SeaWorld, a US theme park and entertainment company, today announced the end of its orca (or killer whale) breeding scheme. This follows criticism and global outcry from animal rights and conservation groups about keeping killer whales in captivity.
As with many animals that roam our planet, attitudes have changed toward killer whales in recent years. Once seen as terrifying, savage creatures and since the 18th century hunted in their thousands, they were first captured and displayed in waterparks in the 1960s. Their striking appearance, giant size and high intelligence attracted crowds keen to see what these animals were like in real life.
The market for this type of interaction boomed, and killer whales became big business. Parks sprung up across the world offering killer whale encounters – training the whales to perform tricks to the delight of the crowds. Soon, sea parks started captive breeding programmes, using artificial insemination, and mating whales already living at the parks to bolster numbers.
Although animal rights and wildlife conservation groups criticised the captivity of these creatures, things remained relatively unchanged for many years. Between the years of 1991 and 2010, however, a male orca at SeaWorld named Tilikum was involved in the death of three people (the first took place at another park). The most recent incident occurred in 2010 when he dragged his trainer Dawn Brancheau into his pool and killed her.
The event made international headlines, and the world started to ask how and why such a thing could have happened. A hard-hitting article, was written in the months following Dawn’s death which detailed the treatment of killer whales in captivity. It inspired director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to produce a documentary called Blackfish, which centres around Tilikum’s tragic story and uncovered the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the extraordinary nature of killer whales and the controversy surrounding the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. The documentary was highly influential, and since 2013 pressure has been mounting on SeaWorld to end the captivity of their killer whales.
Now a 6 ton, 22-foot male, Tilikum was captured from the wild as an infant and placed in a concrete holding tank for almost a year while awaiting transfer to a marine park. Throughout his life he has been forced to live in a confined and unnatural environment, and that, according to experts interviewed in the original article and Blackfish documentary, has caused him to behave psychotically.
Orcas are highly intelligent, playful and social creatures, which have the ability to learn skills and solve problems. In the wild, they live in complex social structures comparable to monkeys and humans. There are up to 50 members in each family pod, which is organised around the females.
According to the original article, published on Outside Online, “The matriarch is usually the oldest female (some live to 80 or more), who has a wealth of experience and knowledge about where food can be found. Within the pod, mothers are at the centre of smaller family groups. Males, who can live to 50 or 60 years, stay with their mothers their entire lives and often die not long after she does… They coordinate in the hunt, share food freely, and will help an injured or ill member of the pod stay on the surface to breathe.”
Today’s news from SeaWorld is the next step in the changing attitudes of humans toward killer whales. Joel Manby, President and Chief Executive Officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc, said “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it.” Along with their announcement to stop breeding (and therefore eventually end killer whale captivity at their parks) they also today pledged to educate their more than 20 million annual visitors on animal welfare and conservation issues, as well as committing $50 million over the next five years “to be the world’s leading marine animal rescue organisation, to advocate for an end to the commercial killing of whales and seals and an end to shark finning.”
The orcas that currently reside at their theme parks, however, will continue to live out their lives in captivity. In an open letter to the Los Angeles Times, Manby said, “Most of our orcas were born at SeaWorld, and those that were born in the wild have been in our parks for the majority of their lives. If we release them into the ocean, they will likely die. For as long as they live, the orcas at SeaWorld will stay in our parks.”
While this statement is set against arguments posed in the Blackfish documentary, that captive orcas can and should be reintegrated into the wild, it is a small step at least toward ending the cruel captivity of killer whales for good. To find out more about the plight of killer whales and learn what you can do to help, visit dolphinproject.net or watch the Blackfish documentary.