Big Marine Parks are Abusing Orcas… Here’s Why We Need to Evolve and Stop Enslaving Marine Mammals
At the end of the SeaWorld show, the crowd leaves and goes home. The trainers get into their street clothes, jump into their cars and drive home to friends and family. But Tilikum the orca, and others like him, cannot go home. Tilikum is left alone, floating motionless in a silent, barren, chemically treated concrete tank very far from home, perhaps looking up at the moon and feeling its tidal pull, perhaps dreaming of his family and what it would be like to swim and swim, without any walls or barriers. When the sun comes up, though, he will still be there. And when you’ve finished reading this, he will still be there.
Tilikum is an orca, or killer whale, that was captured in wild Icelandic waters in 1983 at age two. After being brutally taken from his matrilineal family group, Tilikum was sent to live in a sea park in British Columbia, Canada. There, a trainer accidentally fell into the tank Tilikum shared with two other orcas and was “tossed about” by the three killer whales, until her corpse was recovered by park staff. Tilikum was then shipped to Sea World in Orlando Florida, where he has remained, being forced to perform circus tricks for crowds and routinely having his sperm “harvested” for the park’s breeding purposes.
The Orcinus orca (genus name meaning “kingdom of the dead”) is actually part of the oceanic dolphin family, and is made up of the three subspecies: resident, transient and offshore. Residents are fish eating whales that stay with their mothers for life, in tightly knit family groups called matrilines. They gather with close family members in “pods”, which are four to five matrilines combined. “Clans” consist of a few pods combined, and “communities” are a group of clans. Resident killer whales never stray from their social structures and will only mate with individuals from different pods. Their vocalizations are complex and family specific, and share little with transient whales who eat marine mammals and have a completely different social structure, dialect and culture. 2 million years ago these subspecies parted ways, and genetic data shows that although residents and transients live in the same areas, they avoid each other, and have not interbred for 10,000 years.
That is, until the SeaWorld theme park decided they would take the sperm of a transient whale and artificially inseminate a resident whale. The resulting births were difficult. One mother refused to feed her baby and became aggressive with trainers and other whales. Another died while giving birth in a painful twenty-four hour labor. She was only twenty years of age, and this was her fourth calf, something unheard of in the wild, as resident whales only start reproducing at age fifteen, and spend up to five years with each calf.
Orcas normally swim up to 100 miles per day in the open ocean, spending most of that time with their families. In captivity they spend most of their time totally alone or grouped with unfamiliar whales with whom they share no ancestral, social or vocal similarities. The acoustically dead tanks are prison-like, and many orcas lash out and ram each other, as Kandu V did in 1989 at SeaWorld California, severing an artery in the process. She bled to death in front of the audience for 45 minutes, spraying blood out of her blowhole. It was the 4,332nd day of her captivity in a tank.
Nobody is This Stupid… Right?
I remember going to SeaWorld in Florida when I was a kid. I was initially excited to see the animals, but the shows seemed sad to me. It felt corny, canned and overdone. “Nobody is this stupid,” I thought, “especially the whales.” I could feel that even as an eight year old. Yet after decades of the orca’s documented physical, mental and emotional suffering, humans still insist on keeping and breeding killer whales in tanks to entertain ourselves. One must ask the question: Why? Why is it that the most fundamentally offensive and obscene ideas still persist in a culture that fancies itself sophisticated, scientifically advanced and fair?
These great beasts break their teeth trying to chew through crude metal grates we put up to keep them trapped. Their teeth are then drilled through to remove the rotten portions. Their mouths are washed out three times a day to prevent bacterial infections. Antibiotics are hidden in their frozen food rations. Many of them get the infections anyway and die. But we’re sophisticated, scientifically advanced and fair enough to have whale cum on reserve, that we gathered without their permission so that we can create new inbred whales for new monstrous “shows.”
Why is it that the most fundamentally offensive and obscene ideas still persist in a culture that fancies itself sophisticated, scientifically advanced and fair?
And, oh, what shows they are. Seizure inducing lights, screaming guitar solos, and armies of trainers withholding food until the right tricks are performed on cue with the cymbal crash… that’s not an accurate portrait of ocean life. There’s something very wrong here if we as a species are just now getting around to realizing this is shameful. It illustrates, again, just how deep our species-ism is. How low we’ve sunk in the race to the bottom.
In Indonesia and the Philippines, people catch dolphins, put them into small tanks in pick-up trucks and drive them to parking lots as displays for the on-looking humans. The majority of the dolphins die from the shock. One particular story recounted how a dolphin gave birth in such a parking lot tank, and both parent and baby died. The people then went back to the ocean to kidnap another unlucky dolphin. We hear a story like this and are disgusted, yet we allow places like SeaWorld, Seaquarium or Marineland to exist. Why? Because they have fancier tanks? Fancier lights, seats and memorabilia? Or is it just better PR?
