Activists Fight to Free Killer Whales Held in Russia

Two orcas are being confined in small tanks in Moscow.

(Photo: Facebook)

Oct 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

It was supposed to be a “surprise” for the people of Moscow, but now the cat—or rather, the whale—is out of the bag.

On Monday, Moscow police verified what had been rumored for months: Two orcas taken more than a year ago from Russia’s Okhotsk Sea are being held in two small tanks in the Russian capital. They will be put on public display in the coming months.

“City police have confirmed the animals are being held in temporary facilities at the [VDNKh] exhibition center,” The Moscow Times reported on Monday.

Russian anti-captivity activists did not receive the news warmly, especially because the orcas’ adjoining concrete tanks are only 82 feet in diameter and 26 feet deep, according to the VDNKh Facebook page.

“These are solitary confinement cells,” Irina Novozhilova, head of the animal rights group Vita, told The Moscow Times.

Konstantin Zgurovsky, head of the marine program at World Wildlife Fund–Russia, told the newspaper that such cramped quarters are insufficient for orcas, which swim up to 100 miles a day in the ocean.

“This is a huge stress that could make them dangerous,” Zgurovsky said.

The whales, a seven-year-old female named Narnia and an unnamed five-year-old male, were flown to Moscow last December. They are the first orcas to be kept in captivity in Russia, according to The Moscow Times.

Activists tried to get the police to open an animal-abuse investigation, arguing that echolocation calls bouncing off the tanks’ concrete walls could deafen the animals and possibly drive them insane.
According to Moscow police, living conditions for the killer whales do not violate Russian animal-abuse laws, which are narrowly defined as intentional killing or maiming.

The orcas' permanent home is still under construction; once completed it will be Europe’s largest aquarium.

VDNKh did not respond to requests for comment by The Moscow Times, but it has commented on the whales on its Facebook page.

“[There] have been specially constructed two temporary pools, a navigation system, allowing all travel from one basin to another,” according to an English translation on Facebook. The company added that the pools have filters that clean the water every three hours.

VDNKh’s rationale for keeping killer whales in captivity is identical to that of SeaWorld and other Western marine mammal parks.

“Most people do not have the opportunity to watch killer whales in the wild,” the company said on its Facebook page. “For many, an opportunity to see and learn a little more about these amazing animals is oceanariums.”

Scientists will also study the behavior and “lifestyle and habits” of the two animals, according to VDNKh.

“Killer whales…quickly get used to the person, easy to learn tricks, showing no predatory instincts,” the center claims.

However, captive orcas such as Tilikum have been involved in the deaths of three people.

“The assertion (how) the two ultrasonic killer whales stun communications in a confined space and ‘go crazy’ made by the representatives of Vita are ridiculous,” said VDNKh.

Local media coverage of the killer whales has been mixed, said Catherine Ciorano, a Russian activist and founder of the website Behind the Glass of Aquarium.

“When Police confirmed ‘yes, orcas are here,’ much mass-media was like, ‘We need to help orcas to get out of there,’ ” Ciorano said in an email. “But after VDNKh posted photos and a video, mass-media became divided.”

Public opinion tends to be supportive of captivity, Ciorano said.

“Many people probably will think that it's the best conditions for whales,” she said. “It’ll be hard to build an anti-cap society, and without this, captures most likely will continue.”