Captive Killer Whales This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

October 4, 2012
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Killer whales, also known as orcas, are the largest members of the dolphin family and the top predator in their ecosystem. They are one of the most intelligent marine creatures, especially due to their acute senses of sight and hearing. Their beauty has astounded humans for generations, but for many orcas captivity limits their freedom and enjoyment of life. It not only damages the physical and mental health of these animals, but also poses a danger to trainers, yet people continue to profit from killer whales.

In captivity, many orcas suffer from poor physical and mental health. In the wild, they can easily travel 50 to 100 miles a day. However, in captivity, a typical tank is only twice their size, forcing the animals to swim in small circles or float aimlessly.

“The stress of captivity can drive orcas and other marine mammals to display neurotic behaviors that, understandably enough, can lead to tragic consequences,” says Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, an animal welfare advocacy group. These results can include premature death, depression, and injury to trainers. “Science has confirmed that in captivity, dolphins and whales suffer from high mortality rates, low breeding success and may endure physical and psychological disorders. There is no justification for the capture, trade, and display of these wild animals,” according to Daniel Turner of the Born Free Foundation, another organization dedicated to conservation and animal welfare.

In the wild, killer whales typically travel in pods of between five and 30. Sometimes pods combine to form a group of 100 orcas with a complex social hierarchy led by females. Researchers believe that killer whales possess an advanced system of communication, with different dialects. In captivity, killer whales are often isolated, except during shows and training. They are unable to communicate with each other or form social relationships as they would in the wild.

Another immoral practice is the mass breeding of these whales. They are being overbred, crossbred, and even inbred. Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, is the chief sperm source of SeaWorld, and activists believe his value as a stud is the main reason why SeaWorld will not release him back into the wild. Often breeding methods pose safety conditions and threaten the animals' health. In the wild, orcas choose their own mates, and the families stay together for life.

To communicate, navigate, and hunt for food, orcas rely on echolocation, which is the process of emitting sound and then interpreting the vibrations. The sound waves bounce off objects and travel back, telling the orca what is around it. In captivity, tanks are made of solid concrete, which causes sound waves to bounce off the walls, making it impossible for orcas to locate food or navigate using echolocation.

Many captive killer whales die prematurely, with the average life at about ten years. In the wild, they live between 50 and 80 years. The first orca held in captivity lasted one day; she swam around her enclosure at high speeds, ramming into the sides of her tank.

Killer whales in captivity pose a danger to trainers, with four documented deaths and a long list of attacks. The most recent occurred in 2010, when Tilikum allegedly grabbed his trainer, Dawn Bran­cheau, by her hair and dragged her underwater. Tilikum, whose stage name is Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando, weighs 12,000 pounds, and Bran­cheau was one of their most experienced trainers. “When these animals are taken into captivity, they can ­become very hostile, depressed, and even suicidal,” says Howard Garrett, director of the nonprofit Orca Network.

Tragically, Tilikum had also been involved in an earlier death of a trainer, in 1991, when Keltie Lee Byrne accidentally fell into the tank. A homicide investigation showed that Tilikum and two other orcas prevented Byrne from getting out of the pool, causing her to drown. After Brancheau's death, Tilikum was banned from public appearances. However, just 13 months later, he rejoined the cast of Believe, SeaWorld's most popular dolphin and whale show.

In 2009, trainer Alexis Martinez, was killed by Keto, a 14-year-old male orca, during a training session. Keto held Alexis underwater. His autopsy revealed a violent death, with numerous scrapes, bruises, fractures, and several teeth marks. Although his immediate cause of death was drowning, the report states that the fundamental cause was “mechanical asphyxiation due to compression and crushing of the thoracic abdomen with injuries to the vital organs.” In other words, Keto violently crushed his trainer.

Non-fatal attacks by captive killer whales on humans have also occurred. In 1984 at SeaWorld California, two killer whales grabbed the legs of their trainer, Bud Krames, and pinned him against a glass wall during a show. Krames eventually left his job – and he isn't the only trainer working with orcas to do so; in one year, a total of 35 orca trainers left their jobs.

There have been over 100 documented attacks in captivity, but no human deaths from orcas have been recorded in the wild. Only one attack has been documented involving a killer whale in the wild, but this was probably due to mistaken identity, since the victim was surfing in an area highly populated with seals, orcas' natural food source. These cases prove that unnatural living conditions in captivity are the most likely cause of aggressive behavior and attacks on humans.

It is unfair and immoral to profit from the mistreatment of animals. Killer whales are the main attraction at many marine parks and, without them, park attendance would drop drastically. Therefore, these facilities' want to keep attendance levels high by offering shows that provide entertainment and allow guests to view the animals up close. Orcas are suffering major physical and mental problems due to their captivity, such as broken teeth from gnawing on steel gates, dorsal fin collapsing from lack of exercise, and signs of depression. However, the shows go on.

Some might argue that tourists come from all parts of the world to see killer whales up close, boosting the local economy and offering an unforgettable experience. Yes, but there are reserves in Alaska and Washington state where the public can see orcas interact in the wild. Killer whales are endangered in Oregon, Washington, and California and these reserves try to help balance the ecosystem by creating a safe haven for them, while preserving their environment. Tourists are allowed to visit and witness the beauty of killer whales in their habitat. Also, areas like Vancouver Island offer whale watching tours. These parks can create unforgettable experiences that far eclipse viewing killer whales perform in a tank.

Some might argue that people want to be entertained by seeing killer whales perform tricks. In the wild, the highly intelligent orcas perform their own “tricks.” According to marine biologist Jacques Cousteau, “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”

When an intelligent animal accustomed to swimming in thousands of miles of open ocean is placed in an environment only twice its size, is separated from its species, and is forced to perform tricks, there are bound to be consequences. The captivity of these animals should be banned and National Reserves and whale tours should be used to admire these animals' true beauty. There are few experiences more meaningful than witnessing a killer whale enjoying the freedom of the open ocean.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

Join the Discussion

This article has 7 comments. Post your own now!

Yasmin said...
Jan. 25, 2016 at 5:47 pm
Very informative , heart felt and well written .
Vita said...
May 12, 2015 at 7:51 pm
Wow, Hannah, I'm impressed!!
adrod8 said...
Nov. 4, 2014 at 6:14 pm
Where did you get your information ?
123cool said...
Apr. 2, 2013 at 10:05 am
when did you post this article??
JMV said...
Dec. 2, 2012 at 12:24 am
Melissa, great article. There is a movie called "Blackfish" that was just accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, in January 2013. It explores the tragjic life of Tilikum in captivity. Also, it is not proven that Tilikum grabbed DB by the hair. Many folks that have looked at the evidence believe he pulled her in by the left arm. Nonetheless, thank you much. 
Melissa S. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 6, 2013 at 8:31 pm
Thanks for letting me know. I'll look into it.
OrcaLoverFreeTilikum replied...
Jul. 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm
Its on netfix
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