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Killer Whales Trained as Performers Suffer Psychologically

A new essay shows confined trained orcas display heightened aggression

Orcas display "pranks, tests of trust, limited use of tactical deception, emotional self-control, and empathetic behaviors"

A new essay by Robert Anderson, Robyn Waayers, and Andrew Knight called "Orca Behavior and Subsequent Aggression Associated with Oceanarium Confinement" is consistent with the findings I reported in an earlier essay titled "Captive Whales Deeply Suffer Psychologically, Experts Agree" (please also see "Captivity Drives Killer Whales Crazy"). This new essay is also consistent with the studies reported in "Do Orcas Go Crazy Because of Petting Pools and False Hopes?" and is available online, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

Simple Summary:

Orca behaviors interacting with humans within apparent friendship bonds are reviewed, and some impediments to the human evaluation of delphinium intelligence are discussed. The subsequent involvement of these orcas and their offspring in aggressive incidents with humans is also documented and examined. This is particularly relevant given that the highest recorded rates of aggressive incidents have occurred among orcas who had previously established unstructured human friendship bonds prior to their inclusion within oceanaria performances. It is concluded that the confinement of orcas within aquaria, and their use in entertainment programs, is morally indefensible, given their high intelligence, complex behaviors, and the apparent adverse effects on orcas of such confinement and use.


Based on neuroanatomical indices such as brain size and encephalization quotient, orcas are among the most intelligent animals on Earth. They display a range of complex behaviors indicative of social intelligence, but these are difficult to study in the open ocean where protective laws may apply, or in captivity, where access is constrained for commercial and safety reasons. From 1979 to 1980, however, we were able to interact with juvenile orcas in an unstructured way at San Diego’s SeaWorld facility. We observed in the animals what appeared to be pranks, tests of trust, limited use of tactical deception, emotional self-control, and empathetic behaviors. Our observations were consistent with those of a former SeaWorld trainer, and provide important insights into orca cognition, communication, and social intelligence. However, after being trained as performers within SeaWorld’s commercial entertainment program, a number of orcas began to exhibit aggressive behaviors. The orcas who previously established apparent friendships with humans were most affected, although significant aggression also occurred in some of their descendants, and among the orcas they lived with. Such oceanaria confinement and commercial use can no longer be considered ethically defensible, given the current understanding of orcas’ advanced cognitive, social, and communicative capacities, and of their behavioral needs.

The authors also note, "As of this writing in May 2016 and since their founding in 1964, SeaWorld has owned 65 orcas of whom 29 (45%) have been involved in one or more published aggressive incidents."

It should be impossible to ignore the results of this new analysis along with what we already know about the effects of confinement on the emotional lives of orcas and other animals. Simply put, captivity drives orcas crazy and as a result they suffer from deep and enduring psychological problems.

Along these lines, the authors of this latest essay conclude, "Given these insights, we can no longer ethically continue to treat these remarkable creatures as we have done. Instead, a fundamental refocusing of our relationships with orcas is warranted, in favor of a new era characterized by mutual friendship, understanding, and much greater appreciation of these remarkable creatures than has been the case to date." I couldn't agree more.

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: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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