9 min read

SeaWorld Orcas Have 'Alarming' Number Of Injuries, Vet Reveals

<p> PETA </p>

The stress of captivity is taking a physical toll on SeaWorld's orcas.

Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian with PETA, recently visited SeaWorld San Antonio to take a look at its orcas. She wasn't happy with what she saw - which included severe dental trauma and sea lions at risk of blindness.

"Everything that I saw at SeaWorld can be seen by anyone," Rally told The Dodo. "I just happen to have more training."

One big issue was the terrible state of the orcas' teeth. Captive orcas are already at risk for dental trauma - bored and stressed, they often begin gnawing on the edges of their tanks - but Rally said she was alarmed by the frequency and severity of the dental trauma she witnessed.

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"Every single orca that I observed had significant wearing on their teeth, specifically on the lower mandible," she said.

"They start chewing on their tanks," Rally added. "There's boredom there as a factor, and there's also stress ... as soon as they start doing that they start to traumatize their teeth."

The damage is much more than cosmetic. When the orcas, bored by captivity, begin to chew on the hard parts of their tanks, they fracture their teeth. The fractures expose the dental pulp, the living tissue within their teeth. Not only is this painful, but the fractures act as a "direct portal" for bacteria to enter the bloodstream - and can lead to heart problems, pneumonia, sepsis and death.

As a result, SeaWorld vets perform a "root canal" of sorts to clean out the pulp of the tooth. For the rest of their lives, the orcas have to undergo daily cleanings to keep their teeth fit, Rally said. "It's not a pleasant experience," she explained. "It takes a lot of time to train these animals to endure something like this."

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And while SeaWorld loves to claim that its orcas are thriving, such severe dental trauma is very rare in the wild: While there's one small wild subpopulation of orcas that sometimes has dental wear from feeding on skates and rays, Rally said, the severity doesn't compare to what she saw at SeaWorld.

And the whales aren't just taking out their stress on their own bodies; the cramped tanks also lead to in-fighting between whales, and sometimes gruesome injuries. Rally observed an "alarming number" of rake marks on the skin of SeaWorld's San Antonio whales - scratches caused by the teeth of their tankmates.

In the wild, such encounters are very rare because the submissive animal can just swim away. But because SeaWorld houses its orcas in such unnaturally small quarters, tensions can quickly turn violent when they wouldn't in the wild - leaving the whales at risk.

Some of these injuries have been dire, such as in 2012 when a male named Nakai had his entire chin torn off during a fight with another whale. In 1989, a female named Kandu broke her own jaw and severed an artery when she attacked another whale - she bled to death as her panicked infant calf swam circles around her.

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SeaWorld drugs its whales with benzodiazepines to alleviate this behavior, but the aggression doesn't stop. "These are all symptoms of boredom and stress from being housed incompatibly in very small quarters," Rally said. "Whenever there is a confrontation, it does tend to escalate."

As rake marks usually heal within a year and a half or so, the wounds Rally saw are fairly recent. "That means that the aggression that we're witnessing is ongoing, and it's current," Rally said.

Of course, orcas usually get most of the media attention when it comes to SeaWorld discussions. But Rally also took issue with the company's treatment of the sea lions who, she said, were at risk for severe eye damage.

Rally, who has experience working with rescued and rehabilitated sea lions, explained that they have remarkably sensitive eyesight that's adapted to catching fish in murky waters, and are prone to ocular disease in captivity. At SeaWorld, she said, the sea lions have no shelter from the sun, and often stared right into it.

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"They were encouraged, and actually required if they wanted to eat, to look upwards at visitors and catch fish," she explained. Such exposure can lead to ocular problems like cataracts, which in turn can lead to blindness, she said.

Animal Welfare Act (AWA) guidelines require captive animals to have appropriate shelter from the elements, and Rally suggested that SeaWorld's sea lion habitat could be in violation of the AWA.

SeaWorld's hardly a stranger to concerns about animal mistreatment. Former trainers have revealed that the park uses food deprivation to make whales perform, separates infants from mothers and pumps them full of drugs. Orcas also live shorter life spans in captivity than they do in the wild, despite SeaWorld's claims to the contrary.

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Fortunately, more and more people seem to be catching on: Just last week, SeaWorld reported an 84 percent drop in net income as well as drops in attendance for its latest quarter.

But in the meantime, SeaWorld's orcas continue to languish away in their tiny bathtubs - while SeaWorld tries to cover up the truth.