Tearing Apart Families: Controlling the Orca’s Social Structure in Captivity


Upon observing cetaceans in the wild, especially killer whales, it becomes clear that their entire lives are centered around family. They are constantly touching, bonding, and protecting each other. Some scientists even say that cetaceans are capable of love. Male wild killer whales will never leave their mother’s side. Judging by their lifestyle, family may be the most important thing to cetaceans.

Those who hold an anti-captivity position often mention how the captivity industry tears cetaceans from these family bonds in the wild. The capture process is cruel, depletes their populations and many animals may die while being trapped. The most common response to this from the pro-captivity side is that SeaWorld and other US marine parks no longer capture from the wild, so the “families ripped apart” argument is not one worth making.

It is true that cetaceans are no longer captured by marine parks in the US because it is illegal, entails exhausting logistics, and is controversial. What captivity supporters fail to realize is that US marine parks are but a fraction of the entire industry. It is also true that most cetaceans in the US are captive bred, but not all facilities around the world have “successful” captive breeding programs. Wild capture is still alive and well around the world. This is something that captivity supporters should consider when they claim to be “pro-captivity” or “pro-captivity and proud.” The industry goes far beyond the local theme park.

    While it is difficult to look over the terrors of wild capture, few people take notice of the families that are being torn apart within marine parks. This practice has become very normal for aquariums to take part in. Since it’s easier to track SeaWorld’s killer whales, I am just going to give a glimpse into the “family” their captive killer whales. Katina is one of the most successful female breeders in captivity. She only lives with two of her seven calves.

Tekoa was separated from his mother after birth due to his mother acting aggressively toward him. He was moved at the age of five. Unna and Keto were moved from their mothers at the age of six. Skyla and Sumar were moved at only two years old, Trua and Ikaika at four, Taku at three. And at only one year old Keet’s mother was taken from him. In the wild, these animals would not be removed from their families at all. In fact, they would’ve been born into a stable family group hundreds, maybe thousands of years old.

Keep in mind that these are just some basic figures of a few of SeaWorld’s orcas, not including wild caught whales and whales with deceased mothers. To make matters worse, these creatures who would normally be born into well organized pods now have to create their own hierarchy as they are moved from park to park which creates tension and aggression. We see this in the prevalence of rake marks, injury and violent attack.

Because females are being moved from their mothers and bred at unnaturally young ages, we are seeing females rejecting their calves and acting aggressively toward them. This type of behaviour is not normal in killer whales. Images of captive mom and baby orcas are cute, but they are not lasting images by any means. The reality is that there is a very good chance that the mother and baby will become separated by human hands, steel gates or by death.

At marine parks, whales are not just moved from place to place, they are also kept separated by utilizing steel bars as seen in a video here. It’s important to remember that in captivity all control is handed over to humans. Orcas are certainly capable of making their own decisions by their own free will, but in captivity we keep them separated and tell them who they are able to interact with and when they are able to interact with them. Human control over the whale’s complex social order combined with separating and moving mothers and calves is certainly a disaster for these closely bonded animals whose lives center around family. Keeping cetaceans captive doesn’t just involve taking away their freedom of movement around the ocean, but the freedom to pursue his or her own life. The freedom to develop their own social order and behave naturally. Marine parks  say that their goal is for captivity to be as natural as possible for the animals.

Is this for the benefit of the animals? Or to make us feel better about keeping them as captives? While those who are pro-captivity often say that they are against tearing these creatures from their families in the wild, they in fact support it in a marine park type setting.

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One thought on “Tearing Apart Families: Controlling the Orca’s Social Structure in Captivity

  1. Pingback: Tearing Apart Families: Controlling the Orca’s Social Structure in Captivity « Kirsten Writes

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