Former Trainers Show How Captivity Kills Orcas

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January 20, 2011

Orca Network: Howard Garrett or Susan Berta
360-678-3451, cell: 360-320-7176

Former Trainers Show How Captivity Kills Orcas

“Lolita the Whale”, taken from the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan

A study titled “Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity” was
released today after nearly a year in preparation showing how the conditions
of captivity significantly decrease lifespan for orcas, and how captivity
leads to aggression among captives and toward trainers. The paper was
written by Drs Jeff Ventre and John Jett, who worked as trainers at Sea
World of Florida for a combined total of 12 years with several orcas,
including Tilikum, and with trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was tragically
killed by Tilikum on Feb. 24, 2010.

This is a major breakthrough and a landmark achievement in the history of
orca captivity.

View the paper at:

In this paper you’ll see the precursors and symptoms of stresses in orcas in
captivity, illustrated with powerful photos. As former trainers at SeaWorld
Orlando, and now a medical doctor and biology professor respectively, they
have a perspective that has not been heard in the intensifying debate about
captivity for orcas. Having been deeply enmeshed in those arguments for over
15 years, we can attest that seldom, if ever, has anyone discussed many of
the topics covered here. Some of the major themes include shortened
longevity, breeding of young mothers, severe tooth damage found in many
captives and associated systemic illnesses, inbreeding, and the social
tensions that often erupt in hostile behavior or violence toward other
whales or trainers.

A Sad Life (Creative Commons Photo)

Ventre and Jett provide detailed observations and strong statistical
calculations that add up to an abundance of evidence that captivity kills
orcas, usually at a young age, and that stresses, social tensions and poor
health are chronic issues in marine park facilities. A new statistic is
compiled called “Mean Duration of Captivity” (MDC), drawn from diverse
credible sources, that allow overall comparisons with free-ranging orcas,
revealing shockingly low average longevity in captivity.

We often hear about how orcas suffer in captivity, but sometimes it’s hard
to understand what that means. In this article the reader can see the burnt
backs and eye cataracts from floating listlessly on the surface looking up
at trainers. With reference to what is known about the expansive travels,
family bonds and cultural lives of free-ranging orcas, we can empathize with
the traumas of capture, separation and shipment, the attempts to construct
ad hoc social relationships and hierarchies in contrived groupings that are
manipulated for management purposes. The dismal captive mortality rates
revealed here make sense when these stressors are understood.

Everyone will learn something from this paper.

This is a comprehensive treatment of orca captivity, starting from the
context of the conditions of captivity and how that relates to the two
trainer deaths in the past year, and arriving at suggested mitigations and
how to best phase out the practice. The point of view of the whales
themselves is a key element here that is seldom, if ever, seen in the
controversies over orca captivity. Ventre and Jett have kept their focus on
the evidence, on what’s happening to the orcas, how the conditions and
symptoms add up to express the stresses of captivity. When this study goes
out across the media I’m quite sure we will soon see a new public
conversation about the effects of captivity on the orcas themselves.

“Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity” is available for
public distribution at The Orca Project at:

Susan Berta
Orca Network

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