Doesn’t A Killer Whale Suffer in Captivity?
In the course of researching killer whales for what I hoped would be several Forbes.com posts, I put the above question to SeaWorld spokesman, Fred Jacobs. Here is his answer:
“There is . . . no truth to your claim on stress. We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years. In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day. Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals. SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws. The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks. They adapt very well to their environments. Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.”
Needless to say, I sense something fishy in this answer. So I turned to Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist known globally for her work on orcas. She generously addressed Mr. Jacobs’s response point by point in an email. Here it is:
FJ: There is no truth to your claim on stress. We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years. In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day. Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals.
NR: [T]his claim, which SeaWorld has been making ever since Dawn Brancheau was killed (the company relied heavily on it in the first OSHA hearing), is misleading at best and simply incorrect at worst. The correct metric to determine the safety of interacting with this species is not the number of interactions but the number of whales involved in injuries and deaths.
SeaWorld has held approximately 60-70 whales in its history. Of these, at least 10 (and frankly it’s been more, but these are the ones I know for certain) have been involved in interactions that resulted in people’s injuries or deaths. THAT’s the relevant metric. An analogy would be if there was a car model that had a design flaw that will eventually result in brake failure in some percentage of cars. One might drive any such car hundreds or even thousands of miles before the failure, but eventually the brakes will fail in some percentage of cars because of this flaw. So the relevant metric would be not how many miles one drives before the failure, but the number of cars that eventually fail. If only 1-2% of cars of this model experienced brake failure, they would be recalled.
In SeaWorld’s case, at least a sixth of its whales have “failed” – that’s a double digit failure rate, which in any other industry would result in a recall.
FJ: SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws.
NR: The fact that SeaWorld is accredited is irrelevant if the accreditation process itself is flawed, which I argue it is. But regardless, there are not “multiple” federal and state animal welfare laws under which SW operates – this is just a strange claim altogether. SW operates under only two federal laws (there are no state welfare laws that apply to marine mammal display) – and only one of these is significant. The Animal Welfare Act sets care and maintenance standards for captive marine mammals, but has been under fire for years for being out of date (its enclosure size standards, for example, haven’t been updated since 1984). The Marine Mammal Protection Act addresses only one element of captive marine mammal display – education. However, the MMPA requires that a marine mammal display facility only meet professional industry standards for education, so this element is self-policed and in essence means that educational standards have no outside oversight.
FJ: The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks.
NR: This is true, but it’s because almost all of the wild-caught whales SW once had have died. They only have five left, out of 31 total (so 26 wild-caught whales have died over the years at SW). Arguably ALL of those whales should still be alive, since the oldest of them would only be in their 50s or 60s (and orcas can live to be 60-90). But even more charitably, at least half of those 26 should still be alive.
FJ: They adapt very well to their environments.
NR: This statement has absolutely no meaning. This is the very debate we are having in the scientific and public communities. SW obviously believes this, but it has very few data to back it up. I have a lot more data to support my position that they do NOT adapt well at all to their “environments” in captivity. They die young, they have poor dental health, many new mothers do not nurse their calves properly (some outright reject their calves, a very rare phenomenon in the wild, if it occurs at all), they are abnormally violent toward each other and they have injured and killed people.
FJ: Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.
NR: Fred’s claim here is actually completely accurate – SW’s standards of care are the highest in the zoo and aquarium world. But that is not the same as being comparable to natural habitat.
Food at SW is ample, but it is limited in diversity – SW’s orcas are fed fish species that are not necessarily preferred in the wild and some of the whales SW has held were mammal-eaters and had to adapt to eating fish. Frozen fish usually have lower nutritional value than fresh, so most captive orcas have to receive vitamin supplements. Same for water content – frozen fish have lower water content (whales and dolphins get their water from their food – they do not drink) and therefore some captive orcas need water supplements in the form of gelatin.
The clean and chilled water is unnatural – it is “too” clean (even pristine ocean water is not as clean as tank water, which is nearly sterile). It is also often artificial (only SW San Diego uses natural seawater – San Antonio and Orlando use artificial seawater). The methods to keep it hygienic do not allow any fish or algae to be placed in the tank (and such additions would also interfere with visibility during the show). In short, while water quality at SW is the “best in the business,” it compares poorly to natural habitat.
To claim that captive orcas get adequate exercise is simply illogical. These are animals that never stop moving in the wild – even when resting (they do not sleep the way we sleep) they slowly swim forward. In captivity, they can spend hours “logging” (remaining motionless at the surface). This is the epitome of unnatural behavior. Captive orcas are the equivalent of couch potatoes. Some are more active than others, but none are as active as they are in the wild. They almost certainly have health issues that are related to this lack of activity, just as with humans – it is certainly one easy explanation for their shortened life spans in captivity.
As for mental stimulation, I consider that an illogical claim as well. Orcas are not naturally diurnal – that is, they are not active in the day and inactive at night, as humans are. They rest when they are tired, whenever that may be. They are active when they need to be. Daylight means less to them than to land mammals, as they are often at depth where it is always dark (they “see” with sound – echolocation – and their vision is less dominant as a sense than their hearing). So the diurnal cycle they are forced to adopt in captivity is actually completely unnatural, meaning they spend at least 8 hours – during the nighttime when the park is closed – inactive, which is not normal for them. In short, I think boredom is actually the most significant stress they face in captivity – their tanks have no variety, no diversity, no CHANGE. Their environment never changes and they spend a lot of time (unnaturally) inactive.
As for veterinary care, the simple response to that is, wild orcas don’t need veterinary care. Also, as Dr. Chris Dold (the lead vet at SW) testified in court at the OSHA hearing, orca veterinary science is still largely an ART, not a science – they still guess a lot about diagnoses and treatments and often guess wrong.
Finally, while SW orcas do have the company of their own species (which is more than Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium has, for example), they do not have family. SW often separates family members – this is a species that probably has the strongest family bonds of any mammal in the world, including humans. SW’s habit of moving calves to other facilities – sometimes when they are younger than two years of age – is perhaps the most damaging thing that happens to orcas there. Captive orcas are not socialized properly, because they are removed from their mothers far too young. This may be one of the reasons they exhibit unnatural levels of violence toward each other and toward people (the same thing has been observed in elephants – orphans of culls, who are raised “without adult supervision,” are often unnaturally violent when they grow up).