Since the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau almost one year ago, the world has been learning a lot about more about the reality of life in marine parks for killer whales.
Now two former trainers have just released a powerful report that captures the full range of stresses suffered by orcas in captivity, stresses that likely contributed to the death of Dawn Brancheau (as well as a trainer named Alexis Martinez as a marine park in the Canary Island two months earlier).
(Note: Images are from the report)
The former trainers, Jeff Ventre and John Jett (now a doctor and a professor, respectively), worked as trainers at SeaWorld Orlando (including with Tilikum) for a combined total of 12 years, and both knew Dawn Brancheau. The stresses they catalog include: aggression between whales, medical issues, captive breeding practices, and the total disconnect between marine park life and the natural world and social structures killer whales are used to in the wild.
In particular, Jett and Ventre break new ground by explaining how life at marine parks leads killer whales to damage their teeth:
Social strife and boredom accompanying orca captivity also contribute to broken teeth. Steel gates are the primary method of separating orcas prior to training sessions, shows, or when aggressive tensions exist between animals (e.g. Kayla and Kalina). It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF. As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.
This behavior, and the resulting broken teeth and exposed pulp, prompts SeaWorld to drill out broken or worn-down teeth to prevent abscess and infection. The resulting bore holes require trainers to irrigate the teeth multiple times each day (the authors note that SeaWorld trainers tell visitors this is evidence of the superior dental care the whales receive), and might be a vector for some of the mysterious infections which often seem to be the cause of death in marine park killer whales.
Ventre and Jett–with the help of The Orca Project, which compiled a complete record of all the killer whales that have lived and died in captivity–also take a statistical look at killer whale survival rates in captivity. Some 157 killer whales have died in captivity since marine parks began featuring killer whales more than 40 years ago, and there are 41 killer whales still alive in marine parks today. The average survival of the killer whales that died in captivity was 6.6 years. And using a statistical approach that looks at both the living and the dead in a population to predict overall survival, Ventre and Jett reveal that killer whales in captivity are shockingly short-lived, with a median survival of just 8.5 years. That means that half of all killer whales born into captivity (as almost all are these days) will die before the age of nine. In contrast, killer whales in the wild have an average life expectancy of 50 years (for females) and 30 years (for males).
It’s perhaps not very shocking to think that life in marine park pools is not very good for large, intelligent mammals, used to a tight family social structure and the wide expanses of the open ocean. But what Ventre and Jeff do, which is key, is put details and numbers to our understanding of what captivity really means for killer whales.