Orca’s in Captivity

Orcas (Orcinus orca) are also commonly referred to as killer whales. However despite this name Orcas actually belong to the dolphin family and are in fact the largest species of dolphin. Sometimes called the ‘wolf of the sea’ because their predatory behavior is similar to that of wolves i.e. they are intelligent pack hunters. They are found in all the world’s oceans, living in waters ranging from tropical to arctic, and both coastal and deep oceanic waters. Orcas sometimes enter estuaries, but never venture far from the sea.


Since the early 1960’s Orcas have been targeted and captured for display in theme parks around the world. The plight of captive Orca’s first caught main stream attention in 1993 following the release of Hollywood blockbuster Free Willy.  However this family classic failed to show in any real depth the true suffering of captive Orca’s and the cruelty of their capture from the wild. This changed in 2013 with the release of Gabriela Cowperthwiate’s hard hitting warts and all documentary Black Fish. While a must see for all those with an active interest in animal welfare, Black fish is both equal parts compelling and distressing viewing. From the opening scene, a recording of the 911 call placed following the fatal incident involving Orca trainer Dawn Brancheau and SeaWorld’s largest Killer Whale Tilikum during a live show, this documentary sets out to showcase how incompatible with captivity these highly intelligent creatures are.

The in depth description of the Puget Sound capture in 1970, as told by one those involved, is some of the hardest viewing I have ever experienced. The capture involved the taking of three infant calves from their mothers, the distress of the animals described by the captors is heart wrenching and stomach turning in equal measure and the grief and remorse expressed by those involved does little to address this feeling. The capture resulted in the death of a number of the adult females as they got tangled and drowned in nets while desperately trying to save their young. The incident was a turning point for the capture of wild Orca’s in US waters with a ban enacted.


However this did not stop the parks, who simply moved their capture operations further afield – mostly to Iceland. Enter Tilikum a 2 year old Orca bull calf captured from the wild, in the cold Atlantic waters off the coast of Iceland in 1983. The documentary focuses on Tilikum’s early life and his awful treatment at Sealand of the Pacific where he is confined to a tiny windowless box, with incompatible female tank mates who dominate and inflict injury on the young Orca as well as being deprived of food in order to be coerced in to performing tricks at the dilapidated park. His treatment in these early years of his capture goes along way to explaining his later outbursts and acts of aggression which ultimately lead to the death of three people, and highlight the clear impact of captivity on the mental as well as physical well being of these majestic creatures.


SeaWorld announced this week that the now 35 year old Tilikum is gravely and terminally ill; he will no doubt become the latest captive Orca to die prematurely and could have been expected to live up to 60 years in the wild. Other than 2 short years spent in wild he has spent his life confined to small pools performing mindless tricks for food, as far removed from his natural habitat as could be imagined. Since the death of Dawn Brancheau, Tilikum has spent the majority of his day isolated and alone in a separate pool at SeaWorld, held only to provide the big splash at the end of shows and for artificial breading purposes. The closing shots of Blackfish, some of the most poignant in the film show Tilikum, the largest Orca in captivity floating aimlessly and alone in his tiny closed off pool, his dorsal fin collapsed – this happens to most captive Orcas but is an extremely rare occurrence in the wild, the majesty of this incredible creature is completely stripped from him and watching the camera pan out it is hard to feel anything other than heartbreak and disgust. For all our advancement over the past 60 years have we really not evolved beyond capturing and torturing animals for our own amusement? Orcas are not endangered they do not need to be held in captivity , they are solely condemned to the misery they endure  for a few cheap thrills and a tidy profit for Theme Park owners. Do you really believe SeaWorld care for Orcas? Did you know that of each $75 ticket they donate a mere 5c to Orca conservation?


Do not allow Tilikum’s greatest legacy to be those big splashes, three avoidable deaths or the 21 calves (with only 10 still living) that he has artificially sired to produce more captive Orcas for other parks. Let his legacy be blackfish and everything that documentary aims to achieve, let his legacy be to #EmptytheTanks and #FreeCaptiveOrcas, This species is too large, too active, too intelligent and too socially complex to be held in captivity, weather captured wild or bread in a tank this is cruel and degrading in the extreme, for an animal that possess an intellect that may surpass even our own. Hopefully blackfish succeeds in its mission, Tilikum remains a symbol of the plight of captive Orcas and in 20 or 30 years time we are able to look back with distain on parks like SeaWorld long after they have closed. We ask you to support sites like SeaWorldofHurt, who are doing amazing work in exposing the truth about Orca’s in captivity.

We have started our own petition here, aimed at having Loro Parque removed as Europe’s top rated zoo on Trip Advisor, due to their practice of keeping killer whales for aquatic shows, in conditions similar to SeaWorld. Loro Parque have recently added another Orca to their collection #Morgan, rescued from the wild in the Netherlands but sold to Loro Parque instead of being re-released – like Tillikum her wild DNA will be useful to her captors for breeding purposes. Don’t let history repeat itself. Don’t let another wild born Orca rot in concrete pool. Don’t let Tillikum die in vain.


Sign our petition and hit Loro Parque in the only place that will truly hurt them and any other park like them – their pocket.


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