• Why Sea World Can’t Release All Its Orcas

    So the blogosphere and the twitterverse seem to have found a new social justice problem to exploit.

    Sea World has announced a large number of habitat expansions for orcas[1]. The expansion includes more enrichment activies, natural spaces, and increased size of habitats. The expansion plans also include other marine mammals like the various dolphin species and sea lions.

    This, predictably, was met with great derision by various animal rights groups. “A bigger prison is still a prison.” And this is very true.

    I am not a fan of taking wild animals and putting them into zoos and entertainment facilities. I will say that there are some species that effectively only exist in zoos now. Called Extinct in the Wild, these animal species only exist because people captured them to put them in zoos.

    This isn’t likely to happen to the common Sea World species though. Neither orcas, bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, and Pacific white sided dolphins are all “Least Concern” or “Near Threatened“.

    So, why doesn’t Sea World release the animals they have in captivity, especially the orcas?

    There is a very, very good reason for that. Eighteen of the twenty three orcas in Sea World parks would be dead in a few weeks in the wild and the other five probably wouldn’t last much longer.

    First, the eighteen orcas I mentioned were born in Sea World facilities. They have never been in a real ocean before. Orcas are highly altricial animals. The young have to be carefully raised and cared for for an extended period of time. Part of this time is the mother teaching the offspring how to hunt. While Sea World uses some hunting behaviors as a basis for their performances, they still aren’t using those skills to hunt.

    This is actually a hunting type behavior. Takara (the mother) taught Sakari (the child) some tricks without trainer intervention. Personal photo
    This is actually a hunting type behavior. Takara (the mother) taught Sakari (the child) some tricks without trainer intervention. Personal photo

    It’s a very different skill to target shoot and to hunt for food. Think about it this way. Take a 15 year-old inner city kid and drop him off in the Canadian Rockies… then drive away. How long will the kid survive? If it’s winter, the kid probably won’t make it through the night. In summer, they might last a few days.

    Second, the Sea World orcas do not really have a pod. And this is a problem with Sea World shuffling them around.

    An orca matriline is one of the most stable social structures in existence. Each matriline is run by a matriarch who passes down the title to one of her female offspring. Three to four matrilines make up a pod. Male offspring generally remain with their mothers well into adulthood, but they always mate with a female in a different matriline. The pods (and larger groups called clans) use unique hunting techniques and calls. These are so unique that it may not be possible for one group to reliably communicate with another group.[2] There are smaller groups of transient pods (a mother and one or two offspring) and individuals (usually male) that join a pod for mating purposes, then continue on their way.

    This presents a problem for the Sea World orcas. We don’t know what language they speak, if their language is stunted or changed from wild orcas. Even if they all spoke the same language, there are dialects that would certainly identify them as “other” to wild animals.

    We don’t know enough about their social structure to determine if the Sea World animals would even be accepted in a pod. We may throw them into the oceans and they will live their lives totally alone from then on. The wild caught animals, all 5 of them, may be able to integrate back into their original pod, if it still exists and if they are released where they were captured.

    We don’t know.

    You can think of it this way. Take a kid from the Welsh country side and another kid from inner city New York, then put them in a home in India for the rest of their lives.

    While I don’t like the idea of these animals being captive, the idea of releasing them into the wild is not a good one. There are many issues that we don’t know the answer to. Can they hunt? Will they be able to integrate with wild orcas? Will they have culture shock? I can easily see several of the orcas just giving up and dying once they realize that they aren’t going to be fed.

    These are highly intelligent animals and we know how other highly intelligent animals (humans) react to sudden, inexplicable, massive changes in their lives. Badly.

    I think that the Sea World expansion is a step in the right direction. Sea World hasn’t taken live animals from the wild for anything but rehabilitation purposes in decades. They are doing that kind of work, taking in wounded, ill, stranded animals and rehabilitating them releasing them.

    I would be remiss not to bring up the deaths that have occurred in Sea World park associated with the orcas. My research on the subject, newspapers, released police reports, etc, has revealed the following.