The Loneliest Whale in the World
Lolita was captured on a tragic day off the coast of Washington state in 1970. Workers from that incident recount crying as the screaming baby whales were lifted out of the ocean for the last time. One mother and four other adolescents drowned trying to free themselves from the nets and bomb blasts. The workers were told to slice them open, fill their bodies with rocks and anchors and sink them, disposing of the evidence. Miraculously, their bodies washed ashore months later. The public was outraged, but the Miami Seaquarium was happy to show off their live catch: southern resident killer whale Lolita and a male southern resident named Hugo, who was captured earlier. Since they were from the same family, they began calling to each other from their tanks, and were eventually put together. They became close mates, but Hugo would often ram the windows and walls of the pool out of frustration. After ten years he finally killed himself in this manner, trying to escape his prison cell. Lolita, who was found bumping up against his lifeless body, was forced to perform the very next day. She has been alone ever since, and is now forty-two. Her pool is only twenty feet deep; yet she is twenty-two feet long, so her tail drags on the bottom of the tank when popping up to eat fish. Her mother and pod members who share her same dialect are still alive off the Washington coast, and have been awarded endangered species status. Lolita was omitted from this ruling, and there are lawsuits raging to free her. She has been called the loneliest whale in the world.
“A review of the scientific literature suggests that very little new knowledge is being generated as a result of orca captivity… The time has come to evolve beyond keeping killer whales confined in small, unnatural spaces, purely for entertainment purposes.” – Jeffrey Ventre, MD and John Jett, PhD
Due to his infamous 2010 attack on late trainer Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum was relegated to solitary confinement as well. SeaWorld claims he “got confused” and pulled her pony tail underwater, mistaking it for a toy. But Tilikum’s toys were all plastic, and Dawn didn’t merely drown: her scalp was ripped off, along with her left arm, and her vertebrae were snapped. Orcas have an instinct to hunt and kill, and they are being driven mad in these gaudy sea circuses.
A year after the incident, Tilikum was living each day isolated from the other whales, completely without toys, stimulation, or even a sunshade; he was seen listlessly bobbing for ten hours in a tank. As the “Believe” show went on without him, he floated by the gate of his pool looking out towards the other whales who were leaping and cavorting for fish. Although Tilikum may never get to go fully back to the wild due to his damaged teeth, he could clearly be released to a coastal sea pen that would allow some sort of semblance of normalcy. Yet the theme park refuses to retire him, preferring instead to extract his sperm for future captive cetaceans. This magnificent beast, 12,000 pound Tilikum, has been thrown under the bus by SeaWorld.
There are many other killer whales SeaWorld keeps hostage, knowing their pods still exist and they could go home. Release or rehabilitation is the only answer a sane, sophisticated and fair society should accept. Research has shown that female orcas can live up to ninety years in the wild, the males around sixty. Yet in captivity the average lifespan is less than twenty years, in some cases less than ten. Drs. Jett and Ventre, former SeaWorld trainers, assert, “a review of the scientific literature suggests that very little new knowledge is being generated as a result of orca captivity… The time has come to evolve beyond keeping killer whales confined in small, unnatural spaces, purely for entertainment purposes.”
In fact, things are looking quite grim for the marine theme park industry today: numerous trainer attacks and deaths, negative press, OSHA rulings, USDA-APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) reports, and damning evidence from whistleblowers have all lined up against the sea circuses. In addition, numerous high profile documentaries (one, Lolita: Slave to Entertainment, on Lolita’s plight, and the other, Blackfish, are set to reveal more about Tilikum) have shown the world the slimy underbelly of marine mammal captivity. Even India has recently banned travelling dolphin shows. Public awareness is at a tipping point, and eco tours are allowing people the chance to see killer whales in the oceans of the world.
When a recording of a whale pod was played to captive members of that same pod, they all stopped moving in their tanks. The squeaks and calls, clicks and whistles were spelling out specific things for these whales. We have no idea what they felt when hearing their ancient dialect sung, but these hostages probably felt what other hostages have felt when seeing a video or hearing a tape of their loved ones.
Imagine you’re walking with your family in a park, when suddenly a UFO appears and brutally kidnaps you. Some of your family dies in the attack. You’re left wondering if these aliens are going to kill you. Instead, they put you in a mock up of a park, about the size of a room, and force you to do various physical tricks that you would normally do when playing with your family in a park. Over and over, for decades, you live like this while other aliens come to watch, sometimes to dine, sometimes buying stuffed dolls made in your visage. Sometimes they bring in other humans, but rarely do you speak the same language or get along. They take your sperm and make babies that you will never see, but that you know exist. If you had the chance, you could maybe break out—somehow get back home. You walk around your “park” day and night, dreaming of your home and lost family. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the moon.