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September 19, 2011

New Report Shows Keeping Killer Whales in Captivity is Dangerous to Them and Their Keepers

Humane Society International

  • Orcas do not belong in captivity. istock

WASHINGTON—Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States have released a report outlining the arguments and scientific evidence against the public display of killer whales, or orcas, on animal welfare grounds.

“The debate on captive orca welfare has been going on for more than 30 years and that’s far too long,” said Naomi Rose, Ph.D., senior scientist for Humane Society International and the author of the report. “The science is in and we should realize that nothing—not profit, not education, not conservation—can justify keeping this large, social, intelligent predator in a small box.”

Keeping orcas in captivity is not just detrimental for the animals. Since 1964—the first year an orca was displayed to the public—four people have been killed and dozens more injured by captive orcas. The most recent death occurred in February 2010, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed just after a show at SeaWorld featuring Tilikum, an approximately 30-year-old male orca.

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In August 2010, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited SeaWorld with a “willful” violation of safety regulations, meaning the company showed plain indifference to or intentional disregard for statutory requirements for employee safety and health, in the matter of Brancheau's death. Rose will be attending the hearing scheduled to begin today as the theme park challenges the agency’s findings.

The report, “Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity,” [PDF] presents the growing body of scientific evidence showing that orcas do not adapt to captivity, including:

  • Previous analyses using data through 1992 showed that captive orcas have higher mortality rates than wild orcas; new analyses examining data through 2010 confirm that the situation has not improved in the past 18 years, and in fact has worsened. Captivity is, in essence, poor habitat for orcas, causing early death.
  • Captive female orcas give birth too young and too often, leading to both high adult and high infant mortality.
  • The most common cause of death for captive orcas is infection. Chronic stress may be an important factor in weakening the animals’ immune response.
  • Captive orcas have poor dental health compared to wild whales, which may be another factor in their susceptibility to fatal infections.
  • Orcas in captivity are more aggressive toward each other than in the wild. Females also behave abnormally toward their calves more often than in the wild.
  • Since captive orcas have been publicly displayed, they have seriously threatened the lives and safety of dozens of people, and four people have been killed. However, wild orcas have injured only a handful of people—none seriously—and there are no records, at any time in history, of them killing anyone.

The report recommends a phasing out of the practice of maintaining orcas in captivity. It also provides rebuttals to several specific claims and statements made by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, which owns the largest number of captive orcas in the world.


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Humane Society International is the international arm of The Humane Society of the United States, one of the world's largest animal protection organizations—backed by 11 million people. HSI is creating a better future for animals and people through advocacy, education, and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty worldwide—On the Web at hsi.org.

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The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization—backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty—On the Web at humanesociety.org.

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