Captive orcas might make for a wonderful advertising and marketing feature for an aquarium, but they are also one of the animals that doesn’t fare well at all when in captivity. Questions about keeping orcas in captivity have arisen as of late because of recent trainer deaths and other incidents at high-profile aquariums.
There are currently 53 orcas in captivity at the time of this writing.
Orcas don’t do very well simply because of the fact that it is difficult for them to interact or reproduce in a natural way. They are bred killers, but they are also bred pod animals where family is one of the most important aspects of the creature’s development. If you take an orca away from their pod and don’t give them a new pod, then you’re creating a dangerous foundation that can lead to the deaths of the animals and the humans that help care for them.
- Female orcas may live to be up to 90 years old and have an average lifespan that exceeds 50 years. Corky, who has been in captivity in SeaWorld CA since she was three, has lived over 40 years in captivity.
- Calf mortality of captive orcas is significantly higher than those who are born in the wild.
- The conditions of captivity has been shown through research as being a contributing factor to the early death of orcas.
- Current number of known orcas in captivity: 62.
Here’s the bottom line: yes, orcas are animals. Yes, they provide a certain level of mystique and entertainment value to people. The measurement of a good society, however, tends to be in how they treat others and animals who are “less” than they are. Is there a level of equality being displayed? Or is the emphasis on superiority? When it comes to orca captivity, it just isn’t good enough to say that orcas are happy and content where they are. Would you be content to spend 80 years of your life in a confined space?
Facts You May Not Have Known
- Orcas and dolphins belong to the same family, called Delphinidae. There are over 500 animals in total from this species in captivity in the United States alone.
- Even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it more difficult to capture dolphins and orcas to be placed into aquariums, permits are still issued and animals can still be imported from other countries that allow hunting.
- From 1964 to 1989, 138 orcas were captured around the world for the sole purpose of putting them into an aquarium.
- Orcas that are bred while in captivity rarely have their calves returned back into the wild because there is a human fear for their survival.
- Surveys consistently show that people would rather see orcas in their natural environment rather than performing tricks in a show.
- 55% of the world’s captive orcas originated from waters off of Washington State with another 11% coming from Canada’s adjoining British Columbia.
- In 2013, Russia captured 6 orcas for the specific purpose of displaying them in aquariums.
Is keeping an animal in captivity for the sole purpose of human amusement right or wrong? There are certainly some negative components to captivity that put these animals at risk, most notably the increased risk of suffering from abuse. On the other hand, would the scientific community have as much knowledge about these animals if there weren’t animals that had been in captivity since the 1960’s? One look at these creatures who are on permanent display shows that captivity does affect them negatively. They constantly circle their tanks, droop their dorsal fins, and display aggressive behaviors that are uncharacteristic of their counterparts who are at sea.
What Should Concern You Today
- 87% of the orcas that have been captured in the past 50 years have died.
- The average life expectancy of an orca that is born in captivity is just 4.5 years and that excludes calves that are stillborn.
- 28 calves are known to have either been miscarried or stillborn during breeding that occurred during captivity.
- SeaWorld owns at least 23 orcas and could own as many of 27. Over the years, a minimum of 44 orcas have died while in captivity.
- Calves are routinely separated from their mothers when they do have extended lifespans, with most of these separations occurring within the first 4 years of life. Only twice has a separation become necessary because of the mother attacking the calves and only one separation was necessary for medical purposes.
- There are no documented instances of an orca in the wild killing a human, although there have been a few whale attacks.
- Orcas in the wild may swim up to 100 miles per day, something that just cannot be done while in captivity.
The issue of orcas being held in captivity mostly involves fatality rates and the statistics make for a compelling argument against holding orcas against their will. Setting aside the propaganda from both sides of the issue for a moment, the simple fact that 125 out of the 144 orcas that have been captured in the wild over the years have died is concerning. So is the fact that a calf born in captivity is only expected to live 4.5 years, which is just 20% or less, depending on the gender of the calf, of what an orca born in the wild can expect.
Is There Intelligence?
- The brain of an orca is four times larger than that of a human and it weighs 12 pounds.
- Orcas are believed to have been present on the Earth for over a million years longer than the human race.
- The hierarchy of each pod is well established, as is the complex family structures and social relationships that individual orcas and individual pods have with each other.
Imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything for the majority of your life. Think about what you would do… and then think about what orcas do when they are in captivity. Some try to escape. Others become listless. Some become aggressive. These are all traits we would associate with human behavior in similar circumstances where intelligence is clearly defined. Should that definition then be associated with orcas too?