The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Part 2

Last updated May 13, 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.

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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:

  1. Website, “Orcas (Killer Whales): Facts and Information,” National Geographic, accessed January 2, 2021.
  2. Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party
  3. Article, “Orca Mother Drops Calf, After Unprecedented 17 Days of Mourning
  4. Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party
  5. Book, “Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us,” by David Neiwert, The Overlook Press, New York, 2015.
  6. Interview, “Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” Fresh Air, NPR, March 23, 2015.
  7. Report, Rose, N.A. and Parsons, E.C.M. (2019). The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, 5th edition (Washington, DC: Animal Welfare Institute and World Animal Protection), 160 pp.
  8. Interview, “Former Orca Trainer For SeaWorld Condemns Its Practices,” Fresh Air, NPR, March 23, 2015.
  9. Film, Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite,

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