The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 4

Last updated February 10, 2024.

Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015.
Three raccoon dogs peek out from their small wire cages at a fur farm in Poland. The animals are curious about the photographers doing this nighttime investigation. Poland, 2015. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Understanding whether natural or synthetic fabrics are better for the environment is confusing. As I mentioned in Part 3 of this article series, we need to stop the overproduction of all textiles. But we can make better choices about clothing purchases if we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created. Today, we will review the most common types of animal-based fabrics used in fashion.

Wool

Humans have used wool from sheep since about 10,000 BCE.1 “Wool is gorgeous and durable. It has the magical capacity to resist odors, wrinkles, and stains,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. It provides warmth and can last for many years. Today’s wools are less itchy, softer, and sometimes even machine washable. But it is not always the most sustainable option.

As of 2015, people raised more than 1 billion sheep around the world, producing 2.5 million pounds of raw wool. But if not cared for properly, sheep and goats can overgraze areas which lead to soil erosion and desertification. “Fertilizers and pesticides are often used on pastures and the sheep themselves, driving up wool’s chemical impacts.”2

Sheep release methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Sheep farming – like cattle farming – also uses large amounts of water and land. Some even identify wool as one of the worst environmental offenders on the market.

Merino Wool & Mulesing

Merinos, typically raised in Australia, have very soft wool. People have specifically bred them to have wrinkly skin because this means they can obtain more wool per animal. But animal rights advocates typically advise against merino sheep products because the sheep are essentially mutilated.

The wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the larvae (maggots) eat the sheep’s skin. To combat what is referred to as ‘flystrike,’ farmers use a cruel procedure called ‘mulesing.’ This is where they restrain the sheep and cut sections of their skin away without any painkillers or anesthetics. These wounds can get infected and kill the sheep. If the wounds heal, the skin forms scar tissue and creates a smooth surface that doesn’t create a moist environment for flystrike. This is an inhumane practice that should be outlawed.

Worse, “after the sheep become too old to produce wool efficiently, they are shipped to the Mideast to satisfy the huge Muslim demand for halal meat.” Companies do not usually ship them under humane conditions and many sheep die on the way there.3

Shearling

Most consumers believe that shearling is sheared wool – but it isn’t. It is sheepskin, meaning the sheep’s tanned skin with the wool still attached to it. Shearling refers to a young sheep, a yearling who has been shorn just once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn before being slaughtered for meat. Some industry members call shearling ‘a byproduct of the meat industry.’ But it can take dozens of individual sheep skins to make just one shearling garment.

Recycled Wool Clothing

Buying clothing made from recycled wool is a very eco-friendly option. As Patagonia wrote on their website: “Wool is a natural fiber that insulates, breathes and lasts for a long time. Producing wool, however, is resource-intensive. It requires vast amounts of land for grazing sheep, water to clean the fiber, chemicals to treat the wool and dyes to color the finished product. We use recycled wool to extend the useful life of fiber that has already been produced. As a result, we can make clothing with the same great qualities as virgin wool at a fraction of the environmental cost.”4 Buy products made from recycled wool whenever possible.

A white newborn lamb looks up at the camera.
A newborn lamb looks up at the camera. If the lamb is male, he will be sent to slaughter for meat at a young age. If the lamb is female, she will be reared for the production of wool and future breeding. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skowron, We Animals Media.

Alpaca fleece

Alpacas are domesticated South American camelids that look like small llamas. Their fur is a very soft and warm fiber that is also durable and lightweight. It may even be more durable than cashmere. These animals are not killed for their fur, and many companies argue that producers take good care of alpacas.

However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) did an undercover investigation and discovered workers abusing alpacas during the shearing process. Regardless of what you think of PETA, the video evidence is hard to refute. And it is disturbing to watch. This video was taken at Mallkini, the world’s largest privately owned alpaca farm, near Muñani, Peru. “Mallkini is owned by the Michell Group, the world’s largest exporter of alpaca tops and yarn and a supplier of major brands, including Anthropologie.”5 Hopefully many other companies have followed.

The Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. responded that they were shocked and appalled by the abuse in the video. “While there are good and bad practices in every industry, the investigation uses the most egregious video of alpacas being shorn poorly and inhumanely. Kind and compassionate alpaca owners and shearers throughout the world far outweigh practices like the one shown.”6

Be sure to check that the alpaca clothing you’re buying is from a reputable and cruelty-free producer. You may have to contact the company to verify this.

