphins too small, but it is also unsanitary and hazardous. No captive facility can sufficiently replicate the enormous ocean or provide for their complex behavioral needs. Some animals are left unattended when ill, while others are left to sit in their own mess leading to them gnawing on gates and causing more physical ailments to themselves. Although you may think that these marine mammals have a longer lifestyle while in captivity as they would not come in contact with predators, but that is not true for all. Manatees and walruses tend to have a longer life in captivity as long as their living area is kept sanitary. However, the life span of orcas and dolphins is severely cut when in captivity. According to John Hargrove, a former trainer at SeaWorld, many of the orcas were given medication every day to treat chronic stress and physical illnesses. It is believed that these loving creatures are driven to such an unstable emotional state, that they will take their own life, or be so emotionally drained which causes them to pass away at a lower than average age.
Considering yourself, you would think that humans are the most emotionally connected mammals out there. We develop such strong feelings and attachments to our families, our spouses and our friends, it’s hard to think that any other mammal out there could relate. The thought that an animal might have stronger emotional feelings than us seems unbelievable, but recent studies show otherwise.
Ever wonder why marine entertainment parks chose orcas and bottlenose dolphins to perform shows instead of a shark, manatee or blue marlin fish? The trainers are able to teach orcas and bottlenose dolphins tricks and interact in a way to convince the audience that the whales and dolphins are having the time of their life in captivity. They attract people with their charismatic personalities, performing their flips and splashes, filling the stadiums with smiles and laughter from the audience. It’s not a coincidence that these are their most popular shows as orcas and dolphins are extremely friendly and intuitive mammals. Whales and dolphins, specifically orcas and bottlenose dolphins, are more mentally advanced than almost every other mammal. Lori Marino, Neuroscientist, claims that the orca brain screams out intelligence and awareness.
When an orca’s brain was put in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner (MRI), it was discovered that they have a part of the brain that humans do not have. A part of their brain has extended out right adjacent to their limbic system, which processes emotions. The safest inference would be that these animals have highly elaborated emotional lives. It is becoming clear that dolphins and whales have a sense of self and social bonding that is taken to another level; much stronger and complex than other mammals, including humans. For example, when there is a mass stranding of whales, they stand by each other which show a real sense of social and emotional connection between the whales.
Howard Garrett, Orca Researcher, says that each community has a completely different set of behaviors; each has a repertoire of vocalizations with no overlap, like languages. The fact that these animals can communicate so effectively within their communities is outstanding. Their communication lies at the core of orca social awareness; their calls are as loud as jet engines and can travel over many miles in the ocean. Orcas make three types of vocalizations: clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. The clicks are part of the whale’s sonar and are used for echolocation, which is used for finding and locating food sources, for defining other objects in the ocean and locating the whale in its environment. Whistles are typically continuous tone emissions that may last for many seconds. Pulsed calls are signals which have discrete patterns that can be recognized by ear and by spectrogram. They are the main component of the orca communication repertoire. Dr. John Ford categorized the discrete call types for the orcas of Washington State and British Columbia. He discovered that each pod has its own collection of calls which he referred to as their “dialect”. Depending on the type of signals made would determine what type of community the whales are in.
In regards to an orcas social organization, they live in small nuclear and extended families that we call pods, clans and communities. Pods are extended families of closely related mothers that are daughters, sisters or cousins, and their children. A pod can be defined as those orcas that are usually seen travelling together Orca “clans” are defined in terms of the acoustic traditions of pods within an orca community. Pods which share common calls belong to the same clan and separate clans are composed of pods which do not share calls. Pods from separate clans do often socialize together although they do not share the same call. These groupings show how tight their emotional and family connections are, very similar to humans.
Researchers recently discovered an abundance of rare neurons, thought to exist only in primates, within several marine mammals, one including orca.Whales contain spindle cells which include allow humans to experience feelings like love, judgement, empathy, language and self-awareness. Early estimates reveal that whales have three times the spindles as humans, which leads us to believe they have a higher sense of feelings than humans do. Enclosing these beautiful creatures behind all-too-small cages, withholding food and depriving them of necessary social connections have driven them into severe frustration and mental psychosis. This treatment has resulted in a number of injuries and fatalities to both these animals and their trainers.
Imagine living your entire life inside of your bathtub — cramped, right? Taking an orca from their natural environment and putting them into captivity is equivalent to forcing a human to live in a bathtub. Forcing these social creatures to live in an unhealthy and foreign environment has caused them to act outside of their normal behavior. In the wild, there is only one recorded case of an orca harming a human; it did not result in a fatality. However, in captivity, there are multiple records of orcas expressing aggressive behavior towards their trainers — lunging at them and attempting to drag them down into their tank; some were injured while other incidents resulted in the deaths of the orcas trainers.
Along with Ken Peters, trainers: Dawn Brancheau, John Sillick, Tamaree, Alexis Martinez and Keltie Byrne were just a few victims of recorded orca attacks. Between 1967 to December 2012, there were 141 reported incidents of orca attacks towards humans. Dawn Brancheau, the most recent fatality, was always very cautious around the orcas and abided SeaWorld safety guidelines; when her colleagues heard of her tragic death, they were astonished (30 Years and 3 Deaths: Tilikum’s Tragic Story, n.d.). Keto, a whale at Loro Parque in Spain, attacked and killed his trainer, Alexis Martinez, just 62 days prior to Dawn’s incident.
