Orca Whales and Animal Parks
Thomas Cook has recently made the headlines with the announcement that it will no longer sell visits to animal parks that keep killer whales in captivity for show.
It's a decision based on animal welfare grounds, and when looking at the facts about what happens to these whales – or Orcas as they are called – it's a commendable move.
What's the background to Orca captivity in animal parks?
Since 1961, it's said that at least 156 Orcas have been taken from their wild habitat to be held in animal parks. Today, the number is believed to be at least 60.
Like the recent blog post on animals in circuses, the reason is that Orcas are there to entertain the public. The practice does still continue around the world. For example, one is reported to be held in Canada, four in Marineland, Antibes, France, three in Russia (on public display), six in Loro Parque, a partner of SeaWorld based in Tenerife, while others are held in a number of American SeaWorld locations.
What are the issues with keeping Orcas in captivity?
Out of their natural habitat, Orcas are in an unfamiliar environment. Going from the big, wide open sea to a small tank is a considerable downsize for an Orca. The creatures don't have as much freedom to swim around, with one comparison being the equivalent of attempting to swim in a bathtub.
The enclosed space isn't good for an Orca, since it can clash with others who it may not get on with. The same problem can be solved in the wild, since the odd Orca out can simply swim away and find better friends elsewhere. But in a confined tank, Orcas don't have the luxury of fleeing. They end up fighting, with sometimes fatal results.
Another problem is that a young Orca may have to be away from its own family, and instead spend time with an unfamiliar group that may not communicate in the same language. Orcas in the wild get to be with their mothers, but in this artificial environment, they feel alone and more vulnerable.
On top of these factors, Orcas get stressed, anxious, and also bored.
Are Orcas at risk in captive environments?
Yes. Adult male Orcas have endured collapsed dorsal fins, on account of a poor diet of thawed fish, and pig and cow bones, and also not having enough space to move around in. Orcas have little examples of this complaint in the wild, because they get to enjoy a better, natural diet, and have all the space they want to swim around at their leisure.
Another painful problem for Orcas is their teeth. In a bid to escape, an Orca will chew at the barriers, breaking their teeth in escape. A recent study published in the Archives of Oral Biology found that considerable damage had been done to Orcas in SeaWorld and Loro Parque locations. The Orcas had attempted to chew their way through concrete and steel in the tanks. Orcas' teeth had also been drilled, but painfully and with no attempt to fill or cap the hole left, leaving their teeth vulnerable to bacteria.
Life expectancy is also notably shorter for captive Orcas. The average life expectancy of a wild Orca is around 30 to 50 years, but for a captive one, it's only 14 years.
What is being done to solve the problem?
The Thomas Cook news story is just one example of the backlash against performing Orcas. The company said that it had found that more than 90% of its customers had raised concerns about animal welfare. As a result, from Summer 2019, it will no longer sell tickets to SeaWorld, Florida or Loro Parque, Tenerife.
Orca captivity has been outlawed in various regions, and a recent bill in Florida will ban the breeding of killer whales, and performing shows.
As a consequence, SeaWorld has actually announced plans to halt captive breeding programmes, instead shifting to educational aspects for Orcas, and a mission to advance the “well-being and conservation of these beautiful creatures.”