Are Orca Whales Too Smart for Captivity? Why California’s Possible Legislation Against Captivity Makes Sense

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Smart? You bet!

Yesterday (March 7th, 2014) California Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) gave a press conference on a bill known as the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB-2140), which he submitted to the California Assembly. It immediately created a fervor on the internet.
In essence, the bill is designed to change our relationship with captive orcas and to prevent the capture of wild ones. It is not against SeaWorld specifically; for instance it would protect orcas from becoming part of Disneyland or resort entertainment in the future.
But SeaWorld will feel the impact and predictably took it as a personal-corporate threat (please see the last video, below). Yet that amusement park still fails to understand that people want real factual information  so that they can make their own decisions on whether or not orcas belong in tanks.
Luna tries to imitate the boat engine:

In much of the recent internet buzz generated by the legislation (nicknamed #blackfishbill) I noticed the question  of orca intelligence surface over and over because people feel that animal intelligence is a huge factor in how they should be treated. Below I have re-posted two previous articles to help demonstrate mental capabilities of these sentient beings.
Interpreting Orca Intelligence
Posted on August 19, 2009

Cetacean brain development is an example of parallel evolution, adapted to the ocean environment.

Comparison of Human and Orca Brain (Creative Commons)

The brains of orcas are roughly four times larger than ours, have a greater surface area relative to brain weight, have enhanced development in different areas, and some of their nerve transmission speeds greatly exceed ours.
Naturally enough we humans don’t much like the idea that another species might rival us in that which we feel sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom: our intelligence. And so we have come up with many ways to explain it.
At first people pointed out the difference in our body sizes, and thought that it was obvious that bigger animals needed bigger brains…except that animals like the stegosaurus, close in size to orcas, had a brain about the size of a walnut. Not that they were mental giants, but they got by.

Picture(Creative Commons)

The next idea to come along was a comparison between the size of an animal and how large it’s brain is, and by that measure an orca would clearly be smarter than a stegosaurus, but not as smart as we humans.
Unfortunately for us, both hummingbirds and squirrel monkeys beat us in that measurement (we are about 2%, while hummingbirds are about 4%).
Now we have come up with a way of comparing brain size called “Encephalization Quotient”, or EQ, in which we compare how big an animal’s brain is versus how big you would expect it to be relative to the overall size. At last we win, our brains are 7 times bigger than you would expect them to be for our size, while our closest rivals are dolphins and toothed whales, which come in at the 2 to 5 times range. Whew! Except…
Their brains have a greater surface to volume ratio than ours. What this means, basically, is that the part of the brain that integrates information is much greater. Although scientists at first dismissed this by assuming that the tissue was ‘primitive’, current research disputes that. Research also overturns the notions that the types of cells are related to adapting to ocean temperatures, or that the large brains are completely dedicated to processing echolocation information. The layout of their brains is different from ours – some regions (such as those associated with smell) are diminished or absent, while others, such as the vision center, are moved around, and the structures associated with hearing are enhanced.
Fortunately, scientists are beginning to concentrate more on learning how the cetaceans use their massive brains, and less on coming up with ways to dismiss and diminish the evidence that we share this planet with other intelligent beings. The recent discovery that cetaceans have a special type of cell (called a spindle cell) previously found only in humans and the great apes implies that they aren’t just intelligent, but they are sentient and feeling as well: those cells are associated with our deeper emotions and social bonds.
This post goes into more detail on the orca’s ability to imitate:
Orca Whales Imitate Each Other and People – Scientists Correlate Imitation with Intelligence

Posted on June 24, 2013 | By 
Even though the young orca in the video above is likely  being cued and rewarded for imitating people, it shows the whales’ remarkable similarity to humans in that the orcas possess the ability to copy what they observe – and in this case, the behavior of another species (humans) behind a glass barrier where the whales are not even able to use their full senses.  Their phenomenal sound perception is useless to them in this task.Scientists acknowledge that this ability most likely contributes to their development of different cultures in the wild throughout the world:

Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Comparative experimental studies of imitative learning have focused mainly on primates and birds. However, cetaceans are promising candidates to display imitative learning as they have evolved in socioecological settings that have selected for large brains, complex sociality, and coordinated predatory tactics. Here we tested imitative learning in killer whales, Orcinus orca. We used a ‘do-as-other-does’ paradigm in which 3 subjects witnessed a conspecific demonstrator’s performance that included 15 familiar and 4 novel behaviours. The three subjects (1) learned the copy command signal ‘Do that’ very quickly, that is, 20 trials on average; (2) copied 100 % of the demonstrator’s familiar and novel actions; (3) achieved full matches in the first attempt for 8–13 familiar behaviours (out of 15) and for the 2 novel behaviours (out of 2) in one subject; and (4) took no longer than 8 trials to accurately copy any familiar behaviour, and no longer than 16 trials to copy any novel behaviour. This study provides experimental evidence for body imitation, including production imitation, in killer whales that is comparable to that observed in dolphins tested under similar conditions. These findings suggest that imitative learning may underpin some of the group-specific traditions reported in killer whales in the field.

But what about in captivity? Do the orcas have an opportunity to learn by observing each other? Or does the constant shuffling of whales from place to place make it even harder for them to adjust to captive conditions.
At Seaworld, San Diego, the orcas have a hobby of hunting birds by baiting them with fish. At least three different whales do this – did they learn from each other?

If the orcas do learn this hunting technique from each other, what other behaviors do they learn, unperceived by people?
Dr. Ken Norris, a pioneer in the study of marine mammals, often speculated on how whales and dolphins might use their sonar to look into each others bodies and therefore be able to observe subtle physical cues that we can’t see. (Personal communication).
Ultimately, this ability to imitate is another reason why captivity fails these whales – a young whale who learns a language of behavior and sound in one park probably finds it worthless when moved to another, perpetuating the cycle of aggression.
And who knows what they teach each other about people…
Below is a CNN segment with the zookeeper speaking on SeaWorld’s behalf, included here to show why people want real facts from SeaWorld executives – spokespersons in safari outfits just isn’t going to do the job anymore:

[Predictably, SeaWorld executives do not comment themselves but have former employees speak on their behalf, often resulting in a mystifying blend of nonsense and double-speak. For instance, this video from CNN includes an interview with a the zookeeper who claims that “out of sight is out of mind” (implying that people are so shallow that they won’t think of whales if they don’t see them in tanks) and also stating that wild orcas are in trouble in the wild and so captivity will  somehow help save the whales – but if that is so, what exactly has SeaWorld accomplished in the last 50 years as the populations of wild orcas have continued to struggle?]

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