The face of a brown alpaca against a black background.
This alpaca is taking shelter from the rain at The Farm Animal Sanctuary, Evesham, Worcestershire, United Kingdom, 2022. Photo courtesy of James Gibson Photography / We Animals Media.

Cashmere

Cashmere is made from the soft undercoats of cashmere goats, mainly in China, Mongolia, northern India, and Iran. The fibers are very fine and delicate and feel almost like silk to the touch, and it is warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool. It is one of the most expensive forms of wool because the production and manufacturing process is complicated.7

But two things happened: world demand increased and Mongolia transitioned from a Communist economy to a freer market. So lower quality cashmere clothing entered the market. Also, herders quadrupled the number of goats from 5 million in the 1990s to 21 million by 2018.8 Goat herding clears entire grasslands which causes dust storms and air pollution. It sometimes also causes starvation of the goats.9

There are different grades of cashmere. Sometimes producers mix it with other fibers, which can make it less expensive. But not everyone agrees that this is a good thing. As New York Times writer Tatiana Schlossberg wrote, “Making cashmere a less-than-luxury item…puts the responsibility for making the right choice on the consumer, and that’s not fair. It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden – whether they pay more to source better or they pay for the associated down-the-line impacts – or governments should make sure they act responsibly. And that may make cashmere cost more (upfront, though the long-term health and environmental costs would be less).”10

Be sure to purchase sustainable cashmere. “When shopping for cashmere, shop with brands that are transparent and can reveal where they source their fiber and the steps they’ve taken to source it sustainably.”11 You can also look for regenerated or reclaimed cashmere, which is “made from postmanufacturing waste, such as cuttings gathered from the factory floor. Regerneated cashmere is 92 percent less damaging to the environment than virgin cashmere.”12

Close-up of a white cashmere billy goat.
Image by Alexa from Pixabay.

Angora

Fur from an Angora rabbit is silky and super soft. It is warmer and lighter than wool and it felts easily. Angora fibers are often blended with wool to give it elasticity. Most breeds of Angora rabbits molt naturally about every four months, and producers “pluck” the molted fur from the animal. Some producers choose to shear the fur instead, which saves time, but results in lower-quality angora.

However, this is another type of fur you might want to avoid because it is an animal that producers sometimes abuse. In 2013, a PETA investigation showed human workers plucking live rabbits raw, meaning their hair was ripped from their skin (to obtain the longest fibers) while the rabbits screamed in pain. They are put back into cramped wire cages until their hair grows back. After three years the rabbits are killed.13 Unfortunately, China is the source of 90 percent of the world’s angora and that country has few laws regarding animal cruelty.

Silk

Silk is a gorgeous fabric. It is a natural fiber that is shiny and durable. It has a long trading history across the world. “Silk is the epitome of luxury due to its high cost to produce, soft feel, and elegant appearance…Different weaving processes result in different types of fabric, including crepe (a rough crinkled texture), organza (a thin, sheer fabric), and chiffon (a lightweight, plain-weave fabric with a slight stretch).”14

But it takes about 2,500 silkworms to spin a pound of raw silk. Elizabeth L. Cline explained how people harvest silk:

“Silk is produced by the saliva of silkworms that feed on the leaves of mulberry trees. A single silkworm can spin almost three thousand feet of usable silk thread while making one single cocoon. To extract the silk, a silkworm’s cocoon is boiled and the filaments unraveled.” This process creates very little waste but kills the silkworms. “However, fertilizers and insecticides are often used to grow the mulberry trees, and more energy is used to make silk than for most other textiles.” Some silk is dyed using heavy metals that can be toxic.15

There are organic silks and safe-chemical certifications available, so look for those because they have a lower impact on the environment. Other options include peace silk, which is made without killing the silkworms. A company called Bolt Threads manufactures a lab-grown silk alternative made out of yeast and sugar.16

Close-up of silkworm cocoons, with one opened at front.
Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay.

