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For Captive Orcas, Freedom Or Banishment?

I will never be a vegetarian (let alone vegan), and I hardly fit anybody’s definition of an animal rights activist.

Yet to paraphrase a certain former president, I consider myself a compassionate conservationist, one who has a particular affinity for the ocean and its inhabitants. I also want to be open to new ways of thinking about the world around me. Lately I have been thinking of orcas, better known as “killer whales,” and what a compassionate conservationist should do if an orca ever came into his custody.

A lot of people seem to think the compassionate thing to do with a six-ton animal that has spent most of its life in the care of humans is to “rehabilitate” it - essentially by trying to teach it to behave like a wild whale - and then return it to the open ocean. Some stop just short of this, advocating retirement to a life in “sea pens” where the whale would have a chance to encounter other members of its species, but would have a safe place to return for human contact. Think of a halfway house for very large parolees.

Cetacean-libbers see this as a straightforward matter of right and wrong. If it is wrong to capture a wild whale, separate it from its family, keep it in a tank and force it to perform for the entertainment of humans, it must therefore be right to advocate the whale’s return to its natural, and presumably happier, state. It makes all of us feel good to do the right thing. Liberating a whale feels right and therefore leads to happiness - for people.

But is it the right thing to do from the vantage point of the whale?

The question clearly calls for calm and careful consideration. If it is wrong to capture and confine a wild whale in the first place, then the last thing we should do is compound the injustice by mistreating the animal, either in captivity or by the act of releasing it and thus forcing the whale, once again, to adapt to now-foreign surroundings. I will return shortly to the question of whether the best thing to do with a captive whale is to release it. First, however, let’s take a look at the mob mentality that is giving this proposition its currency.

Though I typically refrain from blaming Hollywood for the things we choose to do or not to do, the simple fact is that the free-the-whales movement is largely the product of two well-known films that were released 20 years apart. “Free Willy,” one of the hit movies of 1993, told the fictional story of a theme-park orca that leaps to freedom over a seawall and swims off happily into the sunset. “Blackfish,” a documentary released earlier this year, recounts the true, if debatably accurate, tale of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld’s Orlando park who killed a trainer during a 2010 performance and has been involved in two other human deaths since being captured as a calf in 1983.

“Blackfish” helped inspire a petition drive on Change.org calling for SeaWorld to “humanely release the Orca whale known as Tilikum to a seapen for rehab.” The petition drive, in turn, has apparently persuaded some high-profile entertainers to avoid association with SeaWorld. This week country music artists Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride canceled a scheduled February appearance at the Orlando park, following similar cancellations by Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson and Heart.

In a classic Hollywood ending, Tilikum, like Willy, would live happily ever after. But the reality of life for a free-swimming orca - as much as we know of it, anyway - is much more complicated. If Tilikum’s online friends took the time to consider the matter, they might come to a different conclusion about what is in his best interests.

Orcas, like most whales and dolphins, are highly social creatures, and they may be the most intelligent of all marine mammals. In fact, orcas are considered to have a “culture.” Various orca groups have unique languages - collections of sounds that are common to the group but unknown to other groups - as well as different food preferences and hunting techniques. Orcas have been observed learning from one another and engaging in specific acts of instructing their young, such as mother whales teaching calves to climb onto ice floes and beaches in search of prey while standing by to retrieve them if they get stuck. Though orcas are widely distributed among the world’s oceans, their distinct groups seldom interact and hardly ever interbreed, according to genetic studies.

Even on our own West Coast, orcas tend to live in segregated communities. The “southern resident” population lives in the Puget Sound region and dines mainly on small fish. The “transient” population ranges from California to British Columbia, overlapping the southern resident group, but feeds on seals and sea lions. Further offshore, a third group of whales tends to attack large fish and marine mammals such as sharks, dolphins and other whale species; this group has little to do with either of the inshore clans. Back on the coast, the residents are much more vocal than the transients, which speak a different dialect.

Scientists are not even certain whether the global orca population consists of multiple species, or a single species with various subspecies and sub-subspecies or “races.” Against this backdrop, the odds seem stacked against a strange whale that has lived among humans finding a place in the wild orcas’ social order. And so it proved with Keiko, the orca that starred in Free Willy.

Keiko actually was set free. It took more than five years and $20 million, much of it provided by tech billionaire Craig McCaw. Keiko was transferred from his decrepit home at a Mexican marine park to a rehab facility in Oregon. After several years of intensive care, during which he gained a ton of weight (literally, unlike yours truly after Thanksgiving), he was flown to a transitional pen near his home waters off Iceland, where he had been captured in 1979. When the dot-com crash cut off McCaw’s financial support, the cash-strapped Humane Society took a “tough love” approach to prod Keiko back to the wild. It seemed to work, as one day in 2002, he swam off.

But not for long. A month later, Keiko turned up - alone - in a Norwegian fjord, where he befriended a group of Norwegian fishermen. He sought human contact, giving rides on his back to local children, and dined on handouts to supplement whatever he caught on his own. In his second winter of “freedom,” Keiko died of pneumonia. He was believed to be 27 years old.

I am hesitant to try to get inside the mind of a whale, but it seems clear and unsurprising that Keiko found it easier to relate to humans than to his own species. He had a choice, and he made it.

If we truly want to be compassionate and respectful to whales and dolphins, it seems to me that the first step would be to ban live capture and sale of wild animals. Knowing what we know today of the animals’ intelligence and social structure, this commercial harvest strikes me as little different from the slave trade within our own species in centuries past. Each newly taken animal adds to the problem of what to do with the captive population. Last summer, to its credit, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales that were captured in Russian waters. The aquarium is appealing.

