11 min read

Ex-SeaWorld Trainer Reveals Troubling Truth About Breeding Orcas

<p>Ben Yanis / F<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/barnyardbbs/2033915187/" target="_blank">lickr</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY 2.0</a>)</p>
"SeaWorld has owned 67 orcas in its half-century of existence, and more than 50 percent of those whales are now dead," says Hargrove. Photo: John Hargrove

In the last 50 years, historic battles for social justice have been fought and won across the spectrum. In civil rights, women's rights and gay rights, persistence has led to great advances. It is finally time now, to address animal rights.

The plight of captive orcas at SeaWorld provides society with an opportunity to learn to change, to shift our perspectives - just as the heated controversies over race, gender and sexual orientation, provided us with the knowledge to enlighten ourselves. We are now capable of accepting and understanding the self-evident consequences surrounding killer whale captivity.

Until just a few years ago, most people saw killer whales - the apex predators of the oceans, as animals over which God had given us dominion. The orcas of SeaWorld were there for our entertainment and pleasure. This veil has now been lifted and we know why it is morally and ethically wrong, to keep these amazing orcas in captivity.

With knowledge comes understanding. Scientists have studied the orca brain and their social structures, providing incontrovertible evidence of their great intelligence and complex emotions, their diverse cultures and languages, their capacity for feeling the pain of separation from their communities, and their capacity for feeling the psychological and physical tortures of captivity.

Legendary marine conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, said, "No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, how spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal."

His son, Jean-Michel, a renowned oceanographic explorer, environmentalist and film producer, issued a video statement addressing the cruelty and danger of keeping orcas and dolphins imprisoned in marine amusement parks. Both of their sentiments painfully apply to the orcas confined in SeaWorld parks. Whales - who would swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild, are now confined to small, sterile, concrete tanks, painted blue.

Last April, world-renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, called for SeaWorld to be shut down. She described SeaWorld's breeding program as, "no longer defensible by science. Killer whale captivity," she added, "only benefits the captors."

Former SeaWorld trainers have helped to shed light on the plight of orcas held at the marine park. Photo: Voice of the Orcas

Former killer whale trainers like myself, are sharing what it was like to work and swim with these whales. We have provided firsthand knowledge of the devastating physical and psychological effects of captivity on these highly intelligent and evolved animals. Our combined experiences have led to individual and highly personal evolutions on the issue of animal rights. The belief that we must make this the last generation of orcas in captivity is strong. We would love to see them retired from their roles at SeaWorld as circus performers, and placed in marine sanctuaries instead.

SeaWorld blatantly ignores the natural history of orcas, one where mothers and calves remain close to one another, for life. Calves at SeaWorld are taken away from their mothers and shipped to distant facilities. This results in deep trauma for both the parent and the child. In 2009, for example, the corporation sent a seven-month pregnant Takara to another park. She was forced to leave behind her three-year-old son, Trua.

Former SeaWorld trainers at a "Blackfish" Q&A.; Photo: Voice of the Orcas

SeaWorld also plays God with what it calls "genetic management." The act of artificially inseminating whales, even juvenile ones, years before they would naturally breed in the wild, and years before their bodies have fully developed. Its parks have bred and created species of orcas that do not exist in the natural world. Their breeding program crosses populations of whales who would/could never meet, or breed together in the wild. Confinement and boredom has resulted in multiple cases of inbreeding and incest, something that is against orca nature. SeaWorld describes this as a, "successful breeding program," when it is actually an abomination.

The corporation also touts, "world class veterinary care," for its orcas. However, this care is a necessity to treat the ravages of captivity. Due to stress, frustration and boredom, orcas wear down their teeth by biting at concrete ledges, the stage, and steel gates. The dental damage caused during this process requires SeaWorld and its trainers to drill into the orcas' teeth to prevent and avert infections.

Many captive whales live their entire lives on medication with drugs to treat ulcers, infections, pneumonia, and stress. This is reflected in their lifespans. Since 2005, eight SeaWorld-owned orcas have died. Their ages at death were:

  • 10 months
  • 02 years
  • 12 years
  • 14 years
  • 15 years
  • 20 years
  • 25 years

An unborn calf also died along with her mother during the birthing process. In contrast, wild orcas can easily live into their 60s, and even 80s, without the assistance of SeaWorld's "world-class veterinary care."

SeaWorld has owned 67 orcas in its half-century of existence, and more than 50 percent of those whales are now dead.

SeaWorld audaciously justifies its possession of whales by describing them as, "ambassadors for their species." In reality, these animals are captive because they bring in massive amounts of money - not conservation awareness. Through recent documentaries and books, people are waking up to what is really happening in marine parks, and to the cruelty that is inflicted on one of our planet's greatest creatures.

This shift in thought is being adopted by other corporations. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, recently made the historic decision to retire all of their elephants to sanctuaries by 2018. They cited a transformation in consumers and how they perceived the ethics surrounding performing animals.

Today, there is an increasing number of major corporate sponsors and performing artists, who have and are, turning their backs on SeaWorld. The message should be clear to the corporation: captive, performing orcas are not what consumers want to see. People are more knowledgeable. They have pierced the hype and know that orcas are exploited for profit and entertainment. They have realized that SeaWorld's, "education and conservation," mantra, is just a circus, a cruel, wrong circus.

More than 30 countries around the world now have partial or complete bans on keeping animals in captivity. That number continues to grow. Through the efforts of many, legislation on captivity is coming to the table in the United States.

We are evolving.

There is little doubt in my mind that within 50 years, we will look back at this moment and find it hard to imagine that this cruelty and injustice was once considered acceptable - just as we have come to acknowledge other mistakes in the last 50 years. We do not have the right to keep orcas in captivity for pleasure and profit. Science tells us why, with a truth that is now self-evident.