How far is captivity responsible for increasing counts of psychosis and health problems in Orcinus orcas?

Orcinus orcas, or killer whales as they are more commonly known, are one of the most intelligent species on the planet. In their natural environment, such as the Arctic region, orcas can swim hundreds of miles a day in close-knit family pods, often forty orca-strong. In the wild, there are no records of orcas attacking humans. At present, there are 57 orcas in captivity globally, 35 of which have been born in captivity as of December 2014. The practice of keeping killer whales in captivity is highly controversial, particularly within recent years with the release of documentaries such as Blackfish and a number of widely-supported campaigns in response to senior-trainer Dawn Brancheau’s tragic death in February 2010.

Arguably, the most notorious, and the most widely publicised killer whale in captivity is Tilkium. Tilikum is a 12,000 pound, 22.5 feet long bull orca that is owned by SeaWorld and is currently being kept at SeaWorld Orlando. Throughout the course of his lifetime, Tilikum has been involved in a number of trainer attacks, which SeaWorld officials claim are ‘accidents’. As previously stated, killer whales are not violent in the wild, so it is questionable as to what has caused a number of killer whales, such as Tilkium to become increasingly aggressive. In order to understand the possible causes behind these attacks, the intelligence and sociability of these cetaceans must first be understood.

One of the most commonly thought reasons behind increasing counts of psychosis among captive orcas is the synthetic family groups that are created. In the wild, orcas belong to extensive pods, sometimes comprising of up to forty individuals, all of which have grown up together. Recent research into these close-knit communities has found that each pod has their own distinctive set of vocalisations, which other non-members may be unable to understand. It has been suggested that these are forms of ‘languages’, although many members of the scientific community are reluctant to call them languages, due to Homo sapiens being the only species that can use language in the way that we know of. The non-profit organisation Orca Network has been following the movement of SeaWorld’s orcas for decades and states that at least eight orca calves have been removed from their mothers prior to their thought independence of five years old. One famous instance of this is that of Takara and Kasatka. Takara was taken from Kasatka as she was being a disturbance during shows at SeaWorld Orlando, therefore SeaWorld officials decided to transport her to another park. It was found to be a highly distressing time for both individuals. Kasatka began to produce vocalisations that had never been heard before by scientists; they were later found to be long-distance vocalisations as she was trying to communicate with her removed offspring (Takara). Despite SeaWorld’s manipulation of their orca pods being well-known by non-profit organisations and other non-governmental organisations, the company still denies this practice and has been filmed manipulating the truth when park guests have asked.

When returning to Tilikum it is possible to understanding his psychosis when examining the first few years of his life. After his capture in November 1983, Tilikum was sent to Sealand, a small marine park in Victoria, Canada. During his time there Tilikum was often raked by the two larger female orcas that were also at the park – male orcas rank lower within the social groups of orcas than females. These rakings often resulted in large incisions on his pectoral fins and his abdomen, which often became infected. Each night the orcas were stored in a shed that made them immobile, with very little stimulation and in the morning Tilikum often had fresh rake marks. In order to coax the orcas into their storage unit, they often were starved or food was held back. Tilikum’s first attack occurred while he was at Sealand, shortly afterwards Sealand closed and Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando. During his time at SeaWorld Tilikum has been involved in a further two attacks, both of which have been blamed on trainer error. Most infamously, senior-trainer Dawn Brancheau was pulled into the water on 24th February 2010 during a training session with Tilikum, resulting in her tragic death. Later examinations of this event come to the conclusion that the lack of food as reinforcement was what resulted in Brancheau’s death.

Any captive organism is entirely dependent on humans, whether they are zookeepers, trainers or pet-owners for food. Food is used as resource for positive reinforcement in order to encourage animals to perform certain behaviours – especially within the marine entertainment business, which often involves dolphins, killer whales and sea lions performing up to two, one hour shows every day, alongside other allotted training times. The use of food as positive reinforcement has created a culture within marine parks of starving orcas if they do not complete the required behaviours, adding to their aggression and also contributing to the noted psychosis found in so many captive orcas.

Dorsal-fin collapse is another noticeable difference between killer whales in the wild and those that reside in captivity. Researchers from The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society have reported that less than 1% of the well-studied pods of orcas off the coast of British Columbia have collapsed dorsal fins, whereas in captivity this figure is closer to 90% – particularly with the males of the species. There are a number of hypothesised reasons behind dorsal fin collapse, including larger amounts of time spent at the surface leading to the dorsal fin not being supported by the water pressure and lowered blood pressure due to reduced activity levels.

An additional health problem that occurs within captivity is dental hygiene, due to increased instances of biting metal bars or the sides of the pools. It is unknown as to why captive orcas display this behaviour; however, it is commonly thought that it is due to lack of sufficient enrichment, frustration at the lack of available space and, in some cases, an attempt to leave the enclosure through aggression. In response to dental bacterial infections among orcas, it is common practice for vets to drill through the infected teeth in order to remove any built-up plaque. The infected teeth are then flushed out three times a day with antibacterial reagents for the remainder of the orcas life. This practice can be incredibly stressful and time-consuming for the animal, increasing its irritability. As previously said, orcas are highly intelligent organisms and are thought to feel emotions in a more complex way than humans are able to comprehend, so any stress can cause them to become highly anxious and impact on their way of life.

Finally, the lifespan of captive orcas is drastically lower than those in the wild, although this is still widely disputed. A 2015 study featured in the Journal of Mammalogy has put forward research concluding that the life expectancy of captive orcas at SeaWorld is similar to those in the wild; however, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society have stated that in captivity the average life expectancy of thirty years, whereas in the wild females live 60-80 years and males live 50-60 years, typically. Additionally, despite organisations like SeaWorld claiming that veterinary care in captivity allows captive orcas to have a reduced risk of disease, it has recently been suggested that this is not the case. For example, in 2007 Taku, a 14-year old killer whale captive at SeaWorld San Diego suddenly died of pneumonia, despite regular health checks.

In conclusion, there are a number of highly controversial issues with the practice of keeping orcas in captivity. Undoubtedly the largest problem is the increasing number of attacks on trainers and members of the public, which has subsequently led to the prevention of SeaWorld trainers swimming in the water with the orcas any longer. Alongside obvious implications on health and welfare, such as dorsal fin collapse, lack of enrichment and substantially reduced mobility, there is the issue of synthetically-produced pods. It is arguable that this is the biggest cause of psychosis in killer whales in captivity. As previously stated, killer whales have an emotional centre in the brain which is not found in any other organism, thus when they are removed from their specific social groups this can be a very taxing on their behaviour, thus resulting in increased aggression, particularly towards their trainers and other whales in their captive environment. Despite all of the issues with captivity discussed, it must be noted that before killer whales were captured for the purpose of marine entertainment, very little about them and their behaviour was known to science. Today, researchers at organisations such as SeaWorld are able to access orcas of a range of ages and sizes intently, thus increasing out scientific knowledge of their physiology, natural history and behaviour. That said, animal rights campaigners argue that this research is of little value as it is not in a natural setting. In brief, there is no doubt that captivity has impacted negatively on the health and wellbeing of orcas that are held in marine parks across the globe.