The Harmful Effects of Captivity on Orcas

A new research paper shows they can't thrive in artificial concrete tanks.

Posted Jun 26, 2019

     “The scientific evidence has been building over the years showing that orcas have poor well-being in concrete tanks because of the mismatch between their adaptations and life in these facilities. We’ve brought together expertise in both marine mammal and human clinical science to articulate a reasonable empirically-based model relating captivity to chronic stress and increased morbidity and mortality in orcas. Increased access to veterinary records would allow this model to be more directly tested for this species...Intelligence, i.e. cognitive complexity, can be a liability – not a buffer – for attempting to cope with life in artificial barren settings.”  —Lori Marino, The Whale Sanctuary Project (media release)

Orcas are majestic, intelligent, and emotional beings with one of the largest mammalian brains. In the wild these cetaceans are wide-ranging and deep-diving, and as of today 63 individuals are being held captive in artificial concrete tanks in which they cannot thrive. Captive orcas show many abnormal behaviors and often die early in life from infections that are not explainable in a captive situation. For many years I've been keenly interested in the well-being of various cetaceans and other nonhuman animals (animals) who are kept in cages. And now, a new comprehensively  researched essay by Dr. Lori Marino and a host of stellar co-authors called "The Harmful Effects of Captivity and Chronic Stress on the Well-being of Orcas (Orcinus orca)," has just been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Veterinary Behavior. In the paper, the researchers show "orcas are poor candidates for maintenance in captivity." This essay truly has a voice of authority. The reference section is encyclopedic and the authors are a collection of marine mammal researchers, veterinarians, and physicians all of whom have applied well-accepted scientific models of chronic stress in humans and other animals to numerous lines of evidence for poor well-being of orcas living in concrete tanks. After reviewing a substantial amount of literature, they conclude that a radical shift is required in the way in which orcas are treated in order to meet their complex social, cognitive, and emotional needs.

 Leon7
Wild-caught Corky performs a highly unnatural behavior as she beaches herself on a concrete platform
Source: Leon7

I wanted to know more about this landmark fact-filled essay so I was thrilled that Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, was able to answer a few questions about it. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you and your co-authors write "The Harmful Effects of Captivity and Chronic Stress on the Well-being of Orcas (Orcinus orca)"?

We wrote this paper to bring together the entire corpus of current scientific information on the well-being of orcas in marine parks.  And we wanted to organize and interpret the scientific findings on the poor welfare, high morbidity and high mortality in captive orcas according to known models of how stress affects physiological and psychological health in all mammals.

I knew that in order to accomplish this it was important to bring together a range of expertise. Some of the authors of the paper (Naomi Rose, Ingrid Visser) are marine mammal biologists, Heather Rally is a veterinarian, and two (Hope Ferdowsian and Veronica Slootsky) are physicians who deal with physical and psychological trauma in humans. Our paper is a unique collaborative effort and I think it makes our conclusions powerful. It was rewarding to work with so many of my colleagues who are at the top of their fields.

How does it follow up on your and their interests?

All of the authors are working in areas that concern well-being in other animals and humans. Each of us has worked for many years in various settings to alleviate stress and improve well-being in humans and other animals. All of us feel a responsibility to employ the science to help in these areas.  

Specifically, we’ve known for a long time that orcas do poorly in marine parks and aquariums. That is not new. But it is important to document the empirical evidence and bring it together to see if it makes for a coherent picture in terms of known biological mechanisms and it does.

Who is your intended audience?

We published our paper in a veterinary journal, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, because we wanted to reach the wider veterinary community and send the message that our understanding of captive cetacean welfare can be deepened by placing it in a comparative medical context along with welfare science for other captive wild animals, as well as traumatized and confined humans. The issues are all similar.

Of course we hope this paper can serve as a source of objective information for individuals who are advocating on behalf of cetaceans in captivity. 

And we hope our colleagues in the marine mammal park and aquarium community acknowledge and use these findings to improve welfare for captive orcas and even re-evaluate whether they can provide the kind of environment orcas need to thrive. This paper indicates that they cannot.

What are some your major messages? 