Leather

Humans have been wearing animal skins and leather for thousands of years. Today, companies mass-produce leather with a lot of harsh and hazardous chemicals. “Leather is a $100-billion-a-year business before it is turned into shoes, luggage, or coats,” wrote Dana Thomas, author of Fashionpolis. Consumer demand for leather rises by about 5 percent per year.17

The leather tanning industry produces a lot of solid waste and wastewater and has many polluted lands and rivers. “Leather has been linked to the deforestation of the Amazon and a variety of harmful chemicals are used during the tanning and production processes.”18

Governments regulate the leather industry in most places now, but there are exceptions. For example, some Bangladeshi tanneries don’t provide leather workers protective gear even though many people stand directly in vats of chemicals. The tanneries also dump untreated toxic wastewater into local rivers. “The leather-tanning district of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, has been named one of the most toxic places in the world, although efforts are underway to clean it up.”19 Sohpie Benson wrote, “The Buriganga River, which runs through Dhaka, Bangladesh, is thick with effluent, hides and litter, and has been declared biologically dead due to the incessant flow of tannery waste.”20

The leather industry is also not known for being green or ethical. The leather industry discharges as many emissions as 30 million cars driven for a whole year.21 Cow leather is the most common type, and cows take a huge environmental toll. “The planet’s cattle herds and the fertilizer-and pesticide-intensive way they’re raised and fed are major drivers of deforestation, land degradation, climate change, and water pollution. Cows are also a major emitter of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.”22

Buy leather for items you intend to keep long-term. If you take care of it, it will last many years. The Leather Working Group certifies and audits leather tanneries on their environmental standards (see Additional Resources below). Responsible companies are transparent about where they source their leather, how they tan the leather, and the environmental and ethical conditions.23 You can also look for upcycled leather at Recyc Leather.24

“Although leather is often positioned as a natural alternative to plastic, leather footwear is often coated in it to make it more durable.” -Sophie Benson, Sustainable Wardrobe25

A mother and baby cow, gray colored, in a field with other cows. They have yellow tags on their ears.
Image by Protocultura from Pixabay.

Furs

Humans historically used the furs of animals they killed to stay warm. But today, most people wear furs for fashion only. Animal farms raise and keep animals in cages explicitly to kill them for their fur. Most of the time, the animals live in horrible conditions. Almost always, the farms waste the rest of the animal after slaughter.

Don’t buy fur.

If you must have a fur item for your closet, please consider a faux fur option. They look just as nice and are just as warm and comfortable as real fur. However, as always, you must be wary of the faux products you buy, as reporters have exposed major retailers selling real fur mislabeled as faux.26 Remember, a good company will be transparent about its production line.

“Killing animals is the most destructive thing you can do in the fashion industry. The tanneries, the chemicals, the deforestation, the use of landmass and grain and water, the cruelty – it’s a nonstarter. The minute you’re not killing an animal to make a shoe or a bag you are ahead of the game.” -Stella McCartney, quoted in Fashinopolis27

Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage.
Two grey mink on a fur farm stare through the wire mesh of a filthy cage. Korsnas, Finland, 2023. Photo courtesy of Oikeutta elaimille / We Animals Media.

Down

Down is a layer of fine feathers on geese and ducks, which helps keep them warm in colder temperatures and water. Companies commonly use it to insulate jackets, coats, and sleeping bags. But the practices the industry uses to collect it are questionable. “The vast majority of the 270,000 metric tons of commercial down produced each year is a byproduct of goose and duck meat industries in Asia and Europe, where the birds might be live-plucked or force-fed for foie gras before heading to the slaughterhouse. Animal welfare advocates consider these cruel practices that they want to see eliminated from down’s complex supply chain.”28

Elizabeth L. Cline recommends shopping with brands certified by Textile Exchange’s Responsible Down Standard (see Additional Resources below), which verifies high animal welfare standards.29

A mother goose with her goslings, green grass background.
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash.

Read Labels, Buy Second-Hand

Always read labels to see what you’re buying. If something isn’t familiar, use your smartphone while in the store and do a quick internet search on the materials. Sometimes just looking up the name of a product or materials is all you need. Before I wrote this article, I almost bought a pair of shoes made with shearling. I thought that shearling was just sheared wool. I decided to look up what shearling meant, and thank goodness I did! Once I understood that those shoes contributed to the death of an animal, they were no longer attractive to me and I didn’t buy them.

“Any animal-based fiber comes with tremendous ethical responsibility.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet30

Stacks of sheepskins.
This image shows piles of salted sheep and cattle skins, at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, Victoria. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.

