The recent death of animal trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s SeaWorld has raised the debate as to whether killer whales, commonly referred to as the orca, should be kept in captivity.
Proponents of keeping the animals captive argue that they provide entertainment and education, but those opposed say it is an unusual environment for this intelligent, highly social, and massive animal.
In the wild, killer whales live with their mothers for their entire lives. Females can live up to 90 years old in the wild, and males up to 60 years. They travel in close family lines up to four generations. As opposed to their tight quarters of a marine tank, killer whales swim on average 100 miles per day in the wild.
Currently there are 42 killer whales in captivity around the world. On average, killer whales only live to their twenties in captivity. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has campaigned against keeping these animals in captivity.
“Captive orcas are not domesticated animals and indeed are strong, wild animals constrained in an environment that places them under considerable stress,” states WDCS on their Web site. “These tragic events are a reminder that orcas are powerful and often unpredictable animals.”
WDCS adds that tragic incidents such as what happened at SeaWorld are not isolated, and aggression between captive orcas and aggression toward trainers has increased in recent years.
According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), many such incidents have occurred to marine mammal captive facility workers. According to WSPA, a 2004 University of California survey found that over half of marine mammal workers had been injured by animals they work with.
Tilikum, the whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau last week, has now been involved in three human fatalities. The first was in 1991 when a trainer fell into his tank. The second was in 1999 when a homeless man snuck into the tank at SeaWorld after hours and was found dead with bite marks and bruises the next morning.
Tilikum was approximately 2 years old when he was taken from his family and natural habitat off the coast of Iceland. He may be the largest orca in captivity weighing approximately 12,000 pounds.
According to WDCS, SeaWorld holds 47 percent of the world’s captive killer whale population.
Amidst the controversy over Brancheau’s death, the show went on this past weekend at SeaWorld as the killer whales performed in a show that was a tribute to the killed trainer.