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Why killer whales shouldn’t be kept in captivity

There are currently 56 orcas kept in captivity around the world, and the number keeps increasing. Spain and France are the third countries with more captive orcas (6 orcas each), after the USA (25 orcas) and Japan (7), followed by Russia (6), China (4), Argentina (1) and Canada (1). 21 of these 56 orcas have been captured from the wild.

The first display of an orca in captivity took place in 1964, so these animals have been displayed for human entertainment for more than 50 years now. Historically, there have been at least 215 orcas kept in captivity, more than half of them captured from the wild in Russia, USA and Iceland; and 160 of them which have already died -all of them prematurely.

Live captures of orcas from their natural habitats have revived in the last few years due to the increasing demand from countries such as Russia, Japan and China. Since 2012, 10 orcas have been caught in the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia.

Killer whales are energetic and dynamic animals. Gifted with a high emotional intelligence, their life is based on family and social relations with the other members of their pod. They even develop cultural traditions, including food preference and vocal dialects, specific to each group.

The diversity and complexity of their behaviour, language and ecology can easily place these animals right after the human species at these levels.

Orcas are predators that cooperate with each other, their territories reach thousands of squared kilometres, and they can swim up to 150-160 kilometres in a single day at speeds of up to 56 km/h.

However, for the captivity industry an orca is none of these, but simply an investment of several million dollars to feed their business.

In captivity, these animals are forced to live in facilities that are about ten thousand times smaller than what their natural habitat would be, and research – as well as experience - demonstrates that these animals do not adapt to the conditions imposed by captivity.


The levels of mortality of these animals in captivity are 2.5 times higher than in nature.

In the wild, male orcas live up to 60-70 years, while females can live up to 80-90 years, being their mean life expectancy of approximately 30 years in males and 50 years in females.

However, most of the orcas that have been kept in captivity since the beginning of this industry have died before reaching the age of 25, both males and females. Many have died in their teen years, and only two females have lived over 40 years of age.



Common death causes in captivity include pneumonia, sepsis and other infections, but orcas have also died when giving birth, during aggressive interactions with other orcas in the tank and from intestinal torsions, among others.

A factor contributing to the mortality caused by infections is the immunosuppression that these captive animals suffer because of the constant chronic stress, psychological depression and even boredom.

Dental health in captive orcas is especially poor as they tend to bite the concrete walls and the metal bars in their tanks due to boredom or as a sign of aggression toward other animals held nearby. The worn down, or even broken, teeth offer a direct entry path for germs to easily get into the blood system, through which they can then reach vital organs and cause numerous clinical problems.

Although dolphinaria claim that it is normal for orcas to have collapsed/bended dorsal fins due to gravity, the truth is that this rarely occurs in nature. In the wild, this phenomenon has only been observed in some degree in 1 to 5% of male orcas of some populations and it is not common. However, all male orcas in captivity have a totally collapsed dorsal fin.

These animals’ mental health is also seriously affected in these conditions to the point where they can even sometimes turn to a psychotic state. From being aggressive to simply floating all day lethargically in their tank, the signs that show a failure in providing them psychological well-being are multiple.

Some cetaceans in captivity show stereotyped behaviours, which are those observed in many captive animals and which are carried out repeatedly and with no apparent purpose. In orcas, the most frequent are swimming in circles repeatedly, or floating on the surface still and lethargically for long periods of time. It's also common, mostly between large cetaceans like orcas or false orcas, that they bite the metal bars and walls in their tanks, as well as bumping their heads and chins against the concrete walls (which many times ends up in teeth breaking and with severe bruises).


Despite the captive industry trying to hide these, there are at least 138 known cases of aggressive incidents from captive orcas to humans. Four people, three of them trainers, have already died from an attack of a captive orca, with the cases in 2009 at Loro Parque (Spain) and in 2010 at Sea World Orlando (USA) being the most recent ones.

At least 24 orcas have been involved in dozens of incidents that compromised the safety of the people who interacted with them, putting their lives at risk in many occasions (although it is possible that this figure is actually higher as these type of incidents are not usually made public). On top of that, these often occurred in front of hundreds of spectators, most of them children.

In the wild, such aggressions between orcas are rarely observed and when they are, none have resulted in serious damage. However, aggressiveness among orcas in captivity is common, due to the incompatibility between them, the harassment from the dominant one and the impossibility of escaping. Groups of captive orcas are totally artificial; they are formed by animals that don't necessarily get along well. There is one case of a captive orca dying due to an injury sustained in an aggressive interaction with another whale, as well as multiple cases of cuts and serious injuries resulting from attacks amongst them.

Signs of aggressiveness between these animals include attacks to the genital areas, jaw-snapping, fast chases, or violent moves with their head.

The violent interactions observed between captive orcas include ramming, which can result in severe bruises; internal bleeding; ribs, lungs and artery ruptures; spinal cord dislocations; and many other injuries that can facilitate the invasion of toxic substances and end up causing their death. Deep wounds caused by teeth marks (raking) are often seen on the skin of captive orcas.

The aberrant and aggressive behaviours observed in captive orcas suggest an abnormal social and psychological development and unnatural stress that these animals, bred or born in artificial groups and environments, suffer.

Captive breeding

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at around 12-14 years of age. Females give birth every 5 years approximately and reach menopause at their early forties.

Dolphinaria often breed their females much earlier and more often than what orcas would do in the wild, sometimes even by inbreeding. As in other mammal species, females that are forced to breed in these conditions can suffer physical problems that reduce their life expectancy. This practice also puts the survival of offspring at risk given that mothers may have never learned the necessary maternal skills or have not reached appropriate sexual maturity, both essential to be able to raise a calf successfully.

There are several cases of female orcas who have reacted aggressively towards their newly born babies or that have simply failed to nurse them or care for them properly. In one case, an orca’s pool was so small that she couldn’t take the appropriate position to be able to nurse her calf, who consequently died shortly after birth.

Inbreeding may lead to high offspring mortality rates. In addition, the animals that do live will suffer from having a weakened immune system. The risk of genetic diseases or abnormalities will be transmitted to the next generations.

Inbreeding also involves welfare problems in females, who are forced to go through the emotionally traumatic situation of losing their young at the same time as their lives are put at risk. To avoid inbreeding, dolphinaria trade animals between them and all over the world, breaking existing groups and adding social tensions among animals coming from different centres.

Orcas in Spain

In 2006, 4 orcas were imported to Loro Parque, Tenerife, from Sea World USA: Keto, Tekoa, Kohana and Skyla. Their import was justified as part of a captive breeding program and the scientific authorities of CITES gave their approval to both facilities despite pressure from several NGOs, which reported that the orcas were going to participate in circus-like activities. This was the first import of orcas to the EU in 10 years.

In 2010, Kohana gave birth to Adán. Possibly due to the fact that Kohana was forced to breed too young and that she didn’t know how to take care of her offspring, as she was removed from her mother when she was only four years old. Adán was rejected by her at birth and had to be raised by his caregivers.

In 2011, Morgan was send to Loro Parque from Harderwijk dolphinarium in Holland, where she was being rehabilitated after she had been rescued at the Frisia Sea in 2010. Although scientists and other experts found her original family and advocated to reintroduce her back to the sea with them once recovered, a judge authorized her transfer to Loro Parque where she now has since been participating in the circus shows along with the other 5 captive orcas. Morgan is harassed by these other orcas and shows numerous wounds all around her body. There is currently a complex judicial process pending to determine her “property” and if she can be at the park taking part in the shows. More information at http://www.freemorgan.org/

In 2012, Kohana had another baby born (this time with her own uncle - a new case of inbreeding), Vicky, whom she also rejected as she had done with her first offspring: Vicky died at 10 months of age.

There have already been at least three reported cases of attacks from orcas to their trainers in Loro Parque:

  • In 2007 an orca attacked his trainer and tried to drown her
  • In 2009 an orca attacked her trainer holding him against the concrete wall underwater
  • In 2009 an orca attacked and killed his trainer


The only logical conclusion that can be reached with this information is that orcas cannot cope with the artificial social and physical conditions imposed by captivity. They do not survive, captivity causes them physical and psychological damage, and they attack each other and humans in a way that does not occur in the wild.

Captivity not only involves premature deaths for the animals, but also puts people at risk of serious injury or even death.

Captive breeding of this species and their live trade should be put to an end as they do not comply with any conservation purpose. The existing population of captive orcas should gradually phase out, individuals should be retired to marine enclosures (sea pens) and, where possible, reintroduced back to the sea, giving them back their freedom.

It is up to the public, media, governments and the scientific community to consider and evaluate the evidence and make a decision.

More information Killer Controversy: Why Orcas should no longer be kept in captivity de la Dra. Naomi Rose para el Animal Welfare Institute, Marzo 2014.

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