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.
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.
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.
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:
- They will use a juvenile or dominant orca with good teeth for all public photo shoots.
- 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)
- They won’t let anyone close to an animal, citing “safety” reasons (ironic, given their safety assurances).
- They sell the public on “superior dental care” as they often perform the tooth flush husbandry behavior publicly several times a day.
- PR pictures were always done mindful of avoiding mouth close-ups for fear of inadvertent disclosure.”
What you can do: Go to SaveLolita.com, 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):