Performance anxiety: Why captivity is killing the killer whale

Phasing out orca captivity is not only humane, but easily manageable.

File photo of Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performing during the show
Tilikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, has been involved in the deaths of three people [Reuters]

Of all the spectacles we’ve seen at SeaWorld, my kids agree that Shamu Rocks! is the most entertaining. Granted, our anticipation was spurred by the park’s ubiquitous promotion of its favourite mascot, which has been plastered across everything from billboards to airplanes. But when the orcas started performing, we were genuinely enchanted. “Bring it, Shamu!” we cheered. The commentator capped off the show with a brief reminder to conserve our oceans, and I congratulated myself for giving the kids such a wholesome experience and some exposure to marine life.

True, the “amazing killer whale behaviours” set to electrifying music and special effects were more choreographed than innate. But I had no idea how far Shamu had strayed from his natural habitat until I met Dr Naomi Rose, a scientist with the Humane Society of the United States and the author of “Killer Controversy”, a report summarising 45 years of research into the confinement of these socially complex and intelligent creatures.

After nearly five decades of holding orcas in captivity, even with marked improvements in animal husbandry, only two females currently living have passed the age of 40, about half the lifespan of orcas left in the wild. The vast majority of captive orcas die before their early 20s, many still in their early teens.

In their short lives, captive orcas express anxiety through aberrant behaviour and aggression. Some break their teeth while others reject their pups. But the most visible symptom of distress can be found in male orcas. All captive males of the species suffer from drooping fin syndrome, a condition stemming from claustrophobia wherein the confines and low water levels of the tank render dorsal fins flaccid. By contrast, only 1-5 percent of wild male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins. In fact, when erect, the fins of wild males can stand as tall as 1.8 metres.

Drooping fins symbolise more than a sagging spirit – they also symbolise the castration of nature’s largest and most charismatic predator. After decades of producing and consuming this entertainment, we humans have to realise that we are complicit in killing the killer whale.

Suffering in captivity

But nature has a way of biting back. The true story told in the 2012 scientific thriller Death at SeaWorld exposes the dark side of America’s most beloved marine mammal park. From the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 to other less-publicised incidents, the book chronicles the perils of attempting to subdue the species. However, violent accidents don’t happen with enough frequency to keep the lead bleeding, so killer whales continue to suffer in silence.

SeaWorld contends that it follows best practices in its orca programme, but in reality SeaWorld has a monopoly on orcas so it sets the best practices.

It’s difficult to face facts once you’ve dropped several hundred dollars on season passes to SeaWorld, but on learning this, I could no longer pretend I didn’t know the truth. Fortunately, others like me are waking up to reality, thanks to this summer’s hit documentary Blackfish, which premiered at Sundance in January.

An emotionally wrenching story of Tilikum, a performing orca that killed several people while in captivity, Blackfish explores our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals. Director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite uses shocking footage and emotional interviews to reveal the extraordinary nature of orcas, their cruelty of captivity, and loss of life due to the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.

SeaWorld isn’t happy. ABC news reports that the park issued a statement calling the film “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate”. But Dr Rose, who has written extensively to educate audiences by exposing SeaWorld’s rhetoric, explains that “the facts are what they are, and the facts do not support what SeaWorld is doing, so they’ve always obfuscated the facts”. She adds, “Now, somebody on the outside has brought more transparency to this, and they aren’t used to this.”

What may become a PR nightmare for SeaWorld is a lesson in changing policy for the rest of us. Artful and thought-provoking documentaries have the power to put a mirror up to practices that we take for granted. Once our eyes are opened, a coordinated effort to educate citizens and elicit a consumer response can generate the critical mass necessary to dislodge institutionalised practices.

“Maybe people who’ve seen the movie have been contacting SeaWorld, or maybe it was the e-mail blast to film critics that prompted the response,” said Dr Rose. “In any case, SeaWorld has broken its silence and finally issued a formal response to the film.” Of course, change often involves two steps forward and one step back. “Unfortunately, SeaWorld’s response was more rhetoric,” said Dr Rose. “They may not realise this, but the standard response isn’t going to cut it this time. It’s not just PETA. This is becoming mainstream. St Martin’s Press and CNN, to name a few examples, are on this.”

SeaWorld contends that it follows best practices in its orca programme, but in reality SeaWorld has a monopoly on orcas so it sets the best practices. “These are only ‘state of the art’ techniques because they say they are,” says Dr Rose. “Getting accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariumsis the gold standard for most zoos, a seal of approval. It you’re not accredited by the AZA, you are sub par,” said Dr Rose. “When it comes to killer whale training (unlike seal or dolphin training), SeaWorld leads. The AZA defers to Sea World.”

Advocacy is not a dirty word. If scientists don't overcome their fear of stigma and controversy, they are part of the problem.

by Dr Naomi Rose, Humane Society

As holding orcas captive holds no conservation purpose, why not just phase it out? It would seem that SeaWorld’s main interest is preserving its economic interest. But in actuality, captive breeding programmes only occur in SeaWorld parks in the United States, Kamogawa SeaWorld in Japan, and Marineland Antibes in France. According to the report “Killer Controversy”, ending the public display of orcas is manageable and would have only minor economic impacts, primarily affecting only a small number of public display facilities. The report concludes that “the current population of captive orcas can be eliminated through attrition, with the animals currently alive evaluated for continued display, retirement to sea pens or rehabilitation and possible release to the wild if appropriate.”

Legislation is the ultimate goal, but legislation is difficult to capture the interest. “The reason they resist this,” said Dr Rose, “is that they know this is a domino thing. They know that if they lose, they lose on all marine mammals.”

Speaking up

There is some hope for regulatory movement. The National Marine Fishery service and the Animal and Plant Health inspection service are presently reviewing their regulations. But ultimately we want to end the practice, not just regulate it better.

Until then, my family is exploring other options for learning about marine life in a setting that is appropriate to the species. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a glimpse into the wonders of the ocean in a setting as close to natural habitat as it gets. Then there’s Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, which we visited on our recent trip to Washington, DC. Families can also go whale watching. There are a lot of great operators out there that have strong education programmes. A good whale watch is educational as well as entertaining. Observing animals in their natural habitats is a perfect teaching moment.

Closer to home, there is always the IMAX and, of course, virtual reality where kids can come into contact with creatures through games and websites. “Kids love dinosaurs even though they’ve never seen a live one,” Dr Rose points out. “It’s the wave of the future.”

As for scientists, Dr Rose has a word for how they can continue to push for positive change. “Advocacy is not a dirty word. If scientists don’t overcome their fear of stigma and controversy, they are part of the problem.” She added, “Teaching scientists to communicate with the public is the challenge. The field tends to train us all to be objective. If you speak up for science then you are betraying the creed. But who knows best about the problems and how to fix them? If scientists don’t speak up, who will?”

Great marketing and sensationalised media are difficult to overcome. We cannot rely on animal groups whose voices are marginalised to do all the work. As pockets of citizens get engaged and exercise their influence, we can take on impossible problems like saving the whales and stop practices one species at a time. Getting orcas released from captivity could set off a contagion that could eventually lead oceanaria to release all marine mammals, and restore a few spots of this messed up planet back to the way that nature intended.

Anna Clark is the author of Green, American Style: Becoming Earth-Friendly and Reaping the Benefits and a freelance writer on sustainability and social innovation.