You can look for sustainable or organic materials certified by organizations such as the ones listed under Additional Resources below. There’s a lot to know, which is why sometimes it’s easier to buy second-hand. Buying used ensures that you’re not directly supporting a certain type of textile production and it reduces overall demand. Giving an article of clothing a second chance also keeps it from going into a landfill or cluttering the landscapes of developing countries. In my next article, I’ll review types of synthetic fabrics. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Fibershed.org is a nonprofit fostering the resurgence of small-scale farmers and regenerative farming practices around the world.

Global Textile Standard (GOTS) “is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.”

Organic Content Standard (OCS) is “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”

bluesign is has specific safety and environmental requirements regarding chemicals.

Cradle to Cradle Certified “Product Standard provides the framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance.”

Oeko-Tex certifies products and all their components as free of harmful toxins.

The Responsible Wool Standard, run by Textile Exchange, ensures that animal welfare and sustainable land management standards have been met.31

The Leather Working Group (LWG) is a “not-for-profit that drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.”

The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) “incentivizes the down and feather industry to treat ducks and geese humanely and…gives companies and consumers a way to know what’s in the products they buy.”

Footnotes:

The Whale Sanctuary Project

An orca through round viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo.
An orca through a viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today, I want to tell you about an organization that is very dear to me: The Whale Sanctuary Project. This sanctuary will allow captive cetaceans a chance at retiring and living freely. I love the organization’s work, research, scientists, and hold the utmost respect for this project. This is one that I’d appreciate your help in supporting!

If you’ve read my Orca series, then you understand why it is wrong to make them perform for humans and keep them in captivity. Cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete tanks. There just isn’t enough space for them to swim and get enough physical exercise. Years of breeding and artificial insemination caused cetaceans to breed too young, too inexperienced, and without the choice of when and with whom to breed with. Mothers and calves are regularly separated when the calf is only a few years old. Some cetaceans are forced to live alone, causing depression in these highly social, intelligent, and emotional creatures. After decades of observation, it is obvious to many how cetaceans are suffering in marine amusement parks. But now we have a chance to make it right.

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

A beluga whale on display at Marineland with people viewing it through the acrylic tank.
A beluga whale on display at MarineLand Canada. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We
Animals Media

Purpose of a Sanctuary

There are sanctuaries for all kinds of animals including horses, elephants, primates, pigs, dogs, and birds. Many animals retired from farm life, circuses, and zoos reside in sanctuaries. But there has never been a sanctuary for whales and orcas. What better time than now?

The Whale Sanctuary Project “is the first organization focused solely on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins, and porpoises who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care.”2 Most people now understand that cetaceans in marine amusement parks are akin to performing circus animals. However, even if these animals are retired from performing, there is no place for them to go. A sea sanctuary will completely change that.

“Our vision is of a world in which all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are treated with respect and are no longer confined to concrete tanks in entertainment parks and aquariums.”-The Whale Sanctuary Project3

About The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP)

Bird's eye view of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site.
View of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP formed in 2016. In 2020, after years of research, exploration, and fundraising, the WSP selected a 100-acre site for the sanctuary at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. This is an ideal location because it fulfilled the WSP’s principal considerations: “It offered an expansive area that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that’s open to the ocean but was sheltered from storms. It had access to necessary infrastructure and plenty of room along the shore for the facilities that would be needed to care for the animals.” And the Sherbrooke area locals are very supportive.4 

The seaside sanctuary will be 300 times bigger than the typical concrete tank. It will be more natural than tanks in terms of acoustics, water quality, and habitat surroundings (plant and animal species that share the space).5 The cetaceans will be able to swim further and dive deeper, thus getting the exercise their bodies need. “The goal is to offer captive orcas and beluga whales a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.”6 They’ll be able to make their own decisions, feed themselves, and most importantly – they won’t be required to perform like circus animals.

“We can’t undo all the harm we’ve inflicted on cetaceans by keeping them in captivity, but by providing them with seaside sanctuaries, we can improve their quality of life. That is our goal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose7

Orca performing at Marineland.
Image by Victor Cardella from Pixabay

Sanctuary Squashes Argument For Captivity

SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have always indicated that it would be cruel to set captive orcas free into the ocean because they have been in captivity too long. This is partially true. Like animals in other sanctuaries, captive cetaceans cannot be returned to the wild. They may not be able to survive without some care and monitoring. They may not know how to hunt or socialize, and they may never find their original familial pod. Captive cetaceans may be attached to humans for food and social needs. Many captive orcas have dental problems and other health issues. Obviously, captive-born whales are not candidates for release into the wild. But a sanctuary is another story and is a real possibility.8

The Whale Sanctuary Project will change everything.

