Killer Whale vs Hamster: A Tale of Two Tanks

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Hamster's tank

Whale's tank

The products available in any pet supply store these days reflect our modern awareness of our pets’ needs, going beyond just the basics of food, shelter, and control. There are hundreds upon hundreds of toys, gadgets and gizmos available to keep our pets entertained and exercised as well, most of which are tailored to the needs of each individual species.
But imagine that your ‘pet’ is a dolphin or a whale? How do you make an appropriate habitat and keep them entertained during their waking hours? Although most of us can’t afford to keep a dolphin or whale as a pet, SeaWorld certainly can afford to keep many – so how do they stack up? To find out, I decided to compare the tanks where SeaWorld keeps the whales  to those of the common house pet, the hamster.
Gone are the days when the nocturnal hamster spent its days sleeping in a pile of shavings in the corner of a glass tank and its nights running endlessly on a squeaky wheel – their tanks now sport all kinds of toys, and can be modified with interconnecting habitat systems only limited by the space available and the imagination of the hamster’s owner. The environments are enriched with climbing, nesting, and eating areas on many levels, and the hamsters can choose their own space or share with a compatible tank mate.
But no such luck for killer whales in tanks, even though the standards set by the self-regulating Association of Zoos and Aquariums profess differently.

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,

The incorporation of environmental (behavioral) enrichment in the daily husbandry practices of the animals cared for in AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums is required by AZA Accreditation Standards . The AZA Behavior Scientific Advisory Group (BAG) defined enrichment as a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal’s behavioral choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviors, thus enhancing animal welfare.

It is important to have knowledge of a species’ natural behaviors and physiology when developing enrichment program. Several categories of enrichment are then used to enhance that species’ behavioral, physical, social, cognitive, and psychological well being. These categories are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, however each, if relevant to the species, should be incorporated into an animal’s enrichment plan.
Enrichment Plans.

Environmental enrichment devices (EEDs) are objects that can be manipulated by the animal.
Habitat design is an important consideration for providing enrichment. Habitats should provide a variety of substrates, levels, and complexities. Considerations should be given to useable space versus total space, and ease of reaching or changing platforms, tiers, ropes, nesting/denning areas, feed/water dispensers, and crevices/crannies for EED/enrichment food hiding.
Animal sensory systems are typically specialized by species and play crucial roles in their survival. Sensory enrichment is designed to address the animal’s sense of smell, touch, hearing, vision, and taste and elicit species-specific response, territorial, reproductive or hunting behaviors. ..Auditory stimuli may include the presentation of natural sounds or animal vocalizations recordings. Visual stimuli may include EEDs of different colors, those that move by wind or water current, animals in the line of sight from other habitats, video presentations, or mirrors.
Food can be presented in a variety of ways elicit feeding, hunting, foraging behaviors, problem-solving strategies, and to facilitate behavioral conditioning.
Social groupings should resemble those observed in the wild to facilitate feeding, grooming, social, territorial, and courtship behaviors. Mixed species exhibits may also provide symbiotic or complementary activities between the species.

Yet the whales and dolphins are afforded only sterile, monotonous tanks, clearly in violation of AZA standards. Because the whale and dolphins rarely sleep more than a few hours and even then are partially alert – as compared to the hamster which snoozes away much of the day – they face endless hours with no stimulation when the park is closed. Dolphin brains are a thousand times the size of a hamsters yet they receive a fraction of the stimulation in the habitat provided to the furry pets.

Probably the worst thing of all is keeping a social species of any animal in solitary enclosures, where self mutilation can be the result. Birds are known to pluck their own feathers out for instance, and horses will hang on fences and suck in air. One isolated killer whale at Marineland, Ontario is reported to have ongoing bleeding issues. According to the Toronto Star:  “Kiska, the killer whale, swims alone in her pool at Marineland, often followed by a trail of her own blood”.

Her tail has been bleeding off and on since July but has been getting progressively worse, according to Christine Santos, who has been one of Kiska’s primary trainers. She described the bleeding as “gushing” last week.

…Kiska has never been a strong whale, according to former trainers, including Santos, who say she’s constantly on medication. Her pool is concrete with the fibreglass grates along the side and a few large rocks on the bottom.
She was captured off Iceland in 1981 and developed what one former trainer called “an incredibly close” connection with Nootka, another wild-caught Icelandic whale, and “they hated to be separated.” They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported other through labour, with Kiska having four calves. The oldest died at 6.
Santos said Kiska began declining after her 4-year-old calf Athena, as well as Nootka, died a few years ago.
“I love her dearly,” Santos said. “I am worried about her because she is alone. She vocalizes a lot. I feel as if she is calling out for another whale.”

Accused of being a whistleblower and therefore affecting Marineland’s income, Santos was fired and now faces a million dollar lawsuit by Marineland. (Please go to Fins and Fluke for more information on this case and to find out what you can do to help).  But she was just doing what she could to help bring awareness to the dismal conditions of captivity.
The whales deserve a better life…at least as good as a hamster’s.

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