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Ethics and Morality

Captive Killer Whales Die Much Younger than Wild Orcas

A new study shows captive killer whales don't live as long as wild relatives

The award-winning documentary "Blackfish" clearly showed that captive killer whales (orcas) live horrific lives. They are routinely mistreated, forced to breed, and forced to perform stupid and unnatural tricks all in the name of money (see for example, "Why SeaWorld Can’t Float: Censorship and Business Ethics" and references therein).

Often those who profit from keeping orcas and other cetaceans locked up in water zoos claim that the animals have a better life than they would in the wild because they're fed, housed, given veterinary care, and loved by trainers and others who control their lives. Of course, this is hardly the case. And now, new data from a study published by John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre called "Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival" in the journal Marine Mammal Science show that captive orcas live far shorter lives than their wild relatives. The abstract to this significant study reads:

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) were first placed into captivity in 1961 and are now found in theme parks around the world. Despite successful breeding of captive killer whales since 1985 there is growing concern for their welfare in captivity, which often includes claims of poor survival. We employed Kaplan-Meier and Cox Proportional hazards models and annual survival rate analyses on 201 captive killer whales to discern how sex, facility (U.S. vs. foreign), captive-born vs. wild-captured, pre- vs. post-1 January 1985, and animal age upon entering captivity affect survival. Overall median survival estimate was 6.1 yr, with no difference between male and female survival. Killer whales in U.S. facilities (12.0 yr) demonstrated a significantly higher median survival than those in foreign facilities (4.4 yr), as did whales entering captivity post-1 January 1985 (11.8 yr) vs. those entering prior to 1 January 1985 (3.9 yr). Median survival for captive-born (14.1 yr) was significantly higher than wild-captured killer whales (5.5 yr), though the two failed to differ among the post-1 January 1985 cohort. Facility location and pre- vs. post-1 January 1985 were predictors of the hazard rate. Survival of captive killer whale cohorts has generally improved through time, although survival to age milestones are poor when compared to wild killer whales.

Roberta Kwok nicely summarizes this study in the magazine Conservation in an essay called "HOW LONG DO CAPTIVE KILLER WHALES SURVIVE?" (see also). Ms. Kwok writes, "...whales in non-U.S. facilities had a “61% higher chance of death on any given day than for those held in U.S. facilities..." And, "Although captive whale survival has risen over the years, these animals still lag their wild counterparts considerably. The authors [John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre} note that 62 to 81 percent of wild female killer whales live at least 15 years. In contrast, only 27 percent of the now-dead females in the captive study survived that long. Roughly half of the still-living captive female whales are at least 15 years old."

I found the results of this study to be extremely interesting and important and they support the fact that captive orcas are not better off than their wild relatives because they supposedly get better care.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (; @MarcBekoff)


Jett, J. and J. Ventre. 2015. Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival. Marine Mammal Science doi: 10.1111/mms.12225.

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