Last October, when CNN broadcast the documentary Blackfish, a film that tells the story of the 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by an orca named Tilikum, there was a public outcry against marine parks — such as SeaWorld — that keep cetaceans in captivity. After the movie aired, several veterinarians and the director of the Dolphin Project at the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, California, Ric O’Barry, stepped forward to state their professional opinions that confining orcas can make them psychotic.
SeaWorld, however, countered that marine parks such as theirs have done great works in conservation and that hundreds of millions of people have come to love and learn about orcas and other marine animals because of their popular shows and exhibits.
But given what we now know about how confinement can influence an animal’s behavior, should cetaceans ever be kept in a captive environment?
A tough tank life
Today, once-wild animals or their offspring are often kept in captivity under the guise of “ambassadors,” representing or teaching the public about their wild counterparts. In some cases, where an animal is naturally used to a small territory that can easily be replicated or the animal is unable to return to the wild because of an injury, a life spent in confinement may be the best or only option. But a healthy orca that in the wild could travel up to 100 miles a day may not be a good candidate to serve as an animal ambassador.
The recent film Blackfish explores the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed after being attacked by an orca named Tilikum. In fact, Brancheau was not the first trainer to be killed by Tilikum. The orca had previously been involved in the deaths of two other people. In the documentary’s interview segments, marine biologists argue that keeping orcas in captivity will significantly increase their aggression as well as shorten their lifespans.
Research studies back up those statements: 80 percent of captive dolphins and whales only live to be about 20 years old, compared to the animals in the wild that may live up to the age of 50. It has been shown that a lack of social activity and constrained space stresses dolphins and whales. Also, their communication systems are interrupted. Whales navigate by echolocation, the use of sound waves and echoes to determine where objects are in space. However, this method of navigating often doesn’t work in tanks. The resonance from the whales’ own sonar waves as well as the noise from large, vocal crowds reflect off of the sides of tanks and can cause confusion and mental stress.
Detriments to captive orcas’ physical health have also been documented. Typically, tanks are filled with chlorine. In a case reported at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, dolphins struggled to open their eyes and trainers witnessed skin peeling off the animals’ bodies because of the high levels of the chemical in the water.
A better world in the ocean
In the United States, marine animal parks, such as SeaWorld, are part of an $8.4 billion industry. In mid January 2014, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. stated that in 2013, its world-famous marine parks — in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio — set a fourth-quarter attendance record and that it expects to report this March that 2013 will mark the highest annual revenue (approximately $1.46 billion) in the company’s 50-year history.
Regarding Blackfish, SeaWorld points out that the film ignores the park’s long record of conservation efforts and research. In an open letter published as full-page advertisements in several U.S. newspapers, SeaWorld stated, “the men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates. We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned.” Dave Koontz, SeaWorld’s communications director, also wrote that the theme park believes Blackfish is “misleading and inaccurate,” that it exploits the death of Brancheau and that it presents a “biased and distorted view of events.”
Whether you are a fan of marine parks or not, it is worthy to note that there has never been a recorded incident of an orca having harmed a human being in the ocean in the wild.
Perhaps that world is where all killer whales belong.
Do you think that animal parks, such as SeaWorld, provide a beneficial service to wildlife and provide us with an educational experience? Or should cetaceans simply never be kept in captivity?
Feature photo: Orcas in the wild may live up to 50 years. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews