Orcas do not belong in captivity. They are too socially complex, too intelligent, too long-lived and simply too large to thrive in confinement.
On March 17, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced landmark legislation that would phase out the captivity of orcas so that their display ends with this generation. Specifically, it would prohibit the breeding, the taking (wild capture), and the import or export of orcas for the purposes of public display, while allowing for transfers to seaside sanctuaries. This legislation would also allow for the orderly phasing out of the display of this species, giving orca-holding facilities time to transition to a new business model.
The current global population of captive orcas has two sources—wild capture and captive breeding programs. Under current federal law, the federal government can issue permits for the capture or import of orcas for the purposes of public display. This is how, in the past, US display facilities legally acquired orcas from the wild. While a wild capture of an orca has not occurred in US waters since 1976, and wild-caught orcas from other parts of the world have not been imported since 2001, permits can still be issued legally. All other captive orcas have been bred in captivity through artificial insemination or physical mating. These practices would be prohibited under the ORCA Act.
Recently, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it will retire its performing elephants, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced that it will no longer breed its dolphins or have them perform. On March 17, 2016, SeaWorld Entertainment, the company that holds 22 of the 23 orcas displayed in the United States, joined their ranks and announced it would end its captive orca breeding program, making this the last generation of captive orcas. H.R. 1584 would codify this corporate policy into law, ensuring that changes in management will not undo this progressive decision. The bill will also prevent any other US company from displaying orcas into the future.
How Does Captivity Affect Orcas?
Captivity decreases orca life spans. In the wild, the average lifespan for males is 30 years and for females is 50 years. In captivity, most die before they reach the age of 25. One recent scientific analysis found that captive orca survivorship is the same as a wild population struggling with habitat degradation and food shortages (Robeck et al., 2015), while another found that the percentage of orcas in captivity reaching certain age milestones (sexual maturity and menopause) is as much as an order of magnitude lower than in the wild (Jett and Ventre, 2015).
In the wild, orcas can swim 100 miles in a day and routinely dive to 300 feet. In captivity, they are held in comparatively tiny, shallow concrete tanks, only 1/10,000th of 1 percent the size of their natural home ranges. In the wild, dorsal fin collapse is extremely rare, but all adult male orcas in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins and many females’ fins are partially collapsed. Orca biologists attribute this phenomenon to the conditions of captivity, such as repetitive circular swimming patterns, dehydration, and the gravitational pull from spending the vast majority of their time at the surface of the water.
Orcas are highly social and live in matrilineal pods that can be as large as 40 individuals. In many wild populations, orcas remain with their mothers for their entire lives. In captivity, orcas do not live in natural pods, and calves and mothers are often separated. In fact, in the wild orca calves are dependent on their mother nutritionally as well as socially until they are about 5, even in populations where they eventually disperse from their birth group, but in captivity they are often separated from their mothers by the age of 4. Some have been sent to other facilities, for management purposes rather than because of health concerns, at 2 years of age or younger.
As a result of the unnatural physical and social environment, captive orcas display aberrant behavior. In the United States, one trainer and one member of the public have been killed. Captive orcas have killed two trainers in other countries. Dozens of trainers have been injured, some very seriously. There are no records of an orca killing or seriously injuring a human being in the wild.
Husbandry and management of captive wildlife are constantly being updated and improved by most zoos and aquariums. In some cases, however, no amount of improvement will allow the species to thrive in captivity; of species currently in captivity, orcas are likely the least suited for it. The ORCA Act would end the public display of this species in the United States, leading the way to a more humane future.
Jett, J. and Ventre, J. 2015. Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival. Marine Mammal Science 31(4): 1362-1377. doi: 10.1111/mms.12225
Robeck, T. R., Willis, K., Scarpuzzi, M. R. and O’Brien, J. K. 2015. Comparison of life-history parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations for application toward species management. Journal of Mammalogy 96(5): 1055-1070. doi:10.1093/jmammal/gyv113