“The science tells us that these animals – dolphins and whales – cannot thrive in concrete tanks and theme parks and aquariums.” -Dr. Lori Marino9

Setting The Example

Human riding two dolphins in a performance at marine amusement park.
Image by JensG from Pixabay

“There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. To end captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. But it’s not easy. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to re-learn the skills they will need to survive.” -Whale and Dolphin Conservation10

There are 58-60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine amusement parks and aquariums. Other species include different species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Hundreds of dolphins are held at vacation resorts that offer “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy” and “Swim-with-Dolphins” programs.11 Most of the orcas at parks are candidates for the sanctuary, but it cannot provide a home to hundreds of cetaceans. “While our primary focus is the creation of the sanctuary in Nova Scotia, every aspect of it is designed with the larger purpose of its being a model for other and future sanctuaries around the world.”12

The WSP will provide additional support for cetaceans in situations that do not include its sanctuary through its Whale Aid programs. These programs “range from rescuing and rehabilitating ocean-going whales to developing complete plans for other organizations that are working to retire captive whale and dolphins to sanctuaries. Our Whale Aid team comprises experts from around the world in fields ranging from veterinary care to transport to construction and engineering.”13 The Whale Aid program will assist Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Working with the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, she will be returned to the Salish Sea from which she was born, if the Miami Seaquarium ever relinquishes her.14 

If marine amusement parks and aquariums partnered or even just participated with the Whale Sanctuary Project, they could have a huge impact on the whales’ lives, conservation, and even their own public relations. It “would be a powerful legacy for the marine park that released them – a real example of conservation and education in practice.”

“If seaside sanctuaries function as intended, eventually they will no longer hold any retired captive cetaceans. However, they will also serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans, even during the period when they have ‘retirees’ as residents. And they will be able to serve this purpose in perpetuity.” -Dr. Naomi A.  Rose16

Orcas swimming at the surface with a mountain and sunset in the background.
Image by Chris Amos from Pixabay

Support This Project & Learn More

“Sanctuaries strive to go out of business.” -Dr. Ingrid Visser

Though a new movement, the WSP isn’t the only sanctuary in the works. Clearly, there’s a need for sanctuaries for marine mammals. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary opened in Iceland in the spring of 2019. They care for two female beluga whales who came from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. In addition, they partner with another organization to rescue puffins.17 There have been proposals for a Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy and for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.18

“We’ll spend less on building a sanctuary than a marine park would…spend building the next small concrete tank.” -Charles Vinick, Whale Sanctuary Project19

Image of The Whale Sanctuary Project's new Operation Centre, a white historic house on a street.
The Whale Sanctuary Project’s new Operation Centre. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP had the grand opening of the Operations Centre on October 29, 2021. It is located in the small town of Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site in Port Hilford Bay. This center, to which I proudly donated a small amount toward its opening, is the WSP’s home base for all of the design, engine­ering, and construc­tion of the sanctuary. It will also serve as a welcome center and it has lodging for two visiting staff members and advisors.20 Going forward, they will focus on the construction of the sea pen.

I encourage you to continue to learn more about the problem of captive cetaceans, and I hope you can support The Whale Sanctuary Project with me! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

The Whale Sanctuary Project logo
Logo courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.” -David Neiwert21

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Orca Series, to learn more about captive orcas.

Video, “Whales Without Walls,” Charles Vinick, TEDxSantaBarbara, December 18, 2017.

Page, Deeper Dive, The Whale Sanctuary Project. Features scientific studies on cetaceans.

Page, “Live Series” of Webinars and Conversations, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

 

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Kiska and Kshamenk

Last updated March 11, 2023.

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland, Canada, 2011.
Kiska, a lone orca at MarineLand Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

In my last article, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. Today, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.

UPDATE, March 11, 2023: Tragically, Kiska has died. Read more here.

Kiska, MarineLand Canada, Niagara Falls, Ontario

Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at MarineLand since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.

Relationships

In 1979, MarineLand purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.

In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to MarineLand. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between MarineLand and SeaWorld.3

Kiska swimming in her tank, view from below the surface.
“Kiska was wild-caught off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, and lives alone in this tank.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Behavioral Changes

Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at MarineLand. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).

“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4

Habitat

The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This  would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5

Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls.
Beluga and orca pools at MarineLand Canada. Image taken from Google Maps.

Retirement

In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed MarineLand to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will MarineLand give her up?

Updates as of 2022:

In May 2021, inspectors issued two orders to MarineLand to repair the water system in the pools that house the beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and Kiska. “A months-long inspection of MarineLand by Ontario’s animal welfare watchdog has found that marine mammals at the tourist attraction were in distress due to poor water quality,” according to the Canadian Press. MarineLand initially appealed the orders, arguing that the unknown number of recent whales deaths were not related to poor water quality.6 But they later withdrew the appeal. It seems that the inspection is still ongoing, and I have not been able to find out whether or not MarineLand has begun the required repairs.

There have also been numerous concerns over the regularity in deaths of beluga whales at MarineLand, and animal rights activists are calling for more transparency. “The amusement park and aquarium has not been able to breed any new belugas since the passing of federal law (Bill S-203) in 2019 that prohibits the capture and breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity — something animal advocates say once masked the number of belugas dying at the park each year.”7 There were around 54 belugas in 2019, and today there are around 40. Five of those were transferred to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, so what happened to the other 9?

In September 2021, a video of Kiska repeatedly hitting the side of her tank at MarineLand went viral. This type of behavior is usually a sign of chronic stress. “Dr. Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project and a neuroscientist, explains that these kinds of behaviors, known as stereotypies, can include endless circling of the tank, grating their teeth on tank walls and gates, and other forms of self-injury.”8 Other visitors have made observations about Kiska exhibiting stereotypes. In addition to her loneliness, she now has poor water quality – this must be extremely stressful for her. 

Kshamenk, Argentina

Orca jumping out of the water during a performance at Mundo Marino
“Lightness” by Lorenzo Blangiardi on Flickr, Mundo Marino, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, an ecotype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.

Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank

The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.

Mundo Marino orca pools, aerial view, image captured from Google Earth
Mundo Marino orca and dolphin pools, image captured from Google Earth, February 20, 2021. This is the clearest image available from Google.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the smaller pool.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the main pool, and not the dolphin pool. The latter is much larger but their map does not accurately depict this. Image downloaded from Mundo Marino’s website, February 20, 2021.

Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:

At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”9 Obviously, the plans were never revived.

His capture

His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”10 There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.11 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”12 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.

Retirement?

The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:

“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”13

The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on its website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.

Image of Kshamenk jumping out of the water at Mundo Marino
“Mundo Marino,” image of Kshamenk by -fabio- on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Captivity Continues

I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.

“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish

Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will MarineLand Canada give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?

Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket!  Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Marineland faces legal complaint about Kiska, ‘the world’s loneliest orca’,” by Bobby Hristova, CBC News,

Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.

Article, “The man behind Marineland: 50 years of controversy,” by Liam Casey, The Toronto Star, October 3, 2011.

Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.

Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.

Website, Free Morgan Foundation

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Family Destruction

Last updated June 16, 2021.

Baby orca and mother at Marineland Antibes
“Baby Orca 3” at Marineland Antibes, image by marcovdz on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” -Mahatma Gandhi

In my last article about the plight of captive orcas, I presented some of the books and films I’ve seen and read in recent months about this subject. After all that I’ve learned, I can definitively say that orcas should not be held in captivity. As I was researching I was disappointed to discover that marine parks are not caring for them the way they should be. While there are many issues, I wanted to address the ones that illustrate the strongest arguments against captivity. Today, we will look at mother and calf separations.

Orca family in open ocean
Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash

Orca Pods are Families

Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando
Orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Separating Mothers and Calves

“In many orca populations, males spend their entire lives with their mothers, and in some populations, family ties are so persistent and well defined that all family members are usually within a 4 km (2.5 mile) radius of each other at all times.” -The Case Against Marine Mammal Captivity

Grief is Mammalian

she carried the carcass of her dead calf around for more than two weeks. Many cetaceans have exhibited grief but this case caught international attention. Some speculate as to why this mother grieved for so long, but I ask, what mother doesn’t grieve the loss of a child? Regarding the separation of mothers and calves in captivity, Dr. Naomi A. Rose said:

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.”

Katina and her calf at SeaWorld Orlando
“Katina and her calf” at SeaWorld Orlando, image by Bryce Bradford on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

SeaWorld Separations

1990, Kalina, SeaWorld’s first “Baby Shamu,” was separated from her mother (Katina) at age 4. SeaWorld later separated Kalina’s own calf Skyla, at age 2 or 3, sending her to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Some of the other orca calves separated from their mothers include:

        • Katerina, age 2
        • Keto, under age 4 years
        • Keet, 20 months old (still nursing)
        • Splash, 2.5 years old
        • Ikaika, age 4
        • Kohana, age 3
        • Trua, age 4
Takara at SeaWorld San Antonio
“Takara” at SeaWorld San Antonio, image by jordantea on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0). In 2004, SeaWorld moved twelve-year-old Takara (which was Kasatka’s firstborn calf) to another park. In 2006, they separated Takara’s own firstborn calf, Kohana, from her mother at age 3 and sent her to Loro Parque.
Trua at SeaWorld Orlando
“Trua” at SeaWorld Orlando, image by BrandyKregel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0). He is Takara’s second calf, separated from his mother in 2009 when they moved Takara to SeaWorld San Antonio. Trua remains at SeaWorld Orlando.

SeaWorld’s Justifications

Both the capture and importation of wild whales is illegal in most parts of the West. So SeaWorld had to breed orcas in order to keep their pools stocked. In order to maximize profits and breeding efficiency, they must move animals around between their parks. Additionally, baby orcas are a huge draw to the parks, increasing attendance and profits. SeaWorld became a multi-billion dollar company largely credited to its orca shows.

SeaWorld claims they are not separating calves from mothers by changing the semantics. “What they’ve tried to do is redefine the word “calf” by saying a calf is no longer a calf once they’re not nursing with their mother anymore, and that’s simply not true,” said John Hargrove. “A calf is always a calf.”[Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” Fresh Air, NPR, March 23, 2015. David Neiwert noted in Of Orcas and Men that SeaWorld “separates mothers from their offspring in a manner that is completely unnatural, with relative ease and no apparent pangs of conscience whatsoever.”6 Remember, many calves live with or near their mother for life.

When NPR asked Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s curator of zoological operations, about the separations, he responded:

“We’ve never moved a calf from a mom…A calf is an animal young enough who is still dependent on the mom, still nursing with the mom, and still requires the mom’s leadership…You can’t put it in human years; you’ve got to put it in killer whale years. We think they’re probably dependent [at] 4 to 5 years. After that, they start to gain their independence.”

So what about the relocations of the calves younger than age 4 or 5? I have been unable to find any information about that from SeaWorld’s website. All the marine biological studies contradict separation. Tompkins also mentioned that they prepare the whales for the separations and that they’ve “trained them to be relaxed during that move.” What does that even mean? How do you prepare a mother to never see her child again?

Calf Rejections

Sumar and Kasatka at SeaWorld San Diego
“Sumar & Kasatka” at SeaWorld San Diego, image by Bryce Bradford on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Trainers Experience these Heartbreaks Firsthand

“Unable to sense her daughter’s presence in any of the adjoining pools, Kasatka was sending sounds far into the world, as far as she could, to see if they would bounce back or elicit a response. It was heartbreaking for all who heard what easily be interpreted as crying.” -John Hargove, after Kasatka’s daughter was moved to another park

Orcas at SeaWorld
SeaWorld Orlando, image by Morten Graae from Pixabay

End of Captive Breeding?

SeaWorld claims to have ended its captive orca breeding program, “making the orcas in our care the last generation,” according to their website. In California, state legislation forced SeaWorld to do this before the company decided to do it on its own. Even so, it is a step in the right direction if all of its parks follow suit. If they have truly ended their breeding program, will they still separate and move orcas between parks? Could SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks keep mothers and calves together? The short answer is yes, but as you’ll see in my next post, a swimming pool is no place for an orca to spend its entire life.

Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

Article, “Op-Ed: SeaWorld was right to stop breeding orcas, but it should go further,” LA Times, February 23, 2017.

Footnotes: