Captive Orca “Lolita” Unable to Perform Due to a Tooth Abscess: Why This Is Serious

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“Lolita”, the captive Southern Resident orca now living in the Miami Seaquarium, was pulled from shows this week in order to recuperate from procedures associated with treating an infected tooth, and although the Miami Seaquarium will only admit to giving her antibiotics, the usual procedure for treating these issues is much more draconian and inconceivably barbaric.  “Lotita” must be very sick, or must have had something major done in order for the amusement park to bench their money making star attraction – not just because of the loss of revenue, but captive animals need stimulation to alleviate the boredom and loneliness…and the only thing worse than having a horrible toothache is to have nothing whatsoever to take your mind off of the discomfort, 24/7.

Although a tooth infection may seem like a relatively insignificant issue, there is mounting evidence that complications from dental problems may be partially responsible for the shortened lifespan of captive whales and dolphins. “Lolita” potentially could die from this problem, and at the very least has a whole new layer of suffering to endure in her life of captivity. (For suggestions on what you can do to help, please see the end of this article).
The following is taken from an article by The Orca Project , an excellent source for thoughtful, well researched and written articles:

“The Hidden Cost Of Captivity- Oral Health of Killer Whales Exposed

by theorcaproject

Part of our mission here at The Orca Project is to delve into the detrimental effects that captivity brings to orcas and other cetaceans at marine mammal parks. In this installment we take a look at the oral health of orcas (Killer Whales); the pervasive degradation, its causes and potential consequences.

Poor Orca Oral HealthOrcas in Captivity and Oral Degradation. Note the worn, drilled teeth

SeaWorld, Six Flags and other marine mammal parks have managed to keep this cloaked in relative secrecy: Broken and fractured teeth usually occurs from common threat displays known as “barking” or “jaw popping” as they chomp down on steel gates that separate orcas in an effort to establish dominance. Dental fragments have been retrieved from the bottom of the pool after such displays and while this behavior can temporarily alleviate stress, it generates additional stress in the long run — a vicious cycle.

Compounding damage from grinding.Chronic pain associated with poor dental health can lead to destructive behaviors such as grinding down the jaw itself.

Few people are aware of the practice where captive orcas routinely have holes drilled in their teeth (Pulpotomy) as well as “grinding” or “flattening” of their teeth, and fewer more understand, or have even thought about, how the holes are drilled.  Trainers are forbidden to speak of this practice publicly. SeaWorld trainers use a variable-speed tool (similar to a Dremel tool) to perform this Pulpotomy with a stainless drill bit attached.

The whales are conditioned to “accept” the noise, heat, vibration and obvious pain associated with drilling vertically through the tooth column and into the fleshy pulp below. Success is measured by blood spilling out of the hole, in which case it’s apparent the bore is complete.  – Former SeaWorld trainer.

Once the teeth are cracked, it leaves pulp exposed which will lead to infection unless treated.  Since they cannot perform a root canal on a captive killer whale, they perform a pulpotomy.  This entire procedure is performed without a local anesthetic for reasons which are not fully understood. For example, while the teeth of many of SeaWorld’s orcas are in “train-wreck” status, drilling and flushing routinely takes place regardless of whether the teeth are infected or in need of this procedure. The training and education staff at SeaWorld contends that the thrice daily “tooth flushes” are “superior dental care”. What they don’t tell you is that the teeth have holes in them, and if the impacted fish isn’t flushed with a Waterpick daily, an infection would likely occur. This is done by filling the reservoir of a device with a Betadine solution which is pumped down into the jaw. In the case of Tilikum, the orca involved in the February 24, 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, this procedure is, or was, performed three times a day.

Lolita, Miami SeaquariumLolita: After 40 years in captivity, her isolation, devoid of social dominance issues may factor in her overall good dental health.

Although Lolita, the sole orca at Miami Seaquarium has endured 40 years of captivity and has been subjected to numerous other detrimental issues… her teeth appear to be in remarkably good form; the front teeth are barely erupted or worn down. Perhaps this is due to Lolita’s isolation, and lack of a need for social-climbing (no competitors in her facility) or other available mechanism of injury resulting from social-climbing and/or threat displays such as “Jaw-popping”. The absence of these captive environment conditions also holds true for orcas in the wild that do not suffer the same oral degradation as seen in their captive counterparts. When compared, there is a significant prevalence of fractured and broken teeth in captive orcas which can be directly related to their confinement.

SeaWorld, for example, routinely does the following to conceal the teeth issue:

  1. They will use a juvenile or dominant orca with good teeth for all public photo shoots.
  2. They will create an angle where the photographer can only see the top jaw (in many cases the damage is to the lower jaw only)
  3. They won’t let anyone close to an animal, citing “safety” reasons (ironic, given their safety assurances).
  4. They sell the public on “superior dental care” as they often perform the tooth flush husbandry behavior publicly several times a day.
  5. PR pictures were always done mindful of avoiding mouth close-ups for fear of inadvertent disclosure.”
Wild Orca Skeleton

What you can do:  Go to, there you will find links and ways to participate.  Or come up with your own ideas and share them – lately people have been photographing, videotaping, and writing new ideas; today Stephanie Kuwasaki put together this flyer for anyone to download, post, and share, (Orca Network has a pdf version available):

Stephanie Kuwasaki created this flyer for anyone to download, print, and share.
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