On Orcas in Captivity

I’ve never seen an orca. Never even caught a glimpse of a tail, or even had a prospect of seeing one in the wild. What I have stumbled across in the past is videos of orcas performing for crowds, balancing their trainers on their noses before flinging them across the arena, as well as the occasional outraged article demanding organisations like SeaWorld shut down immediately. And unfortunately, for a long time, I left it at that.

This week, I watched the 2013 documentary Blackfish, that followed the netting and captivity of Tilikum, an orca infamous for the deaths of three people. Tilikum was captured in 1983, in Iceland. He was first kept in Sealand of the Pacific, Victoria, before being transferred to SeaWorld Orlando, Florida in 1992, where he has remained ever since. The documentary followed Tilikum’s life in captivity, the relationships he’d created with his trainers, the struggles he faced due to being at the bottom of the orcas’ matrilineal social structures and the fatalities he was involved in.

What the documentary did particularly well was contrast the behaviour of orcas in the wild to that of orcas in captivity. Orcas have an extremely complex and intelligent social structure; they exist in pods, comprising of closely related family groups (a female, her offspring and their offspring). They also have a developed dialect, using clicks, whistles and calls, unique to each pod. They learn through imitation and intentional teaching and can live up to ninety years. This, unfortunately, is starkly juxtaposed with the life expectancy of orcas in captivity – which is a third of that of an orca in the wild.

In the past decade, following the reports of a trainer at SeaWorld being killed by Tilikum in 2010, there’s been a huge outcry for the release of orcas in captivity, as well as conservation efforts being initiated. SeaWorld’s profits, especially since the release of ‘Blackfish’ began to decline, and it announced measures to build bigger tanks for its whales, the end of their breeding programme and theatrical orca shows in SeaWorld San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio ending. However, SeaWorld continues to keep these orcas in captivity, citing its reason for this as their inability to survive in the wild after a life of confinement.

Of late, zoos and aquariums have been questioned about how ethical it is to keep animals in captivity, subjecting them to a life of dependency and tearing them from their biological instincts and freedom. Endless podcasts, documentaries, articles are circulated every day, about conservation, about how cruel animal enclosures can actually be, about how these animals cannot completely adjust to both life within a zoo and life in the wild. However, all of this criticism still doesn’t stand a chance against the wonder and the thrill human beings face up close to these animals.

A few months ago, my aunt and uncle took their two-year old daughter to Tiger Kingdom, Phuket, and sent us pictures of her smiling excitedly with her hand stroking the back of a sleeping tiger. Her understanding of animals is based on experiences of witnessing them live; of feeding giraffes bananas in zoos, of watching elephants dance in circles with batons twirled around their trunks. Billions of people across the world yearn to watch these animals up close, unsatisfied by documentary footage and wildlife videos that capture them in their natural habitats. All these animal enclosures contribute to the human comprehension of the planet’s wildlife, and to research and investigations of these animals. David Attenborough himself believes that though his documentaries provide education, explanation and understanding of animals in the wild, they do not compare to seeing an animal up close; ‘Only the sight of a creature in the flesh can give us a true understanding of its nature.’

I think the question we need to start asking ourselves is whether or not human curiosity is enough justification to keep these animals in confined spaces. While there are certain species that require interventions in order to protect their existence, such as breeding programmes for animals of the verge of extinction, the number of these incentives barely compare to institutions that keep the animals as props to be viewed when necessary.

So then, this becomes a statement of excess; We’ve begun to see animals in their worth to our own lives, rather than a participant in the environment around us. We’ve adopted a human-centric mode of existing, where our first impulse is to ask: How does this benefit us?

When Tilikum was involved in the killing of his trainer, one of the most popular responses was to put the killer whale down for being a threat to the people around it. There are countless videos on YouTube of people hunting crocodiles with machine guns in revenge attacks, followed by nauseating comments saying things like ‘Good lord, this sickens me – The man had a loaded shotgun pointed right at his co-worker’s legs. That’s not good gun safety.’ or ‘That is why man is on top of the food chain’. Tiger King, Netflix’s documentary about people who train, breed and exhibit tigers, lions, other ‘exotic animals’ is centred around their power plays, using the animals as an afterthought, instruments in their rise to fame. It is too easy to forget the difference between domesticating animals and trapping them in a drug-induced cycle of reward and punishment, to be charmed by the prospect of taking a picture holding a tiger cub or standing in the shadow of a whale in an aquarium.

It is becoming harder and harder to deny the fact that the majority of animal captivity is for the benefit of humans rather than the wellbeing of the animals – if there was ever a question about it. With people spreading fake news about animals in the wild with human indoors during the pandemic, and just how massive the issue of animal captivity seems to be to an individual, it is easy to get disheartened and believe that there is nothing that can be done. It is easy to convince yourself that the orcas at SeaWorld do form genuine connections with their trainers, that the lions and tiger’s at Joe Exotic’s zoo were attached to the zookeepers and were content with the life they were leading.

What’s difficult is taking accountability; as a human, and as a consumer. It’s difficult to face the fact that I have enjoyed zoos, that I have loved being in aquariums, that I have stroked elephant calves in enclosures. It’s difficult realising that I have contributed to corporations that enslave these animals for their own interests. In a system of existence that’s made it easy for human beings to do anything, it’s difficult to look outside our own sphere of convenience. Coming to terms with your privilege is hard; but to understand these animals, it’s necessary. The orcas in captivity never wanted to be torn away from their calves and their pods. They never wanted to have to resort to rolling over and swimming in circles in order to get fed. They never had a choice in the matter. They deserve a choice.

The moment we begin to understand the systems we’ve built into our world, we begin to see all the ways we’ve narrowed the rest of the natural world into a corner. While we cannot take responsibility for all the decisions that have been made in bringing the world to the state it is in today, we need to understand how we have contributed to it.

We need to do more than passing on posts on instagram, or a hashtag on twitter (don’t use twitter much so not too sure what it’s like on there). We need to get involved with local conservation projects, consume media that expands beyond what’s easy to accept, begin questioning the necessity of the excess surrounding us. While in the time of this pandemic, it’s difficult to get involved more physically, spreading awareness, doing thorough research and finding out how we can contribute to improving the lives of these animals once we’re able to on an individual level can lead to change in magnitudes we didn’t anticipate. It’s implausible to believe that all these institutions and corporations will shut down immediately, that profits will not be prioritised over the wellbeing and happiness of these animals. But if there is anywhere we can start, it’s with ourselves and our own outlook towards our surroundings. Political and economic change and solutions begin on a personal level.

The image of an orca in a small tank symbolises our own ignorance and complacency in this world where everything is readily available to us; but it shouldn’t need to symbolise anything.

The image of an orca in a small tank is horrifying enough on its own.

Picture from ‘The Age Of Earthquakes’  by Douglas Coupland, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar

Cover Image by Jo-Anne McArthur

Recommended listening: Wiseblood by Zola Jesus

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