    The first incident was before a group of wild orcas had been trained.  No one had every actually been in the water with the orcas and a trainer fell in.  It appears that the orcas ‘played with her’.  When five 6000-lbs predators play with a person, there’s no way to survive.  The second incident was a homeless man who stayed in the park after hours and died of drowning and hypothermia in the tank.   He was never touched by Tilikum, the orca in the tank.  At the temp of the tank water (11C or 51F), a healthy person of average build can last about 4 hours.  A homeless man is probably not healthy.

    The last incident may or may not have been an intentional kill.  The trainer was apparently drug into the water by Tilikum, yep, same animal.  Even though dozens of people saw it, no one really knows what happened.  The trainers neck was snapped, but she wasn’t bit or pummeled.  There is suspicion that the trainer’s pony tail was caught in the orca’s teeth or he thought it was a toy and accidentally snapped her neck.

    While that is terrible, it’s not unexpected when dealing with large predators.

    Again, I don’t like the fact that Sea World has captured these creatures. But the same could be said of any zoo in the world.

    I do appreciate the fact that they are trying to improve conditions for the animals in their care and that they are involved in a variety of rehabilitation and scientific projects.

    This DOES NOT make it all right that they have captured the animals and confined them.

    But releasing the animals is probably not going to work. There are too many unknowns about the animals and orca culture to know if they will survive in a place that they have never been in… probably never even realized could exist.

    While animal rights activists talk about the rights of the animal, they don’t seem to understand that releasing them into the wild will almost certainly result in the animals deaths in just a few weeks.


    1. They are not killer whales. They are not even whales, but technically dolphins. They are orcas. One of my pet peeves. I don’t even say starfish or jelly fish. Instead I use sea stars and jellies.

    2. Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington State


    Category: BiologyEducationEvironmentfeaturedScienceSkepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • Even if they can’t release these individuals, is anything stopping them from creating a multi-year shut-down plan? Surely the can phase out this part of SeaWorld over time by preventing new pregnancies. Orcas in captivity usually live less than 25 years. That means almost all of the animals currently held will likely die in the next 10-15 years.

      Points of your own discussion here are powerful moral reasons why it is deeply unethical to breed more orcas in captivity. They have no real pod, no natural habitat, and a cramped prison existence.

      So they won’t breed more, right? That option has been considered by this corporation so very concerned with animal welfare, right?

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        Those are excellent points.

        I guess one question becomes, what’s the difference between Sea World and any zoo with elephants or primates?

        • Contingent on analysis of harm by experts, maybe nothing. I expect that in our lifetime zoos will cease to exist, at least in the current form. It is sensible to have animal reserves for endangered species with problems of genetic diversity. That aside, I have all the same ethical concerns about zoos.

          Edit: Oh one difference though. Zoos are often municipal. I think SeaWorld, like private zoos, is more problematic as a purely for-profit corporation whose interests do not align with animal welfare.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            Fair enough.

            I’m not a huge fan either. There is some amount of research done at zoos and there may come a time when more and more species exist only in zoos.

            Not an excuse for them though.

          • nana

            you want zoo’s to cease to exists? ya, lets keep our kids unneducated on how they look and act so they wont even notice when they go extint.

            • I’ve enjoyed my Zoo visits greatly. I merely think we should consider the harm and balance that with benefits like education and conservation. Perhaps the best thing is for zoos to be reformed so as not to as harmful to its animals. It isn’t a simple question.

    • KeithB

      Zoos will probably save the Tasmanian Devil, to help prevent the spread of the face tumours that are currently running through the wild population.

    • Christy

      This needs to be plastered everywhere. Excellent points. I feel like people just need something to be angry at and don’t actually take the time to think that releasing the animals is actually a terrible idea for all the reasons you said! Why is “emptying the tanks” a huge thing going on right now? Because of Blackfish? What about zoos? All the people who are anti captivity for the whales probably go to the zoo a few times a year. What’s the difference? That there’s not a movie about zoo captivity? All seaworld needs to do is stop breeding these animals into captivity because no, it’s not fair to them. I agree that keeping all these animals locked up is not right in any way but it’s too late to release them. The ones born in captivity is all they have ever known, putting them into the ocean would be wrong. It’s the opposite effect.