Feb 13

Closing the Book on Orca Captivity?

The recent documentary film Blackfish brought the issue of killer whale captivity into the pubic consciousness like nothing has before. Hearing from whale trainers, former and current, and seeing the visual impact of captivity moved people to reevaluate how society treats orcas by keeping them in confinement for public performances.

Theatrical release poster

Theatrical release poster

The film illustrates the obvious conflict in keeping a highly intelligent and social creature that has evolved to cover long distances and deep water in a comparatively miniscule and solitary environment. The orcas in the film suffer from problems ranging from immediately visual and obvious such as dorsal fin collapse caused by limited movement, to less obvious behavioral and emotional distress from being kept isolated. Orcas are highly social animals that travel in pods ranging from 5 to 30 whales. No one knows precisely what harm is inflicted on whales enduring a life in a tank absent that social stimulation, but it is not a natural environment.

Tilikum, the orca that is the subject of the movie Blackfish, suffers from dorsal fin collapse and his behavior could be reasonably interpreted to suggest a level of emotional distress. He killed a trainer in 2010 and had reportedly been involved in the deaths of 2 others.  This could be a result of an isolated existence, it could be the relatively small surroundings in which he spends his life, or it could even be—as the filmmakers suggest — as sophisticated as resentment toward handlers who deliver or withhold food depending on his performance. The film asserts that there have been more attacks on trainers at SeaWorld than has been reported, behavior that could be attributed to life in a highly unnatural setting.

It’s not just SeaWorld.  Another Florida facility–the Miami Seaquarium–has had an orca at its site for more than four decades. “Lolita” as she’s been named, was captured in the Puget Sound before the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlawed the taking of whales. She was captured along with six other orcas in 1970 and shipped to Miami.

"Lolita" performing at the Miami Seaquarium

“Lolita” performing at the Miami Seaquarium

In the 44 years of her captivity, she’s been housed in a tank measuring just 80 feet by 35 feet and 20 feet deep. Lolita is 20 feet long and weighs approximately 7,000 lbs. Clearly, this is a very confined space offering limited mobility for an animal her size.

Animal welfare groups and activists have tried for years to force the USDA to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and require the Miami Seaquarium to provide a larger tank to no avail.

Now, there may be another remedy for Lolita. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has begun accepting comments on a proposal to protect her under the Endangered Species Act. The pod from which she was taken, in addition to the larger community (Southern Resident Killer Whale or SRKW) were granted Endangered Species Act protections in 2005. But at that time, NMFS explicitly excluded Lolita, or any other captive SRKW whales and their offspring, from that listing. Facing mounting pressure and changing views about captivity, they are revisiting that exclusion.

These are uncharted waters. If NMFS does grant ESA protections–what next? While the Endangered Species Coalition does support this listing, it isn’t immediately clear what the ideal next home for Lolita would be. Because she has been held in confinement for nearly her entire life (she was approximately 6 when she was captured 44 years ago), it isn’t at all definitive that she would be able to survive in the wild. She could be moved to what some are calling a “retirement seapen”. This would be an enclosure in ocean waters that is protected from predators or other unwanted interactions. She would be near her family and could potentially reunite with them. It’s been reported that her mother may still be alive.

The television show Dateline NBC brought a recording of her pod to her in her current facility and she appeared to at least acknowledge if not recognize the sounds. Could she remember her pod after 44 years well enough to reunite with them? It’s not known–in large part because whales aren’t generally separated from their pods for decades in the wild and there has been no reason to conduct similar research.

If granted protections under the Endangered Species Act she would likely not remain in her current facility. The Act does allow for possession of listed species under some circumstances but captivity for the purpose of performances is not one of them. It’s unlikely her owners would bear the cost of caring for her without having the ability to sell tickets to see her perform tricks–something that Act certainly does not allow.

The NMFS, however, has indicated that this listing would not guarantee her removal from the Miami Seaquarium. It has said that requiring a “Section 10 permit” (an authorization agreement that oversees what might otherwise be a violation of the Act) is not in its view necessary and that the continued confinement alone would not be a violation of the Act. Whether the negative effects of that confinement or the likely continued public performances would in their eyes be a violation isn’t clear.  In supporting the listing, the Endangered Species Coalition is also asking that a Section 10 permit be required if she is to remain in the Miami Seaquarium.

Southern Resident Killer Whales image credit NOAA

Southern Resident Killer Whales image credit NOAA

None of this would be an issue if she hadn’t been taken from her pod–an activity which would today be illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is worth considering whether captive-bred whales that are held in similarly small confinements should be somehow protected as well. We know, or can surmise from Tilikum’s outward appearances and manifestations, that captivity as we know it has a negative effect on these individual animals. Is it worth exacting that price in order for there to be what the aquarium industry refers to as “ambassador animals”? The industry argues that they support conservation and that they introduce people to species and “raise awareness”. That is often the case. But it is of little consequence to animals like Tilikum or Lolita that endure, if not suffer, in unnatural environments in order for this awareness-raising to occur. And in the case of Tilikum, that suffering extended to his human trainer.

You can take action in support of this listing by signing our petition to NMFS asking that they protect Lolita under the Endangered Species Act and taking actions that support orcas..


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