Each year, millions of people pay top dollar to visit SeaWorld and other captive orca entertainment parks. But they only witness the glitzy, shiny, happy side of Shamu: the bouncy backflips, cute kisses and splash-soaked finales that are emblematic of a staged killer whale show. The hordes of credulous tourists, for the most part, can be forgiven for leaving the park resting assured that killer whales in captivity enjoy their performances for people and are lavished with “world class” care and living standards far superior to anything found in the “dark, scary ocean,” (an actual term used by SeaWorld executives to defend orca captivity).
But here, on the contrary and for your consideration, are seven reasons why keeping killer whales in captivity has become an outdated and inhumane way to entertain humans. Author David Kirby tells the story from the accounts of on-the-scene SeaWorld workers.
Photo: GTC via Getty Images
1) Accelerated Mortality
Kandu bleeds to death after an altercation with another female severs a major artery at SeaWorld San Diego on August 21, 1989.
Killer whales in captivity die far more frequently than their cousins in the ocean. In 1995, government scientists Robert Small and Douglas DeMaster analyzed annual survival data for non-calf orcas—in both captivity and the wild—over the period of 1988 to 1992. What they found was deeply disturbing. “Survival of the wild population…based on approximately 250 non-calves, was significantly higher than our estimates for non-calf captive whales,” the researchers wrote. They found an annual mortality rate of 6.2 percent among killer whales in captivity, but among wild whales, the rate was just 2.4 percent. The evidence could not have been clearer. The annual mortality rate among non-calf captive killer whales was more than two and a half times higher (6.2 percent vs 2.4 percent) than the rate among non-calf whales swimming in the ocean.
2) Shamu’s Secret Medicine Chest
Each day at SeaWorld, orca trainers portioned out prescription medications for many members of the killer whale “collection.” Feeding whales and dolphins dead, frozen, and thawed fish deprived them of nutrients and fresh water, which had to be replaced through artificial measures. One main task before breakfast was to stuff fish gills with vitamins, antacids, and sometimes other pills that the apprentice trainers figured were antibiotics because they came in capsules and were only given when an animal was sick, or acting “slow.” At other times, when a whale was ailing and dehydrated, they were given syringes and instructed to inject herring and smelt with fresh water from the tap. Whales, like all mammals, cannot drink salt water, and instead rely on prey as their source of fresh water. SeaWorld also instructed its trainers to lie, essentially, about why some whales were fed large cubes of gelatin. The 12,000-pound bull Tilikum alone consumed 10 gallons of the stuff (83 pounds) every day. “When discussing Jello, please do not mention that it is offered to the whales to provide hydration,” employee guidelines said. “Refer to it as another type of reinforcement or enrichment—a tasteless, sugar-free, colorless treat! They seem to enjoy the texture!” And then, almost incredibly, it added: “Please make sure your information is accurate.”
3) Death by Mosquito
Killer whales in captivity sometimes die in bizarre and exotic ways that would never kill them in the wild. Take, for example, tropical diseases spread by mosquito bites. On warm, muggy nights in Orlando, trainers like John Jett would watch in dismay as thick clouds of mosquitos settled on the back of Kanduke, a large male who spent hours on end floating listlessly at the surface. Years later activists found a paper in a scientific journal that revealed the true cause of death. Kanduke had died suddenly and unexpectedly after deteriorating very quickly. SeaWorld veterinarians were puzzled by his rapid decline and sent tissue samples to Yale University for assessment. A resulting study found St. Louis Encephalitis (SLE) virus, an avian pathogen transmitted by mosquitoes, in Kanduke. No marine mammal had ever been found with SLE. The article suggested a direct causal link between orca confinement and premature death. A few weeks later another study described the death of 14-year-old Taku, a male orca who died suddenly in San Antonio in 2007. The cause was West Nile Virus. Equally alarming, all six of the other orcas in San Antonio tested positive for the virus, which can be transmitted to people via mosquitoes.
Photo: edan/creative commons
4) Hollowed Out Lives, Hollowed Out Teeth
Dental Exam at SeaWorld—Note Drilled-Out Teeth on Left
Many killer whales in captivity develop serious dental problems—mostly chipped and broken teeth, but also teeth that have been removed or fallen out. Most disturbing are teeth that need to have the pulp drilled out of the center, leaving behind a conical cylinder.
