Don’t Forget The Blackfish

Orcinus orca. The killer whale. Though in fact not a whale, as many of us know, the largest member of the dolphin family. 2013 saw the release of the documentary ‘Blackfish’, documenting the lives of captive killer whales at Seaworld. Though the documentary has had a dramatic effect on Seaworld, with plummeting profits (up to 84% less than previous year), loss of stock and more than one lawsuit, they are still open for business. Blackfish was long overdue and focused particularly on one whale called Tilikum, due to the violence surrounding his life.If you have not seen Blackfish, watch it. It’s distressing and depressing no doubt, but the message it conveys is so important.

Killer whales have been kept in captivity since the 1960s, and only now are we seeing any positive changes in the attitudes toward this practice. There are now 58 captive orcas held in 14 parks across the world (24 wild-captives, 34 captive born). Seaworld owns 24 of these orcas across 3 parks in the US and another 4 at Loro Parque, Spain. Over the decades, 162 orcas have died in captivity and this does not include those 30 miscarried and still born calves. Typically in the wild, female orcas can live up to 90 years old, though on average to around 46 years of age. Males can live up to 60 years, though on average around 30. The average lifespan of a captive orca at Seaworld? 13 years. The oldest orca in captivity was caught in 1969 and she is held at Seaworld in San Diego. Her name? Corky. Over the course of her life Corky has had 7 calfs, all of whom are now dead.

But if this story were not dark enough, the big punch that Blackfish packs is the incidences of attacks exhibited by the whales. The first case of aggression shown by an orca occurred in 1968, when a female orca named Lupa, held at the New York aquarium chased her trainers from the pool, while snapping her jaws aggressively. This set a precedent and throughout the decades the number of such attacks kept increasing, with aggression levels of the animals being so extreme that some trainers had to clean tanks from the safety of shark cages.

The first death from a killer whale attack occurred on the 20th February 1991. It happened at Sealand of the Pacific. A young part time trainer tripped, losing balance and her foot slipped into the orca tank. Tilikum, the orca in Blackfish, too her by the ankle and pulled her into the water. At the time there were also two smaller females in the tank. All three orcas trapped the trainer and dragged and pulled her around the pool. Attempts of rescue and to distract the orcas were unsuccessful. It was hours later before the body of the young trainer could be recovered. Sealand of the Pacific closed and the orcas were sold to Seaworld. Tilikum was sent to Seaworld Florida, where in 1999 a dead man was found draped across the whales body. It was claimed he had entered the pool of his own free will, as he had to climb a fence to get in, but he died of drowning. Whether Tilikum was responsible for this is unclear, but the abrasions,bites and bruises shown on the mans body proved Tilikum had some interaction with the man.

2009 and 2010 saw two more fatalities. In Spain a trainer was killed whilst rehearsing for a Christmas show. Again from drowning. The last fatality occurred in 2010 and again involved Tilikum. Tilikum killed his trainer, when after a show he pulled her by the hair into the water. She died of ‘multiple traumatic injuries and drowning’. These deaths and the countless incidences of aggression shown by the animals has lead to tighter laws during shows and trainers are now not allowed in the water with the orcas. Throughout all of this however, Seaworld has produced endless excuses and displayed a clear refusal to accept the problems with keeping such an animal in captivity. Tilikum

But its not just premature deaths and fatalities from severe aggression that reflect the inhumanity of keeping these creatures for entertainment. The one that we are all aware of is the collapsed dorsal fin. Every single captive male orca has a collapsed dorsal fin. This may be due to a number of factors, including reduced swimming space due to small tanks, poor diets of frozen and un-nutricious fish and the forces of gravity. In captivity there is a well documented behaviour of these animals floating lifelessly and aimlessly for minutes at a time, a behaviour NEVER seen in the wild. This activity allows the forces of gravity to drag the fin down. Seaworld argues that the cause of the dorsal fin collapse is because there is no bone in the fin and it is a genetic condition that their orcas have. However, only a small number of wild orcas have this collapse and it is usually from injury or a sign of illness.

Another problem? The size of the tanks. In the wild an orca can swim up to 100 miles a day. In a small confined tank, they have to do lengths in order to swim. Up to 3200 lengths to equal what they would swim in the wild. Orcas are also highly sociable animals. They live in family pods with a clear hierarchy. In captivity they are put in tanks with other orcas, to whom they are not related and the small space and tension leads to fighting. As a young whale, Tilikum was subject to bullying by two older females and was constantly being seen to by the vet for injuries. And last but by no means least. Stress. Excessive stress. This is not a natural environment. They are away from their families. They have no space. They have no way to escape from fights. They do not have a proper diet. The animals show this stress by aimless floating, butting tank walls and biting at bars, which then leads to painful dental surgery.

Just last month another orca, Valentin, died in a park in France. He was 19 and in the wild would have been in his prime. Tilikum is still at Seaworld in a pen all alone. He was taken out of shows as a result of his history and left to a life of misery and solitude. Though 5 years later he has now been brought back to shows, but as a show closer. As a mindless performer.

But this is not a totally ignorant article. I have read (extensively) the arguments for killer whales to be kept in captivity. I have heard the opinion that whenever you deal with an animal there is a certain amount of risk. One article I read stated that keeping dogs is just as dangerous, yet it is ok to keep them. Not quite a well enough reasoned argument. Dogs have seen hundreds of years of domestication. The history of the dog and his evolution is extensive and we, as humans ,are instrumental in that. This is not the case for orcas. Humans and whales have little business together. Then, there are the quotes that we have heard regarding the orcas:

‘If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little irritated, aggravated, maybe a little psychotic?’

It’s a fair point, but I for one am not suggesting that these animals are ‘psychotic’. Psychotic is a human term that is applied to certain human traits. But I am suggesting frustration and stress. All animals display it. Just in different ways. If we get frustrated or angry, we either scream and yell or run away and sob. Our form of fight or flight. A dominant carnivore is likely to display fight. And what about the suggestion that all these attacks are a mistake? ‘They didn’t realise. A game gone wrong.’ I don’t agree with that either. Dolphins as we know are highly intelligent. The behaviour displayed by these animals was no accident. Or the deaths would be accidental drowning. No abrasions, no severe bodily harm. In the case of Tilikum, there was a suggestion that after performing what he considered a correct behaviour, Tilikum was not rewarded with food. This led to frustration and he attacked his trainer in frustration.

Blackfish has been an eye opener and a fantastic documentary, showing the cruelty of these organisations, but orcas are still in captivity. Seaworld claims this is the only option and that they are protecting this species. But there are other options. Not capturing them for one. Another? Sea pens. Created sanctuaries where orcas can be rehabilitated and retired from these ‘theme parks.’ A marine wildlife sanctuary.

More needs to be done to save these animals. With any other species such treatment would be considered cruel and against the law. Shut a dog in a small room with no access to the outside, poor food and no interaction it would be taken away by the RSPCA. So why does Seaworld and numerous other parks still have orcas? Beats me.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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