If you live in the UK or US you’re running out of excuses not to watch the documentary Blackfish. It’s had a cinematic release and been shown on the BBC, as well as being available on iTunes.

For the uninitiated, Blackfish is the story of an orca who recently killed its trainer at SeaWorld. As a result, SeaWorld trainers were prohibited from entering the water with the animals.

When I’m not slaving away over a hot computer screen and working on my next paper, I am a bit of a film geek. In fact I wrote the first draft of this post before heading to my monthly film pub quiz (we lost). Blackfish is a truly brilliant documentary. It takes you an emotional journey, is beautifully structured, and paints the orca, Tilikum, as a flawed, sympathetic character. I love it as a film.

But we’re scientists! Let’s take a critical look at the concept of keeping orcas in captivity. As I have access to scientific papers, I decided to do a short review of the literature. When talking about science I think it’s important to cite your sources (and no doubt I’ll say this many times in future) so I will link to papers. Unfortunately some of them, if not most, will be behind a paywall.

I wrote this post over a number of days, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive literature search. This is the kind of literature search I’d do if someone asked me what I thought of orcas in captivity.

So what did I find out?

The first thing I’ll say is that SeaWorld publish papers. If you want to know how hormones affect the female orca’s reproductive cycle, you ask SeaWorld.

Parsons (2012) has written a commentary on the case of Tilikum, and it is a free paper. Parsons discusses a series of incidents, captive orcas attacking humans and captive orcas attacking each other. In both types of attack fatalities have occurred. Parsons notes at the end that SeaWorld is allowed to keep these animals on display because of the ‘education and conservation benefits of the exhibits’.

The educational benefit of keeping orcas on display is difficult to quantify. To my knowledge, no one has assessed learning from SeaWorld visits. However, marine mammal displays feature heavily in tourism research. Hughes (2001) explains that by participating in marine mammal tourism, consumers are passively commenting on the value of that. He also notes, using the Moray Firth dolphins in Scotland as a case study, that specific forms of tourism reflect cultural values.  In the UK at least, the campaign for animal rights (and the education inherent in that), has almost eliminated captive dolphin tourism in the UK.

However, Hughes does also say that

“…animals are more often objects than subjects in tourism. That is, they are more usually manipulated than recognised as purposive agents or actors in their own right. As such they could best be described as having instrumental rather than intrinsic value within tourism processes; they are recognised for the value which they provide for people rather than that which they might possess for their own sake”

He also points out that as ethical as the Brits are in their wild dolphin tourism at home, they readily visit marine parks like SeaWorld when they go abroad. I certainly did when I was in Canada over a decade ago.

So when people do participate in captive marine mammal tourism, what do they get out of it? Curtin and Wilkes (2007) interviewed people who had previously chosen to swim with captive dolphins. They were surprised to find that tourists, especially female tourists, were disappointed with their experience. They were particularly surprised by this because they expected the tourists to selectively recall the best bits of their experience. Prior to swimming with the dolphins, people wanted to feel like they were making a real connection with the animals, swimming free with them. Instead the interviews revealed:

“…two main strands of dissonance: first of all, experiences did not meet prior expectations of a natural, ‘one-to-one’, meaningful interaction,  and second, the strong desire to swim with dolphins versus the question of large marine mammals being held in captivity”

Even people who really want to swim with dolphins struggle to come to terms with the dolphins in captivity and feel the experience lacks in value.

One film helped orcas to capture the imaginations of a generation, and no doubt contributed to the huge market surrounding marine mammal tourism, despite its ecological message. Free Willy is another great film. In fact I happened to catch it a few years ago as I was ostensibly on the way out the door. I ended up blubbing so much I had to redo my makeup. (We don’t tend to put these kinds of anecdotes in literature reviews but I defy you to watch that film without have a little sniffle)

You may remember Keiko, the star of the film, was released into the wild after a long campaign that was actually supported by Warner Brothers. (Cultural shifts are certainly motivated by emotive films). Simon et al (2009) documented Keiko’s release and it’s not cheerful reading.

Keiko was captured when he was 2 years old, in 1979. When he was 8 he was sold to a small amusement park in Mexico City and kept there with no other orca company. But in 1996 the plan to release him to the wild came to fruition. He was trained and brought to a seawater pen. He was ‘released’ but did not thrive and so was given free access to a sea water pen until his death in 2003. (Incidentally, open seawater facilities where there is some contact with the outside world has been shown to promote natural behaviour patterns and lower stress levels in captive dolphins compared to artificial marinas. If you must have captive dolphins and force human interactions on them, sea pens are better – Ugaz et al 13)

Keiko was very well studied. While he was being released he was fitted with a Very High Frequency radio transmitter and a satellite-linked time-depth recorder. The researchers knew where he would be and his dive profile. They also looked at genetic material from Keiko and other orcas in the release area to ensure there were related orcas swimming in the area nearby.

I have worked in wildlife rehabilitation and when it goes right it is a wonderfully rewarding job. Unfortunately it is incredibly difficult. For a release to be considered successful the animal needs to be able to survive on its own. Keiko did not survive on his own. He did not show normal orca behaviours, he did not mix with other orca groups (one pod was found to ‘tolerate’ Keiko’s presence which might have been the saddest sentence I read in this literature review). Keiko continually approached and vocalised to boats, including the research boat. Keiko was in some ways doomed to fail, his behaviours so altered by his long captivity and early capture.

So would it not have been better to keep Keiko in captivity, in a better marina? In 2010 a young female orca who was very thin and alone washed up in Dutch waters. Orcas do not usually venture in these seas and the case attracted some attention. She was dubbed Morgan. A rescue effort helped brought her to a ‘Dolfinarium’ to gain weight.

Now the Dutch are very good with their animal welfare. They even have a political party which supports animal rights. But the authorities chose not to release Morgan after she recovered. Instead they sold her to Loro Parque. Trouwborst et al (2013) discussed this incident from a legal perspective. The argument for transport went thusly: Morgan would not survive unless returned to her pod, and they couldn’t figure out which pod was definitely hers, so it was better to keep her in captivity.

The paper is a particularly dry read, but comes up with this rather interesting conclusion:

“In the meantime, the Morgan situation remains highly unsatisfactory: the capture and captivity of the animal is not only patently problematic in the light of the Dutch commitments under ASCOBANS, but also troublesome from the perspective of the Bern Convention and Habitats Directive. Indeed, the preceding evaluation provokes the inescapable conclusion that the capture and keeping of the killer whale may have been compatible with national obligations under these instruments – provided that clear efforts were made to return the animal to sea, even if its prospects of long-term survival were not deemed especially promising. Ultimately, this appears to be the strongest legal obligation which can be identified in the matter of Morgan.”

In essence, she should only have been captured if they fully intended to release her again, regardless of the final outcome.

In conclusion – the keeping of marine mammals in captivity is plagued with problems. Even with all the money Warner Brothers could throw at Keiko, and all the political power in the Dutch animal welfare movement, both Keiko and Morgan did not have happy endings. That’s not a conservation success story. We don’t have stories of successfully released orcas. But yet we continue to keep them.

We keep orcas because we want to see them. We have written laws to allow us to do so.  There’s a reason most of the literature I found comes from the study of tourism.

So as a culture we need to think about what we want to use as our entertainment. Personally, I don’t believe orcas should be held captive. They are too complex, too big, and too long lived. And if they should be kept, we should work harder at enriching their environments. SeaWorld themselves have discussed the difficulty of enriching marine mammal enclosures.

So what do we as a culture think about this? Do we produce art? Do we discuss the issue? Do we worry about it? Do we tweetstorm?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to ever see another orca in captivity.

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