Thursday, February 25, 2010
About the Effects of Captivity on Killer Whales
By Valerie Martin
This article describes the negative effects of captivity on orcas ("killer whales"). Orcas in captivity suffer from not being able to use their echo-location, forage for food, or travel great distances. Often they are not able to maintain large social networks like some orcas do in the wild. As this article shows, the more we learn about orcas, the more we realize that no aquarium tank can ever replace the open sea.
You might have seen "Free Willy" and then wondered what happened to the real whale in the movie. The movie was about releasing a "killer whale" from the hands of humans who were exploiting him, and who wished to kill him to collect the insurance money. While the fictional whale was released, what happened to the actual whale, the actor? This was, after all, a pretty ironic situation. Many moviegoers began asking this question, and eventually the real "Willie," named Keiko, was released into the ocean.
There's also something ironic about the fact that so many "whale lovers" choose to visit Sea World. Whales in captivity usually live shorter lives than those in the wild. They also have a lack of stimulation and a lack of space in which to travel. As marine mammologist Naomi Rose says in an interview with PBS, orcas ("killer whales") can travel between 50 and 100 miles in a single day. They are large-brained animals that need space and complex stimulation, which only the ocean can provide.
Rose explains that female orcas often die in captivity while they are still in their reproductive years. This is extremely rare in the wild. The UK division of the World Wildlife Fund agrees that in captivity, orcas' lives are much shorter. "It can survive between 50 and 80 years in the wild, yet in captivity its lifespan is drastically reduced to perhaps only 10 years---if that," says the WWF-UK.
In some ways, the lives of marine mammals in captivity are less stressful than in the wild. Having little or no stress, however, can actually be stressful---just as with humans. Imagine what it would be like if you lived in a small, dark room with nothing to do. You might be physically comfortable, but you wouldn't get to smell all the smells of the outdoors, of different foods cooking or of different environments. You couldn't go for a hike and wonder what was just around the next bend. You wouldn't be able to surf the Web and learn interesting things about other species. You would surely become extremely stressed out. Our minds like to have some problems to solve, and new information to process. Orcas (or "killer whales") are the same. We have much more in common with other species than we often realize, and as Rose says, relating to orcas is pretty commonsensical. Because they rely on their echo-location, she says, they are used to processing a great deal of sound. When they are kept in an aquarium, they have no variety and no reason to use their echo-location. For them, it is like being kept in a small, dark box. Orcas in captivity are bored, and it has an effect on their health, just as it would for a human.
Former dolphin trainer Rick O'Barry, who trained dolphins for the TV series "Flipper," says that captive orcas and dolphins are "so stressed out you wouldn't believe it." As the Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals say in their report "The Case Against Marine Animals in Captivity," captivity causes marine mammals to lose their natural feeding and foraging behaviors. Captivity also changes their social behaviors. The report explains, "Stress-related conditions such as ulcers, stereotypical behaviors including pacing and self-mutilation, and abnormal aggression in groups frequently develop in predators denied the opportunity to forage. Other natural behaviors, such as those associated with dominance, mating, and maternal care, are altered in captivity, which can have a substantially negative impact on the animals." Animals that are normally peaceful in their natural environment can become violent when confined.
The authors of "Killer Whale: Orcinus Orca" describe some of the reasons for these negative effects. As they explain, the orca whales that have been studied off the Pacific coast of the U.S. can be classified into two types: residents and transients. Residents have a strong and often large matriarchal social network (up to 25 whales), while transients need to travel great distances and have a looser social structure, typically living in smaller pods. Residents also need to travel quite a bit, with a range of approximately 250 miles along the coast. Neither group is able to continue its natural behaviors within an aquarium, and residents undoubtedly suffer when they lack the complex social relationships they need. Of course, when whales are taken from the wild, being removed from their social groups can be traumatizing.
Rose also notes that zoo and aquarium spectators sometimes feed orcas things that they shouldn't eat. Sometimes coins are even thrown into the water. "It's just shocking to me that certain facilities in particular, just cannot control their audience, cannot control the customers," says Rose. When large groups of people are visiting marine mammals that are kept on display, it can be very difficult to control what everyone does, which puts the animals at risk.
No matter how well a facility controls its human spectators, however, there's no replacement for the open sea. Seeing orcas in the ocean is far more magical than seeing them in any tank, anyway. If you were thinking about going to Sea World, go on a whale-spotting trip instead. You can make your trip even more interesting by learning more about these fascinating creatures at the links below.
Posted by Brandi at 5:01 AM