Are Parks Like SeaWorld Harming or Helping Killer Whales?
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The average lifespans of captive orcas have increased over time as care for the animals has gotten better, but whales have still died tragic and at times even gory deaths in captivity. Because captive whales spend much more time at the surface of the water than wild whales, some have died from mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile virus. In 1989, a SeaWorld whale named Kandu rammed another whale so hard that she fractured her own upper jaw and bled to death as tourists looked on during a show. SeaWorld claimed that Kandu’s action was a “normal, socially induced act of aggression to assert her dominance” over the other whale. Critics of captivity disagreed about the “normal” part.
And news surfaced this week that around September 20 during an after-hours show at SeaWorld in San Diego an 11-year-old orca named Nakai was severely injured. “SeaWorld claims the injury happened when Nakai scraped his chin on the side of the pool,” wrote animal blogger Kecia Stewart. “Nobody is buying that. The injury is round, described as being the size of a dinner plate and it’s deep, down to the bone. The missing part is so big that SeaWorld workers recovered the missing chunk from the bottom of the pool. I don’t think that happens when you scrape against concrete.” Many suspect Nakai’s injury came from a fight with another orca.
Of course, the lifespans of captive whales are meaningless statistics unless one knows the lifespan of wild orcas, something SeaWorld and anti-captivity experts vigorously debate. In the wild, “males typically live for about 30 years, but can live as long as 50-60 years” and “females typically live about 50 years, but can live as long as 80-90 years.” That said, it’s difficult to account for miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality in the wild in order to compare them to the plight of whales born in captivity.
Captivity advocates point out that captive whales never have to worry about the availability of food – a problem that has grown in recent decades for wild whales as salmon stocks have been depleted. In some cases, dams cut off the routes salmon take up rivers to spawn. In British Columbia, Canada, commercial salmon farms breed sea lice, which can infect and even kill wild salmon passing by. Commercial fishing and pollution play a role in the availability of prey for orcas as well.
Aside from simply considering the length of time a whale remains alive and whether it eats regularly, one must consider the whale’s quality of life. It may be difficult for humans to understand or quantify an animal’s happiness. But one can easily observe the small tanks these intelligent animals live in and the lack of stimulation for whales in those tanks -- and compare that to the fact that wild whales can swim over 100 miles in a day.
A larger issue related to captive whales’ emotional wellbeing are the whales’ family groupings. Orca whales are social creatures who live in matriarchal groupings, staying with their mothers throughout their lives. A female whale might eventually leave her mother to establish her own matriarchal group with her own offspring. The whales are even observed babysitting grandchildren or siblings to relieve a mother in the wild while she hunts or tends to a younger calf. But captive whales are rarely afforded the luxury of remaining with their mothers for life, as they travel to meet the needs of the amusement parks that own them.
Other indicators of emotional distress are the physical and behavioral signs observed in captive whales. Dominant whales often “rake” the sides of other whales with their teeth, causing them to bleed so badly that the park occasionally has to cancel its shows. The whales also damage their teeth while chewing on the metal gates that separate their tanks, either due to boredom or in displays of aggression. Whales frequently break off fragments of their teeth by chewing or jaw-popping on the gates, leaving them vulnerable to serious, even deadly, infections and requiring painful dental procedures to prevent those infections.