Thursday, June 18, 2009

Should Killer Whales Be Kept in Captivity?

"Lolita the Whale", taken from the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan (Creative Commons Photo).

The subject of keeping orcas in captivity is a big one, fraught with emotion and embedded in huge financial investment. We plan to tackle this thorny issue in detail once the summer season of research has been completed, but given the fact that The Seattle Aquarium is hosting what promises to be a rare opportunity to learn about the situation, now seems a good time to introduce it.

So far we have only begun to share with you how orcas live their lives - we talked about their family bonds, the challenges they face, and what it might mean to us to lose them. We have yet to talk about how they communicate, how intelligent they may be, or what their ocean environment is like.

In review, then:

They have strong, lifelong family bonds.
CWR 2009 Photo by Ken Balcomb

They almost never stop moving, and apparently the calves must stay in motion, in a term called 'obligate swimming'.

Photo by Astrid van Ginneken

They seem to be curious about us, and never intentionally cause harm.

Photo by Ken Balcomb

In light of that, plus the fact that although the Orcas have a global range they are not abundant anywhere, we need to think long and hard about why we need to see them like this:

Creative Commons Photo

When this is what it takes to capture them:

Photo Courtesy OrcaNetwork

And we can see them like this:
Sprouting male L89 off Mitchell Bay (Photo by Basil von Ah)

Orcas are bred in captivity, so capture is not always necessary, but their lives are far from ideal. Continued captivity is rationalized by those who love the whales as well as those who just profit from them - but when you distill the arguments what remains is a question of compassion, and how we treat the creatures that share our planet.


  1. Great treatment & discussion of this issue - looking forward to reading more in the future!

  2. When I came out to WA from NYC in 2002 and saw the orcas in their natural environment, I vowed that I'd never go to an aquarium again to see them. They moved me so much that I gave away all my furniture and moved to Washington in 2003. Up until this year, I'd always seen them from a whale watch boat, but then I found out about Lime Kiln Park. I was in absolute awe at being able to watch them for as long as I wanted from the shore. I was there for Memorial Day weekend, and it was the most incredible experience.

    Carole May

  3. Lolita should be released. Her thank is the smallest of all and she seems to be able to survive in the ocean, like Keiko.. I don't understand how people can pay to see her like this !

    Orcas are so beautiful in the wild :) I wish I could go to see them in the ocean one day..

  4. Lolita shouldn't be realeased. I know it sounds cruel .. but she shouldn't. People are saying 'what about Keiko', he survived! Well, sorry. But .. HE DIDN'T!!! He died in his first year ... Sorry to those people who are living in a world of their own, and to put it harshly. But. Its. True.

  5. I am a third-generation resident of the Puget Sound, and no attention was ever brought to the Southern Residents until The Seattle Aquarium started creating hype. Three generations ago, we never looked out onto the water and wondered if J, K, or L pods were near by.

    So, for the sake of the Southern Residence and their survival - I'd say Lolita has done a marvelous job creating human awareness. I think that orcas are needed in captivity because the species needs representatives. I'm not going to listen to a zoologist standing at a podium. But I'll stare into the eyes of an orca, through inches of glass, and decide for myself: "I want to protect this animal."

    As for how the orca is treated in captivity: you don't think the biologists at Seattle Aquarium love Lolita as much as you do? They've undergone years of strenuous study to acquire their jobs at the Aquarium. I don't think they'd allow any mistreatment to occur without alerting the public - and the public hates mistreatment of animals.

  6. I agree Girlwithcurls and everyone yeah keiko died and was buried in a snowy moun that only seven people knew about to keep the media away. Also when a whale is kept for so long as with story of Keiko They long for human interaction and it can do more harm than good to these Beautiful creatures. Lolita needs to go into retirement with plenty of exercise and human contact. Has anyone ever asked an Orca or any other marine mammal what they want. Obviously with the death of keiko this is not what this famed Orca wanted. He didn't want to be abandoned in the ocean after years of captivity. He wanted human interaction. READ UP ON IT. Authorities had to tell people to stay away from him because he craved the human ineraction and wanted to be petted. I do agree that if they can be breed while in captivity instead of stole from their natural habitat with their families then this is what should be focused on. Some people children especially would love to see these beautiful creatures. If they can breed in captivity let the experts do their job and hopefully in the future we can keep this magnificent creatures from being stolen from their families.

  7. It's absolute madness to say that these animals should be kept in captivity. If you truly had read up on Keiko you would know that he actually became unwell whilst in captivity in Mexico, and if he had never been ripped from his natural habitat then he would not have had to undergo a return to the wild. It upsets me to see any wild animal in captivity, and breeding them in captivity is just as bad. Imagine if you were born into a world where everytime you walked for a few seconds in a straight line you hit a glass wall. Then imagine spending your whole life in that single room with a constant background noise of a blender/white noise. This is animal cruelty, full stop.

  8. Sea World representatives are saying how there is MUCH education when these whales are in captivity. I heard on guy saying how 50 years ago nobody new anything about these animals and they would be killed without a second thought. He was saying how sea world had helped educate people about this certain animal. the blue whale is impossible to keep in captivity yet the amount of information we know about that whale is intense. now why do animals need to be in captivity? oh yea thats right.. for money.