We could set higher standards for the care and feeding of captive marine mammals. By almost any benchmark, the SeaWorld parks are likely to rank among the best of their type, though we might want to set new benchmarks for the size of habitats relative to that of their occupants, or for other measures of care. With ownership of any creature comes a responsibility of stewardship. That is the basis for every animal cruelty statute on the books. In the end, however, the parks most in need of improvement are likely to be far worse than SeaWorld and mostly far beyond the reach of American law.

Appropriate standards should recognize what we have learned about marine creatures’ family groupings. It might be right and fair to restrict the separation of family groups, or at least to require that some of the mammals be transferred together rather than as isolated individuals.

Perhaps someday we will know much more about whether a captive whale can adjust to life in the open sea. In the meantime, however, let’s be realistic. It costs a lot of money to maintain even a single whale, especially in humane conditions. The people who care for animals at SeaWorld and similar parks work in such places, for the most part, because they care about animals and want to study and work with them.

Theme parks are not perfect, but the best ones are not hotbeds of animal cruelty. They are just the easiest and most visible targets for public pressure and activism. I see little point in boycotting SeaWorld. I see nothing inherently cruel in training intelligent mammals to perform for an audience - after all, every intelligent creature needs something to do to prevent boredom from setting in. I don’t know enough about whale psychology to know why Tilikum killed his trainer, but I know SeaWorld’s critics don’t know enough to be certain either.

Even if we now believe it is wrong to capture wild whales, it is not automatically right to evict our captive population from the only homes they now have. What appears to be freedom from one angle looks a lot like banishment from another.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. We welcome additional perspectives in our comments section as long as they are on topic, civil in tone and signed with the writer's full name. All comments will be reviewed by our moderator prior to publication.

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3 Responses to "For Captive Orcas, Freedom Or Banishment?"

  • Taylor Smith
    December 20, 2013 - 1:45 pm

    orcas are one of the most beautiful animals in the world. no one should try to hurt them. i also hate that people in i dont know where are killing hundreds of pilot whales for blubber they should not be doing that to these poor animals. would you like to get slaughtered in the neck? i didnt think so.

  • C Wesch
    December 21, 2013 - 6:08 pm

    We surprisingly agree on quite a bit, me being a cetacean-libber. Have you watched Blackfish? If not, be sure you do. It is very informative and completes information you otherwise could not have.

    I think people are protesting Sea World because Sea World has been well aware of all the information in Blackfish long before that documentary was produced. Still, Sea World chose not to reinvest any of their profits to enlarge their performers’ habitats. Sea World should have built much larger enclosures years ago. They also need to stop their breeding program as it is inhumane to continue this travesty.

    I think many cetacean knowledgeable people know many of these whales probably could not be released in the wild. Those bred and born in-house haven’t been raised and educated by their own kind. But they do deserve much better accommodations and Sea World can afford it. The orcas literally earned it.

    As to whether it is substantially bigger pools or sea pens, there may not be a big cost differential and sea pens would have all the natural stimulation of being in the wild. In Blackfish you see video of very bored, sad looking orcas just hanging motionless in the water the overwhelming majority of the day and night. They almost all have “fallen fin” syndrome from only being allowed to swim in circles and despite what Sea World says, only 1 in 100 have “fallen fin” in the wild. Which brings me to another point. Sea World continues to perpetuate lies about the orcas; the fallen fins, captive orca average lifespan is substantially less than in the wild, females don’t have babies in the wild while they themselves are still juveniles, whales from different pods often do not get along yet Sea World mixes whale families all the time and the whales often hurt each other or end up in even smaller isolation pens. How can they be for what is best for the whales when they themselves cannot tell the truth. They don’t even keep their own trainers informed on each whale’s history.

    Sea World is creating their own PR disaster at this point by denying any need for change. Again, watch Blackfish if you haven’t already.

  • Manja Snyder-Leck
    January 10, 2014 - 2:10 pm

    So says the person who has freedom.
    Freedom to go on a walk at any time.

    I think the problem today, is that we consider ourselves
    The most intelligent species on this planet, which then gives us the
    Right to rule over others? Sad. Barbaric.

    Never has it been recorded that a Killer Whale has attacked
    A human in the wild, and yet we have countless incidents in
    Captivity. Hmmm think they are telling us something?

    How about we finally act intelligent enough to show compassion
    And respect for other intelligent creatures of the a World
    And not make them slaves for our own entertainment.

    I don’t know about you, but if I was ripped from my family, placed from
    the ocean and placed into a swimming pool where
    I am starved…ahem “trained” to perform for thousands
    of screaming, loud, “intelligent” people, I may go
    A little crazy as well.

    How about instead of acting so “superior”, we show
    enough compassion that we put ourselves in their
    fins. I don’t think we would handle it so well.

    How about you come back after your children are
    Kidnapped from you, and then re-write your article.

    Your statement:

    “I see nothing inherently cruel in training intelligent mammals to perform for an audience – after all, every intelligent creature needs something to do to prevent boredom from setting in.”

    How ignorant. What a sad limited view you have. You obviously need something more
    to do yourself. So how about you use your limited intelligence, and go study these amazing
    Creatures in the wild where they live with their families.
    They do not appear bored at all. They appear happy and more
    importantly, free.

    As for Sea World and their pathetic attempts to
    educate the public on these intelligent creatures, how many times can
    You watch the same lame show. How high can they really jump Sea World?
    How many fish can they eat? Because that is the only education you seem able to teach.

    That, after 35+ years of research?

    “Bored Intelligence”

    A final thought.

    How would you rather die when your time comes?

    In captivity? Or free?