I grew up in the Dallas area, and when I was a kid, one of the main places we went for summer vacation was SeaWorld of San Antonio. We went many times, and I loved it. I was obsessed with whales and dolphins as a kid. I had posters of them on my walls. I had plush toys. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Sea World trainer so I could swim with them.
As I got older, my feelings about it started to change. I watched nature documentaries about wild orcas and started to learn more about what they’re like. I saw footage of them hunting seals by tipping icebergs the seals were on, sliding out onto the shore to grab them, and tossing them in the air before killing them. It was a lot different than the “cute and cuddly gentle giant,” image that SeaWorld was trying to portray. David Attenborough made them look more like the lions of the ocean than pandas. And then there was their intelligence, that different groups of orcas had different cultures and spoke different languages, and that they lived in close-knit, matriarchal family groups.
I took another trip to SeaWorld with my family as a teenager, and this time I saw the Shamu show for what it was, a Siegfried and Roy style circus act with orcas instead of tigers. I didn’t enjoy it, and that was the last time I went to SeaWorld.
And then in 2010 I heard about the trainer in Florida, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the orcas there. They tried to spin it as being her fault, but I always thought that was unfair. After all, she was living the life I had dreamed of as a kid. She got to swim with the orcas. I’m sure she loved them. After all, you don’t get a job like that if you don’t love animals. She wasn’t the one who had captured them from the wild. She didn’t own them. But finally one of the orcas lashed out. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her, maybe he did, but when an animal that weighs several tons has a temper tantrum, a little tiny human doesn’t stand a chance. Circus elephants and tigers have been known to “turn on” their trainers, sometimes killing them. Circus orcas doing the same thing shouldn’t be surprising.
When Blackfish aired on CNN, I watched it with great interest. I found it very moving. I remembered how much I loved SeaWorld as a kid, and how badly I wanted to be a dolphin trainer someday, and how I had no idea how wrong it was. I had figured out it was wrong before I saw the documentary, but the documentary showed me that it was even worse than I thought. Of course, SeaWorld keeps saying that Blackfish is misleading propaganda and their whales are very happy, but they don’t have any supporting evidence refuting the specific claims in the documentary, so as a scientist that makes me very skeptical of their position.
At least they’ve promised to stop breeding orcas, even if reports of them ending their orca shows were greatly exaggerated (they merely reduced some of the more circus-like aspects of the shows). I do hope they keep their promise that they won’t breed any more of them. Maybe now that their main stud male is dead, that will make it more likely that they’ll stop.
I have mixed feelings about keeping wild animals in captivity. Captive breeding, when done responsibly, has saved some species from extinction, and I do think there is something to be said for captive animals acting as “ambassadors” for their species to inspire people to support the conservation of animals in the wild. After all, I went from being a zoo-loving kid to perusing an actual career in biology. Seeing pictures of some of these animals is just not the same as seeing them in person.
But some species do better in captivity than others, and I think there are some that just shouldn’t be kept in captivity at all. Killer whales are one of them. There’s just no way to come anywhere close to mimicking their natural environment. These are animals that roam for thousands of miles in the open ocean. On top of that, whales are one of those species of animals that are so intelligent, with such complex lives and societies, that they seem more like “non-human people” than animals. I feel the same way about elephants and (other) great apes. It just seems weird to “own” a being like that, as if it were a pet dog or cat. Captivity is the natural habitat of domesticated animals, but keeping cetaceans, elephants, and apes in captivity feels like it’s bordering on slavery.
Now, in the case of elephants and apes, they are endangered species. In the wild they are under constant threat of being killed by poachers. Maybe having some in captivity is necessary for their conservation. But in that case they should only be kept in the best conditions possible, with plenty of room to roam, plenty of activities to keep them from getting bored, and a good social group. If a facility can’t provide that, they shouldn’t have them.
I don’t see any benefit at all for keeping orcas in captivity. They’re not endangered as a species (though some populations are). Even if they were endangered, I don’t know of any captive orcas that have been bred in captivity being successfully released to the wild, so breeding them in captivity wouldn’t help with that anyway.
As for the educational aspect, SeaWorld educates people about orcas as well as Siegfried and Roy educations people about tigers, or Barnum and Bailey educates people about elephants. In other words, they don’t. If they teach people anything about these animals, it’s that it’s fun to teach them to do tricks for our entertainment. I don’t think that’s a good message to teach.
Modern humans are very cut off from the natural world, and I think one symptom of that is how we view dangerous wild animals. Like many top predators, such as wolves and bears, orcas were once seen as an evil animal. It’s where the name “killer whale” comes from. Then in the 1960’s people started capturing them live and found out they can be trained to do tricks. That changed people’s view of orcas from vicious predators to cute and cuddly and safe to pet and ride. It’s a type of black-and-white thinking. An animal has to be either good or evil. Wolves were evil, so we exterminated them, and now they’re all over t-shirts and posters and wall calendars. We exterminated grizzly bears, and then we have people like Timothy Treadwell wanting to pet them and give them cute names, until he gets eaten by one. Even though Roy of Siegfried and Roy was almost killed by one of his tigers, he still insists to this day that the tiger wasn’t really trying to hurt him. So which is it? Are these animals our friends or our enemies?
The truth is that wolves, bears, tigers, orcas, apes, and elephants are all powerful, dangerous animals. They are not pets. People shouldn’t be cuddling them and petting them and riding them and having them do tricks. But they’re also not evil demons who need to be exterminated. They should be respected for what they are and allowed to live their lives as naturally as is still possible in this human-dominated world. Sometimes I wonder if animals that are dangerous to humans have a place in this world anymore, or if they’re destined to only exist in zoos and go extinct in the wild. If (or when) that happens I think we’ll really lose something. These are animals that rival us, as top predators in the food chain, or as intelligent beings with complex societies, or both. They teach us that not all of nature can or should be controlled by humans.
Tilikum was taken away from his family as a small child and lived the rest of his life in a completely unnatural environment. Even after he murdered three humans, the humans kept using him in their shows, and used him as a stud to sire 21 children that would also be destined to live their short lives in concrete pools. In the wild, male orcas live to be about 60 years old, but Tilikum was about 35 when he died of drug-resistant pneumonia. He would have lived such a different life had he remained in the ocean where he belonged.
Maybe there is some sort of Orca Vallhalla, and Tilikum is there now, swimming freely with his ancestors with no more concrete walls in his way. I just hope one good thing comes from his life, and that it leads to an end to orcas in captivity.