  9. Orca whales should not be kept in captivity!!!!!! no way!!!

  10. i love whales they inspire me they are wonderfull creatures and when we take them from there natural habitat it is harming them it is cruilty and just mean

  11. I like whales they're cool im doing a project on them

  12. SeaWorld has kept orcas in captivity, and many people think that they are extremely cruel for doing so. But they have also saved and rehabilitated more marine animals than any other organization in the world. They have done amazing things in conservation, and keeping their orcas in captivity have raised awareness for the animals. People love orcas and want to protect them because of the close up encounters they've had with them. Just reading about them in a book or "listening to a zoologist on a podium" like someone said before isn't going to create that same passion in people.

    Also, the orcas that are in captivity now weren't "ripped from the ocean" like a lot of people think. They were bred in captivity and don't know any different.

  13. whales should not be kept in captivity . you are shortining their lives ! god learn to be nice and leave them alone.what if that was you ! :(

  14. The awesomest person everMay 28, 2010 at 7:14 AM

    For the whales it's like being kept in a small dark crowded box how would you feel like maybe the whale could be claustrophobic! you never know

  15. for the whales its like being trapped in a small dark crowded box.How would you feel? Like the whales could be claustrophobic.You never know...

  16. Even though whale shows are a powerful educational tool they should not be kept in captivity. Their dorsal fins get bent their muscles get too weak and it just shortenes their lives. shame on you!


  18. I'm currently in university studying Orca whale marine biology so I can become a whale trainer at Seaworld.

    Seaworld does not take Orcas from the wild anymore, they haven't for many many years.
    When Keiko was released, he sought after humans to play with. Orcas love humans, they're intrigued by them, and as part of the dolphin family they LOVE playing.
    They do not hate living in Seaworld. They love playing, they love jumping, they love having trainers who play with them and rub them. Their tanks are large - obviously not as large as an ocean but then what animal in captivity has a pen as large as it's habitat?

    People give out about Seaworld whales because they think everyone working there is money hungry. Well who gives out about chimpanzees in a zoo? Very little people. And those chimpanzees get treated exactly the same as the Orcas. Who gives out about birds, snakes, pigs, seals, tigers, lions etc all in zoos???

    I can tell you now that NO ORCA WOULD EVER BE IN A DANGEROUS/CRUEL CONDITION IN SEAWORLD. Trainers spend years getting the qualifications for that job, then they bag for 1 position in the whole country. It's a very hard job to get. And as a person in the process of becoming one, I can tell you that I love Orcas more than most people can imagine. I would die if it meant preventing a whale from being hurt. I would never let an Orca in captivity be treated cruely, either would any other trainer.

    Some people really don't know their facts about captive Orcas.

  19. To Mr or Miss I want to become a Sea World trainer and all the other pro captivity people. Guess what? To an Orca captivity is cruelty. I see people saying "I" want to see the Orcas and "I" want my kids to see them. Thats awesome but what about them? Future SW trainer, I believe that keeping animals in Zoos is also cruel. However the difference between Chimps and Orcas is that Orcas travel constantly and Chimps do not. Also your comment that SW does not take Orcas from the wild anymore does not make anyone feel better about the fate of Lolita, Tilikum and Corky, just to name three that were wild caught. The only reason there is no more wild caught Orcas is because it is now ILLEGAL!
    "Some people dont know their facts about captive Orcas" you say...I think you are one of those people. Look up the life of Kalina "baby shamu" for instance. See how she was moved from park to park (taken from her mother) across the country once moved twice in a year. How she was forced to have calf after calf beginning at the age 7 years old. For you lay people an Orcas life span (in the wild) is as long as ours. Females can live up to 90 years old (captive Orcas typically die before the age of 20). Would you expect a 7 year old to have a baby? Poor Kalina died at the young age of 25. I could go on and on but there is not enough space. Wake up people, imagine yourself in their situation, relate it to your life and then make the decision if it is cruel or not!

  20. Orca's should not be kept in captivity, its cruelty! We should think about how sad and lonely a life of sealed walls is, where their own sounds echo back at them :( i hate how some people are so blinded by reality.

  21. You guys seem to forget that ANIMALS ARE NOT PEOPLE. If people are allowed to be put in prisons against their will, then animals should be too. You guys are giving animals rights that people don't have. I especially find it humorous when you scream "bloody murder" when a dog gets killed but when a person murders someone you "feel pity" for them, despite all the victim's family is going through. Besides, if there is not a captive population of animals for people to see, then why would they care about the animals. To use belugas as an example, if there were no belugas in captivity, do you think that people would care about the species survival? Why would anyone waste money on something that does not concern them on the other end of the world? However, if they see belugas in aquariums, then that will spawn pity in those that see them. For the eco-tourists, do you think everybody has the time and money to go half-way around the world to see animals when there isn't even a guarantee that you will see them, when you could just spend 20 bucks and 1-2 hours at your local aquarium? And for those that think that captivity is cruel; THEY ARE ANIMALS! ANIMALS ARE INFERIOR TO HUMANS! You'd think the entire history of civilization would show that. Now, I'm not saying that we should massacre all the animals in the world and start whipping our pets, but you guys take it too far and treat animals as our equals.


Candace Calloway Whiting