Orca trainers Jeff Ventre and John Jett believed that stress and boredom were adding to the problem. The steel gates that separated the park’s pools were made from horizontal bars. These gates were the first line of defense when the whales went “off behavior” and became aggressive and in need of physical separation. Once separated, it was not uncommon for two whales to bite down on the bars—a display of aggression called “jaw-popping.” All that breakage left a lot of exposed tooth pulp. If left untreated, decaying pulp can form a large cavity that becomes plugged with food. Impacted food can cause infection and inflammation, and possibly harm an animal’s immune and cardiovascular systems. John sometimes assisted in drilling the whales’ teeth. Many orcas were trained to submit to the awful procedure just like any other behavior—with a lot of positive reinforcement. First they were asked to put their chin on the deck. Then the trainers would show them the high-speed drill—a hand-held Dremel like those used around the house—and reinforce them by rubbing their fins or giving them some fish. Then they would touch the drill bit to their tooth, without turning the machine on, reinforcing the animals once again. Next they touched the bit to the tooth and turned it on at the lowest speed, so they would feel it and hear it just slightly followed by more reinforcement. Finally they started the drill, proceeding until blood spouted from the hole. SeaWorld called it “superior dental care.”
5) The Tragedy of Gudrun
There are few more morose tales of killer whales in captivity than the tragic death of the pregnant Icelandic female orca Gudrun. SeaWorld trainers John Jett and Jeff Ventre had discussed Gudrun’s pregnancy since she began eating less food in the final weeks of gestation. They were also concerned about the health of the fetus. SeaWorld had figured out a way to use Gudrun to generate new revenue streams. As one of the rare adult orcas whose dorsal fin had not bent over or collapsed, she was perfect to pose with tourists for photographs. The pregnant whale would remain “dry” in the slideout area as she held her pose for many minutes at a time. The weight on her unborn calf must have been immense. When Gudrun went into labor, the staff veterinarians could not get a pulse on the unborn calf. It was presumed dead. Since Gudrun was not expelling the calf, they needed to winch the dead infant out manually. The pain must have been unearthly. Gudrun began to hemorrhage severely. She remained motionless in one spot, unprotected by shade, so staff lovingly lavished her back with zinc oxide. On the fourth day, Gudrun slowly swam over to the gate where her disabled young calf, Nyar, was watching. Nyar had to be separated from Gudrun soon after birth when the mother began attacking her deformed daughter. Now, Gudrun gently nudged Nyar’s rostrum through the bars, as if to ask for an overdue rapprochement. Gudrun died a few hours later.
Photo: SMSea/Creative Commons via Flickr
6) Kotar’s Lurid and Sad Saga
Kotar became one of the youngest and smallest killer whales in captivity when he was taken from the waters off Iceland in October, 1978 at one year of age. He spent seven years at SeaWorld San Diego before being moved to Orlando, where he worked another seven years. But in 1987, SeaWorld Florida acquired the large and moody Pacific male named Kanduke. The mammal-eating Pacific whale and the fish-eating Icelandic whale did not get along. One day they got into a fierce altercation, repeatedly beached themselves on the slide-out area and made loud crying noises. At the peak of the battle, Kotar bit Kanduke’s penis, severely wounding it, which left a four-inch scar. Kotar was banished to San Antonio. In Texas, he was obsessed with mouthing and tugging on the metal bars of the gate in his tank. On April 1, 1995, a gate that Kotar was playing with crashed onto his head, crushing his skull. He quickly bled to death.
7) This Doesn’t Happen in the Wild
When the capture of wild orcas was no longer a viable option for SeaWorld to replace dead orcas in its collection, the company settled on a breeding program for killer whales in captivity, based on artificial insemination, to keep its profitable show afloat. Now, John Jett’s unease towards SeaWorld was about to get worse. His boss called him into his office one day to inform John of a new assignment. As Tilikum’s team leader, John was to begin teaching “Tilly” approximations—small discrete training steps—to extract his own penis and present it to trainers. After Tilly learned to do that correctly, John and his team were supposed to masturbate the phallus, collect the semen and freeze it for use in SeaWorld’s new artificial insemination (AI) program. John was shocked and disgusted. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not going to put Tilikum through that. Get someone else.” For that insubordination, John was banished from Shamu and transferred to Sea Lion and Otter Stadium.
David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.