Some might think that intelligence in orcas and other cetaceans is a buffer for the stresses of living and performing in concrete tanks. One might see cognitive complexity as a foundation for successful coping under these circumstances. But the findings show just the opposite. Orcas and other cetaceans are actually more vulnerable to stress in entertainment parks because of their cognitive complexity.  Cognitive complexity means that one’s needs are also complex and those needs are impossible to meet in such artificial settings. Chronic boredom is one of the most potent causes of chronic stress and ill-health. Because of their intellectual and emotional capacities, cetaceans are highly susceptible to the adverse effects of chronic boredom in captivity.

Ingrid Visser
Sole orca Kiska at Marineland Canada; shows extensive tooth damage from grating her teeth on metal components of her tank
Source: Ingrid Visser

Proponents of keeping orcas in marine parks claim that because all of their “needs” are met – they need not travel to find food because it is given to them, eliminating the “worry” and the “risks” associated with a free-ranging lifestyle – that they are better off than free-ranging orcas. But this is a deep mischaracterization of who orcas are. These animals evolved over millions of years to travel far and wide and to meet the challenges of finding food and avoiding risks. When they are not allowed to do this in marine parks they suffer for it. They are adapted to the kinds of stressors found in a natural setting.  They are completely maladapted, physiologically and psychologically, to deal with the kinds of stressors they meet in marine parks.

Why is it crucial that people other than researchers know about the plight of captivity on captive orcas? How did the documentary Blackfish help to raise awareness? 

It is important that if people want to advocate on behalf of captive cetaceans, the most effective way to do that is by using the actual evidence for poor welfare.  We hope this paper serves as a good source of objective, peer-reviewed information for the public as well as researchers.

Blackfish was a milestone because it opened the eyes of the public to the behind-the-scenes treatment of orcas by SeaWorld. It made a tremendous difference in terms of how the public views the keeping of these animals in concrete tanks for performances.

But it is important to keep up the effort and not rely on any one event or factor to make change. 

Are you hopeful things will change for the better for these amazing sentient beings?

I’m not sure I know what “hopeful” means. To me it is more important to keep supporting actions that move in the right direction and phasing out practices that we know are bad. One example of the first is the recent passage of Canadian Bill S-203, which outlaws the keeping of cetaceans in parks and aquariums for display and entertainment. It also outlaws breeding so it has essentially brought an eventual end to cetacean captivity in Canada. This progressive law is grounded in the welfare science of captive cetaceans.

Free Morgan Foundation
Orca Morgan (highlighted) performs for an audience at Loro Parque in Spain
Source: Free Morgan Foundation

And recently our team at the Whale Sanctuary Project went to Russia to discuss the Russian “whale jail” situation where 87 wild-caught belugas and 10 orcas are being held in small pens originally for sale to Chinese marine parks. Now, in an historic move, Russia is returning those whales to their original waters with some of the recommendations for rehab and release we provided and they have said they will put an end to catching whales in the ocean for display purposes.  We hope they follow through.

So, there are many positive things happening. But we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of our treatment of cetaceans, as well as other animals.

What are some of your current projects?

I am the President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and, as such, we are planning to create a permanent seaside sanctuary for orcas and belugas “retired” from entertainment parks.  For the past two years our team has been heavily engaged in visiting potential sites in Nova Scotia, Washington state and British Columbia and this has been very time-consuming but also rewarding in many ways.

I am also working to promote scholar-advocacy through the Kimmela Center and I am coming to the end of a series of papers my co-authors and I have published on farmed animal cognition and complexity for The Someone Project – a joint Kimmela and Farm Sanctuary effort.

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This paper should be required reading for all people who work with captive cetaceans (and other animals) and would be an excellent choice for many different courses on animal-human interactions. I couldn't agree more with Marino's conclusion after analyzing a wealth of available data:

     "We have provided evidence for the argument that the morbidity and mortality of orcas in captive facilities may be attributable to acute, severe, or chronic stress and its association with immune dysfunction, disease, and disorder. Access to veterinary and necropsy records, as well as biological samples from captive orcas, would add considerably to our ability to assess the strength of this hypothesis. Given this evidence, the ethical ramifications of keeping orcas in captivity should be critically evaluated by society and regulators, and the industry should adapt accordingly."

We can and must do better for captive cetaceans and all other captive animals, and we are obliged to do so. 

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