6 Ways Granny The 103-Year-Old Orca Has A Way Better Life Than Any Whale At SeaWorld

<p>Leigh Calvez</p>

Granny, the 103-year-old orca sighted off the coast of Canada this week, has attracted a huge amount of attention -- in part because her very existence is proof of all the things that are wrong with SeaWorld. While the impressive orca is a living indictment of the practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity, the lives of wild orcas in general highlight the joys that their captive counterparts are unfortunately deprived of. Here are some of the ways in which a wild orca's life is far superior to that of a captive orca's:

1) Wild orcas live longer.

Granny, at 103, has survived in the wild for over a century; according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the median survival of a captive orca is 4.5 years. SeaWorld claims that "no one knows for sure how long killer whales live." But we know how long they live at SeaWorld -- and it isn't long at all. Most captive orcas die by the time they reach their 20s, and scientific studies have shown that mortality rates for captive whales are approximately three times higher than for their wild counterparts.

2) Wild orcas grow up with their pods and stay with them throughout their lives.

Orcas are highly social creatures, but only within specific, tight-knit social networks: their pods. Regardless of a pod's size, it's an insular group; whales in different pods communicate using different "languages," are often genetically distinct, and do not mix well with one another. When pods are separated -- as they are at SeaWorld -- it's emotionally devastating for the orcas. And when pods are mixed -- as they are at SeaWorld -- it's even worse. Captive orcas will attempt to maintain their hierarchical social structures through violence and aggression -- specifically by "raking" other whales, or scraping their bodies savagely with teeth.

3) Wild orcas swim as much and as far as they need -- without having to drive themselves crazy swimming in circles.

Granny recently finished an 800-mile journey with her pod -- a pretty normal trip for an animal that swims up to 100 miles daily. In captivity, though, orcas are deprived of the ability to swim far and wide, which most often prompts them to swim circles continuously in their tanks. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, swimming in circles is associated with dorsal fin collapse, from which virtually all captive male orcas suffer. (Only 1-5 percent of wild orcas exhibit collapsed dorsal fins.)

4) Wild orcas don't need psychoactive medication or major surgery to address self-harm.

Recently, SeaWorld admitted to giving its orcas -- some of whom were still nursing calves -- psychoactive medication to address obsessive and dangerous behaviors, which have never before been observed in wild populations. According to Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust, the behaviors that prompted the use of benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax are typical of captive whales, but certainly not normal. "They show stereotypical behaviors that are abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing, chewing on concrete, and self mutilation by banging the side of their heads on the side of the tank," Visser told Buzzfeed. "There isn't a single orca living in captivity where you cannot see one of these behaviors."

5) Wild orcas eat a varied diet that doesn't include gelatin.

Different subspecies of orcas subsist on different diets (and some groups primarily eat smaller marine mammals), but captive orcas eat the same thing: fish and gelatin. Tons and tons of gelatin. A Freedom of Information Act request by the Orca Project uncovered photos of massive quantities of the substance being stored alongside harmful chemicals (like bleach) at one of SeaWorld's parks, where orcas are fed gelatin to provide supplemental hydration and nutrition -- because they can't get enough of either without the ability to hunt for themselves.

6) Wild orcas breed when they're ready, with partners that they choose.

SeaWorld's notoriously horrific breeding program forces orcas to begin mating an average of 5 years before they typically do in the wild, while also spurring the dissemination of undesirable (or even dangerous) genes. Tilikum, a male "stud" orca whose behavior is at the center of the documentary "Blackfish," has fathered dozens of calves, despite being genetically predisposed to aggression. The result of SeaWorld's harmful program isn't just highly aggressive calves -- the animals are also inbred. A number of SeaWorld's orcas are closely related to one another, which doesn't just limit genetic diversity, but can also prompt mothers to reject their calves -- sometimes violently. According to the Orca Project, wild orcas almost never reject their calves.

SeaWorld and marine parks profit off keeping orcas and other marine animals in captivity -- despite evidence that captivity not only induces unnatural behaviors in whales, but also endangers trainers. Join us in pledging never to visit SeaWorld or other marine parks until they empty their orca tanks.

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