SeaWorld's Orcas Are Attacking Their Tanks — And Losing Their Teeth
Recent photos show just how badly SeaWorld's orcas are suffering.
The images - which were taken at Loro Parque, a marine park in Spain's Canary Islands where several SeaWorld orcas are on loan - shows extensive damage to many of the orcas' teeth.
Some teeth are worn down so severely the pulp is showing, while others have been drilled or broken off almost entirely.
It's long been known that SeaWorld's orcas - both in the U.S. and abroad - shatter their teeth from chewing on the unnatural concrete and metal walls of their tanks, a sign of frustration and boredom in captivity.
But the new photos show just how severe the damage has gotten - and how quickly it can happen. The research was conducted by the Free Morgan Foundation (FMF), a group cofounded by noted orca expert and marine biologist Ingrid Visser, Ph.D.
"The images of the teeth in the report speak for themselves," the researchers wrote. "They are graphic, indisputable and universally recognizable as 'painful' to any human who has had a cavity, chipped, broken or lost a tooth, or had a tooth drilled by a dentist."
According to the report, the orcas at Loro Parque have between 41.66 percent and around 70 percent of the teeth on their lower jaws damaged, depending on the individual.
While dental problems may seem superficial, they can quickly turn into a life-threatening situation. The stressed orcas will gnaw on their tanks almost compulsively, wearing them down until they expose the pulp.
As with human teeth, the exposed pulp can act as a portal to the bloodstream, potentially allowing deadly infections to take root. As a result, SeaWorld - or in this case, the carers at Loro Parque - drill out the teeth, a painful procedure akin to a root canal that's performed without anesthesia.
The hollow teeth are not filled in, and have to be flushed daily to prevent disease. But the orcas don't stop gnawing, and so their structurally damaged teeth will be worn down to the gum, fracture or even collapse in on themselves.
The result is a lifetime of pain and discomfort, both from the initial wear and ongoing daily dental care, as well as the eventual collapse of the teeth.
The most startling case is that of Morgan, a roughly 9-year-old female orca who was spotted swimming off the Dutch coast in 2010. She appeared to be ill, and was captured by the Harderwijk Dolphinarium on the grounds of rehabilitating her.
However, instead of being returned to the wild, Morgan was instead transferred to Loro Parque through a series of shadowy moves critics have described as "orca laundering."
SeaWorld now claims ownership of her, and she lives with five other orcas SeaWorld has lent to the park. Despite extensive signs that Morgan's been faring poorly in captivity - including an incident this spring when she was spotted climbing out of her tank to escape bullying from the other orcas - she now spends her days doing tricks in Loro Parque's marine circus.
The photo compilation below shows just how severely Morgan's teeth have been damaged in fewer than four years under SeaWorld's oversight (the dates are listed on the left of the photos in yyyy/mm/dd format). When she was captured, Morgan had a complete, healthy set of pointed teeth, as is normal for wild orcas. As of April, several of her front teeth were nearly missing from the wear and damage while in captivity.
"This level of damage is shocking and disturbing," the team noted.
"In 3 years, 10 months, 10 days Morgan went from 0 percent severe damage of her right mandibular teeth to 75 percent," the researchers wrote. "In captivity, orca dentition is a fundamental indicator of the animals compromised welfare. Damage to their teeth is an undisputable physical attribute which is extremely easy to identify, evaluate and document over time."
Of course, Loro Parque has long denied that its orcas are anything less that perfectly healthy. As recently as April, the park denied that Morgan had any severe dental trauma in a blog about one of Visser's recent visits.
"Dr. Visser received the last veterinarian reports made by an independent international veterinarian with over 40 years of experience with Killer whales, proving again that there is no concern about Morgan's health status," the park wrote. "Dr. Visser asked about Morgan's broken teeth, and the veterinarian staff confirmed that Morgan does not have broken teeth just abrasion in some of them."
However, those claims are clearly refuted by the photos of Morgan's ever-worsening teeth. "To be clear, 'abrasion' is typically considered to be something superficial such as a skin scrape, although permanent damage can occur from abrasions," the research team wrote. "An abrasion would be on the lower end of a scale of injuries, as opposed to the extreme damage we documented."
The researchers also claimed that, when they arrived at the park to photograph Morgan, the staff would usually move her into the back medical tank to make it harder to see her. When the researchers asked to be sent a close-up of Morgan's teeth, they said, they were denied on the grounds they had criticized the facility in the past.
SeaWorld has also deflected concerns about its orcas' dental health, despite extensive evidence that it's happening both to SeaWorld-held orcas and those lent to Loro Parque.
On the park's website, SeaWorld claims that its orcas' damaged teeth are natural. "Killer whales, like all toothed whales and dolphins, develop worn teeth," it says. "And just like our killer whales, it's a result of exploring and manipulating things in their environment ... Looking at photos of stranded killer whales, you actually see that a lot of them have the exact same tooth profile as our killer whales."
However, those claims are "obtuse," the researchers said. They noted that only a few small subpopulations of wild orcas have significant tooth wear, and it's usually due to population quirks, such as one group that feeds on rough-skinned sharks. SeaWorld's orcas are not related to the shark-eating orcas and have nothing in their diets that could cause such wear. It's also been well documented that the bored orcas will chew on the concrete and metal in their tanks out of frustration - the clear cause of their extensively damaged teeth.
"It is important to note that the extreme damage observed in the teeth of all captive orca cannot occur due to feeding in the nonsensical way the industry describes, because trainers feed them by dumping handfuls of fish directly into the back of their mouths," the study said. "Such feeding usually happens whilst the orca are stationed (commanded to remain in position) and the fish rarely, if ever, touch the teeth. The teeth are therefore not used to capture or grasp their food, nor are they involved in food manipulation."
For the researchers, these latest signs of dental problems are just one more piece of evidence showing why large cetaceans like orcas can't thrive in captivity. They're hoping, they said, that public documentation - in the face of Loro Parque and SeaWorld's consistent denials - will help change the orcas' lives for the better.
"There are major and unacceptable welfare issues associated with the keeping of orca in captivity at Loro Parque," FMF wrote. "It is imperative for these animals to be provided with better living conditions."
If you think Morgan and the other SeaWorld orcas deserve better, click here to find out how you can contact SeaWorld and Loro Parque. To help the team fighting for Morgan, you can make a donation to the Free Morgan Foundation here.