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Captive Killer Whales

In captivity, many orcas suffer from poor physical and mental health. In the wild, they can easily travel 50 to 100 miles a day. However, in captivity, a typical tank is only twice their size, forcing the animals to swim in small circles or float aimlessly. “The stress of captivity can drive orcas and other marine mammals to display neurotic behaviors that, understandably enough, can lead to tragic consequences”, says Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, an animal welfare advocacy group. These results can include premature death, depression, and injury to trainers. “Science has confirmed that in captivity, dolphins and whales suffer from high mortality rates, low breeding success and may endure physical and psychological disorders. There is no justification for the capture, trade, and display of these wild animals”, according to Daniel Turner of the Born Free Foundation, another organization dedicated to conservation and animal welfare.

In the wild, killer whales typically travel in pods of between five and 30. Sometimes pods combine to form a group of 100 orcas with a complex social hierarchy led by females. Researchers believe that killer whales possess an advanced system of communication, with different dialects. In captivity, killer whales are often isolated, except during shows and training. They are unable to communicate with each other or form social relationships as they would in the wild.

Another immoral practice is the mass breeding of these whales. They are being overbred, crossbred, and even inbred. Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, is the chief sperm source of SeaWorld, and activists believe his value as a stud is the main reason why SeaWorld will not release him back into the wild. Often breeding methods pose safety conditions and threaten the animals’ health. In the wild, orcas choose their own mates, and the families stay together for life.

To communicate, navigate, and hunt for food, orcas rely on echolocation, which is the process of emitting sound and then interpreting the vibrations. The sound waves bounce off objects and travel back, telling the orca what is around it. In captivity, tanks are made of solid concrete, which causes sound waves to bounce off the walls, making it impossible for orcas to locate food or navigate using echolocation. Many captive killer whales die prematurely, with the average life at about ten years. In the wild, they live between 50 and 80 years. The first orca held in captivity lasted one day; she swam around her enclosure at high speeds, ramming into the sides of her tank. Killer whales in captivity pose a danger to trainers, with four documented deaths and a long list of attacks. The most recent occurred in 2010, when Tilikum allegedly grabbed his trainer, Dawn Bran¬cheau, by her hair and dragged her underwater. Tilikum, whose stage name is Shamu at SeaWorld Orlando, weighs 12,000 pounds, and Bran¬cheau was one of their most experienced trainers. “When these animals are taken into captivity, they can ¬become very hostile, depressed, and even suicidal”, says Howard Garrett, director of the nonprofit Orca Network.

Tragically, Tilikum had also been involved in an earlier death of a trainer, in 1991, when Keltie Lee Byrne accidentally fell into the tank. A homicide investigation showed that Tilikum and two other orcas prevented Byrne from getting out of the pool, causing her to drown. After Brancheau’s death, Tilikum was banned from public appearances. However, just 13 months later, he rejoined the cast of Believe, SeaWorld’s most popular dolphin and whale show. In 2009, trainer Alexis Martinez, was killed by Keto, a 14-year-old male orca, during a training session. Keto held Alexis underwater. His autopsy revealed a violent death, with numerous scrapes, bruises, fractures, and several teeth marks. Although his immediate cause of death was drowning, the report states that the fundamental cause was “mechanical asphyxiation due to compression and crushing of the thoracic abdomen with injuries to the vital organs”. In other words, Keto violently crushed his trainer.

Non-fatal attacks by captive killer whales on humans have also occurred. In 1984 at SeaWorld California, two killer whales grabbed the legs of their trainer, Bud Krames, and pinned him against a glass wall during a show. Krames eventually left his job – and he isn’t the only trainer working with orcas to do so; in one year, a total of 35 orca trainers left their jobs. There have been over 100 documented attacks in captivity, but no human deaths from orcas have been recorded in the wild. Only one attack has been documented involving a killer whale in the wild, but this was probably due to mistaken identity, since the victim was surfing in an area highly populated with seals, orcas’ natural food source.

These cases prove that unnatural living conditions in captivity are the most likely cause of aggressive behavior and attacks on humans. It is unfair and immoral to profit from the mistreatment of animals. Killer whales are the main attraction at many marine parks and, without them, park attendance would drop drastically. Therefore, these facilities’ want to keep attendance levels high by offering shows that provide entertainment and allow guests to view the animals up close. Orcas are suffering major physical and mental problems due to their captivity, such as broken teeth from gnawing on steel gates, dorsal fin collapsing from lack of exercise, and signs of depression. However, the shows go on.

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