SeaWorld spokeswoman states, “It was a timing problem, it was absolutely not an aggressive act on part of the whale” (Blackfish, 2013).
Former SeaWorld trainer states, “It was hard for me to believe that I didn’t actually see that video while I was actually an animal trainer. Because it seems to me that everyone that works with killer whales should have to watch that video” (Blackfish, 2013).
The trainers are not the only ones that are put in danger when holding orcas captive. Orcas are sometimes grouped with other orcas that do not come from the same community as they do. Grouping orcas together with other orcas outside of their community can cause a tense and harmful environment for them both. Sometimes, the orcas can end up being violent and cause physical harm to one another out of frustration. For example, in 1988, an orca named Kandu tried to assert her dominance over another orca named Corky by ramming Corky which fractured her jaw and cut an artery in her head causing her to bleed out and die (Blackfish, 2013). In the wild, orcas are able to flee from aggressive acts, but in captivity, they have no choice but to take it. It is normal for orcas to show a bit of aggression towards one another as a way of proving dominance. As a result of being separated from their family and lack of emotional connections, orcas become severely depressed. The stress and depression caused on these orcas have a serious effect on their health, causing aggression, suicidal attempts and miscarriages during pregnancy. As of 2012, there have been 204 recorded deaths, including miscarriages during pregnancy and still born calves.
The purpose of the animal captivity organizations is to provide a safe and healthy environment for these animals, while also being entertaining and educational. It is inhumane to hold animals in captivity, saying that it is for their safety and for our research and educational purposes, but harming them while doing so. Safe and health cautious methods need to be developed while bringing a wild animal in captivity, if need be. Since these captive organizations have proved themselves unable to provide for these animals adequately, returning the marine mammals back into their natural habitat would provide them with the best living environment. These marine mammals would require rehabilitation to be put back into a natural environment and WDC recommends that the return of any whale or dolphin to the wild should follow strict guidelines. To provide the best opportunity at rehabilitation, it is important to test the animal for any medical issues or disease before releasing them into a background you know they will thrive in; history of that animals background must be completed as a part of successful rehabilitation. Although this is not the best financial choice for the organizations, it is the best option for the animals. In addition, the band Washington enforced, prohibiting any taking whales captive and protecting whales from boaters, should be extended to areas all over the world; no captive animals should be taken from the wild without reason, such as to provide medical treatment.
Creating larger living environments for the animals is another solution that is beneficial to both the organization and the animals’ wellbeing. Although no organization can replicate the size of the ocean, they can provide a larger and deeper living tank for the animals. Providing a larger tank will give them a larger area to swim around in and allow the animals to socialize together. On 14 August 2014, SeaWorld issued a press release announcing the first-of-its-kind killer whale environment and more than ten million in new funding for research and conservation projects, called The Blue Water Project. This environment will enhance the educational experience for guests, foster deeper knowledge of killer whales and their ocean environment and inspire them to celebrate and conserve the natural world (Blue Water Project, 2014). Considering that SeaWorld used to provide only $600 to conservation funding for every $1 million earned in revenue, this is a great improvement (Fate of Captive Orcas, n.d.). All captive organizations should be required to donate a portion of their revenue to support conservation efforts.
I do believe that there are two sides to everything: a good side, and a bad side. In almost any situation or circumstance, there are things that you can do to form the outcome to be helpful and positive or negative and harmful. For example, marine mammal captivity can serve a good purpose reaping positive outcomes. Captivity can serve helpful a purpose.
In 2005, Winter, a three month old bottlenose dolphin, was found stranded in Mosquito Lagoon, near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Her tail and snout were tangled in the ropes of a crab trap. The rescue team was able to untangle her, she was transported to Florida Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) to receive treatment to her large injuries. Unfortunately, Winter’s tail deteriorated and had to be amputated but survived the procedure and made a speedy recovery. Against all odds, Winter was able to adapt to her new physical form and environment. Her survival in general is rare as more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every year as a result of being caught in fishing gear and nets. Winter’s recovery is truly a miracle and would not have been possible without the help of the employees at CMA. Due to the efforts of CMA, Winter’s life was saved and she is now able to swim without causing any physical harm. Having Winter in captivity saved her life and the help of CMA staff is the only reason she is alive now; Winter can never be released back into the wild as her prosthetic tail needs to be constantly monitored and modified.
Walruses and manatees also tend to live past their life expectancy rate while in captivity as they are free from predators they would usually encounter in the wild. Although walruses can become very susceptible to viruses and bacteria, they have access to medical treatment whilst in captivity to help protect and fight illnesses. It is important for some manatees to be in captivity as they are an endangered species. Captivity provides a safe environment for manatees to breed, as they are usually chased out of their breeding grounds in shallow, warm waters.
Holding animals in captivity can serve an educational and research filled purpose, but it cannot be at the extent of these loving animals suffering. The deaths of multiple orcas and reported orca attacks on humans should be enough to show that holding orcas captive without reason is not safe. These marine parks put their trainers in danger by not advising them of the previous multiple trainer-orca accidents prior to them joining as an employee. The stress and depression caused on these whales have resulted in them acting out of aggression and causing harm towards themselves, other orcas and their trainers. Providing a comfortable and safe living environment for the animals, as much as possible, will provide us with accurate research results about them as they will be in better health conditions. Captivity can serve a purpose if it is held for animals that are injured and for the protection of endangered animals.
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