Poll Reveals Americans Oppose Keeping Orcas in Captivity for Public Display

Animal Welfare Groups Conduct First-Ever Opinion Poll on the Practice

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, together with The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute, released the first-ever nationwide opinion poll gauging attitudes about keeping orcas, also known as killer whales, in captivity for public display. The poll found that more Americans oppose than support the practice, with only one in four people in favor of it.

“With recent events shining a spotlight on performing orcas in places like SeaWorld, including the deaths of two trainers and current court challenges questioning the legality, safety and appropriateness of keeping killer whales in confinement, we felt it time to measure public attitudes about orcas in captivity,” stated Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDCS. “The public has glimpsed the darker side of the captivity industry and is becoming disenchanted with it. The true face of captivity is actually quite repugnant.”

Overall, support for keeping killer whales in captivity is low, the poll found, at 26 percent. Even more telling of the tide of public opinion, however, is that strong opposition to this practice is triple that of strong support, with 24 percent of respondents indicating they are strongly opposed and only 8 percent strongly favoring the practice.

WDCS and its partners believe that orcas are inherently unsuited to confinement. They are too large, too socially complex, and too intelligent to adapt successfully to captivity. In captivity, orcas live far shorter lives than they do in the wild and exhibit aberrant behavior to their offspring, to each other, and to people.

Data suggest that opposition only increases as Americans further consider the question of orca captivity. Whatever educational value the public recognizes in orca exhibits is outweighed by concerns over the impacts of removing these animals from their natural habitat and keeping them in captivity.

Significantly, the poll reveals the public's apparent lack of enthusiasm for with keeping orcas in captivity and that captive orcas are not, and would not, be the primary reason for visiting these facilities. Seventy-one percent of respondents say that if zoos, aquaria and marine mammal theme parks were to end the practice of keeping killer whales, they would still visit. Indeed, a further 14 percent would be more likely to visit if the practice of displaying killer whales were to stop.

The June survey reached a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 U.S. adults. Edge Research designed the survey questions for Opinion Research Corporation’s Caravan omnibus survey that was conducted via phone. The margin of error for the sample as a whole is +/-3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence interval.

“The curtain has been pulled back to expose the realities behind these shows, and this has dampened the public’s support of these exhibits,” said Naomi Rose, Ph.D. and marine mammal scientist for The HSUS. “The tide is definitely turning against keeping orcas in captivity.”

Other key findings of the poll include:

  • Opposition to the practice is motivated more by concern over the welfare impacts to orcas in captivity than by the notion that keeping orcas in captivity represents a danger to humans.
  • More than 80 percent of respondents believe that the inability of orcas to engage in natural behaviors and the negative consequences of confinement in small pools—including stress and illness—is a sufficient reason to stop keeping orcas in captivity.
  • Americans want to learn about orcas. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed have sought to learn about whales either through live or virtual means. While one-third of the sample had visited a zoo, aquarium or marine mammal theme park, two-thirds had learned about orca whales through museum exhibits, IMAX films, news, television and online sources.

"The US public clearly loves orcas, enough to want them to stay wild, making it inevitable that the day will come when there are no releasable orcas in captivity,” stated Susan Millward, executive director of the Animal Welfare Institute. “SeaWorld and other parks need to listen to their customers now and work towards bringing that day closer.”