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Captivity Drives Killer Whales Crazy: SeaWorld Fights Fines For Placing Profit Over Safety

Attacks by orcas on humans are caused by the stress of captive living

Why do killer whales (orcas) in captivity kill humans, whereas this doesn't happen in the wild? Federal hearings on the safety of keeping killer whales in captivity began this week, convened by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the aftermath of two fatal attacks on trainers at SeaWorld. SeaWorld is fighting a $75,000 fine for safety violations including a "willful violation", meaning they showed "plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety and health." OSHA issued citations to SeaWorld for placing profit above employee safety.

The safety and well-being of the whales is not on the agenda but safety for humans and the stress endured by captive whales are not really separable. Former SeaWorld trainer Jeff Ventre, who knows killer whales well, notes that fatal attacks "are manifestations of stress, even madness, in animals forced into miserable, unnatural conditions." Not only do these amazing sentient beings suffer major psychological trauma but they also typically have broken teeth because they bite on the steel gates that are used to separate them and suffer from dorsal fin collapse from endlessly swimming in circles. Wild killer whales normally swim upwards of 100 miles a day in straight lines and dorsal fin collapse is very rare among wild orcas. Of course, SeaWorld claims dorsal fin collapse isn't a sign of poor health or well-being. 

Killer whales are not the only nonhuman animals who suffer emotionally in captivity. Research by Dr. Hope Ferdowsian and her colleagues has clearly shown that captive chimpanzees display behavior patterns similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The same goes for elephants abused in circuses where they are treated incredibly harshly (egregiously and inhumanely "broken") so they will perform unnatural tricks and for those kept in tiny cages in zoos absent social companions and a physical environment where they can do the things their wild relatives routinely do. I'm sure when similar research is conducted on other animals we'll discover the same trends. It's not all that surprising that captive animals show severe signs of stress and depression given how their lives are severely compromised. Indeed, exploited wild elephants also show signs of trauma and depression.

In the case of the killer whales these data are particularly important because they are used in moneymaking shows in which they are forced to perform stupid and unnatural acts. It's a lose-lose situation for these magnificent animals and they shouldn't be blamed for their behavior for these attacks are avoidable tragedies. Furthermore, the captive breeding of orcas should cease by these profit-motivated "whale mills"

Please contact SeaWorld and let them know how you feel about their safety violations and also their keeping killer whales in horrific conditions for their own benefit without caring for the well-being of the whales.

For a comprehensive report on why orcas should not be kept in captivity please click here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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