Only entertainment is gained from keeping orcas in cruel captivity

by Melissa Wood

Tilikum, a massive 22.5-foot-long orca whale living in captivity at Sea World Orlando, has been involved in three fatal incidents. The most notorious of these, the death of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau, occurred on Feb. 24, 2010.

Brancheau’s death garnered copious amounts of media attention and sparked numerous debates about the humanity of keeping killer whales captive.

Humans began capturing and putting orcas on display in the 1960s. In 1985 a female named Kalina became the first captive-born orca to survive more than a few days.

Tilikum, captured at the age of 2, off the coast of Iceland, has been living in captivity since November 1983. But since Brancheau’s death, Tilikum has been kept in almost total isolation from the other killer whales captive at Sea World Orlando, according to its representatives.

Killer whales are social animals. In the wild, killer whales move in pods, traveling up to 100 miles a day, sleeping and hunting together.

In captivity, killer whales lack the stimulation and space available in the wild. Tilikum spends most of his time in a pool 100 feet by 50 feet and 35 feet deep, according to Sea World representatives. That’s an unfortunate change from the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet he once called home.

Many of the whales’ pools, including Tilikum’s, lack the shade and depth needed to protect them from the blaring Orlando sun.

In March 2011 Tilikum returned to performing in Sea World’s killer whale shows. He typically performs four or five times a day in the 35-minute shows. He spends the rest of his time floating listlessly in his pool with no toys and limited human contact.

In captivity, whales forget how to forage for their food and ward off predators. They forget how to be wild animals. Thus, Tilikum, now 30 years old, is doomed to live out the rest of his life in captivity because he will not survive if integrated back into the wild. Although, with the reduced life expectancies of killer whales in captivity, it is likely Tilikum won’t live much longer.

There has never been a recorded killing of a human by killer whales in the wild.

Most of the knowledge scientists have about killer whales comes from studying them in the wild. No useful information can come from studying an animal removed from its habitat, its family and its normal hunting grounds.

The stress of captivity harms the whales’ psyche. No good can come from keeping such large, wild animals pent up in unnatural habitats.

Society needs to stop using these creatures for entertainment and allow them to live freely in the wild without human interference.

Melissa Wood is a junior journalism and mass communication major at St. Bonavenure University.

7 replies »

  1. Well I think you are glossing over some things.

    First, there is a lot more then entertainment at Sea World. Sea World has a marine research arm. Not only do they rescue stranded and injured animals and nurse them back to health (and release most of them back into the wild) they also fund and run numerous research projects helping us better understand marine mammals, their environment, and their lives. I worked at Sea World in San Diego as a high school student and there is a huge portion of the facility the public never sees completely dedicated to research. “No useful information can come from studying an animal removed from its habitat, its family and its normal hunting grounds.” That’s your opinion and quite frankly I think it’s flat out wrong. Part of the knowledge we’ve gained has come from observing Orcas up close during gestation and the birth process, information we could NOT gather at sea. See also the studies we’ve done on animal intelligence. Show me how you would run an IQ test on a dolphin while at sea.

    Second you state “There has never been a recorded killing of a human by killer whales in the wild.” There are some flaws here. We have only started recording cause of death recently when considering all of human history. Also, killer whales, unlike sharks, don’t come in to shallow and warm water where humans like to splash and play. So that leaves deep ocean encounters. There have been instances of attacks and I would not be surprised in the slightest if Orcas have killed fisherman and sailors (whether on purpose or accident) that have just been reported as “boat never came back” or “man overboard”.

    “Society needs to stop using these creatures for entertainment and allow them to live freely in the wild without human interference.” That would require us to leave the planet. They can’t live without human interference, we fish in their habitat, we bring giant tankers loaded with cargo right through their homes, we pleasure sail just to see them.

    You are also missing one VITAL mission of zoos and aquariums and animal parks. Getting the attention of stupid humans. You want to save a species? Have other humans see it in action, let them see why it’s interesting, let them put a face to a problem. That’s WHY groups like World Wildlife Fund use a Panda for their emblem. A small child seeing that Killer Whale up close is going to care, possibly for the rest of his life, about that species and saving it. They will save up their pennies in jars for charities because of visits to the zoo, animal shows, etc. Some species they only see as a picture in a book will not have the same impact.

  2. All valid points but there are some thing you missed.
    Sea World may release animals back into the wild, but not many animals survive long in the wild after human contact. The orca that starred in Free Willy was dead after a year back in the wild.
    Most of the orca pregnancies occur because of artificial insemination, so while they may be somewhat useful for gathering information they are not natural.
    I stated there has never been a RECORDED killing because, well there, hasn’t been one. Furthermore, there have only been two recorded attacks. One can assume that there are unrecorded deaths but there really is no way to prove that assumption true.
    “Society needs to stop using these creatures for entertainment and allow them to live freely in the wild without human interference.” Without extensive human interference would be better wording I suppose. Fishing and sailing through an animal’s habitat is a small interference compared to keeping that animal captive in a small tank where millions of people come to gawk at it.
    And as for the mission of zoos, aquariums and animal parks, you are correct in saying their aim is to provide awareness of different species. But it is merely a goal; there is no way to gauge how much people care when they leave to zoos and parks.

  3. One has only to watch animals in captivity to know it’s wrong. Repetitive behavior is a marker for neurological illness brought on by imprisonment in tight quarters. When you see an animal pacing back and forth in a pen or swimming in circles, you’re watching animal cruelty.

  4. Easily one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen in my life (and I have seen many!) is when I stood atop a cliff on Pender Island in Pugent Sound and watched a pod of killer whales swim past the island. The pod stretched on for miles and miles in both directions as it moved from south to north. I saw that sight twice that week, and it stirred my soul both times–and it sits there still as one of the greatest scenes of wonder I’ve ever been privileged to witness.

  5. I’ve watched tilikum 3times. Twice before the trainers death and once after. I hate going to seaworld. Unfortunately, since it is only 15 minutes away, my step son wants to go for his birthday each year. One thine that has stuck.with me, is Tilikum’s fin has collapsed to one side. When I asked why they told me they didn’t know. I researched it, and it is a sign of depression in killer Wales. He had this 3 years ago when I first saw him. It is very sad. They are not animals/mammals to be trained for out entertainment. I feel if there is an injury then yes, capture it long enough to heal it then set it free again.