Interview With Dr. Naomi Rose Regarding Shouka
There has been a lot of discussion to as what may best for Shouka, a 19-year-old female captive born orca, who is currently being singly housed at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo California. Singly housing an orca is a violation of Section 3.109 of the Animal Welfare Act due to the need for social companionship orcas require. Pressure has been placed on APHIS and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to correct the issue for almost 1 year now. Many people think Shouka should be moved to a SeaWorld facility in the U.S.A. and others oppose this move stating Shouka would become a breeding cash cow. Shouka would add new genetic diversity for Sea World’s in-house captive breeding program allowing Shouka to have offspring that would help keep the captivity of orcas on the rise. As of right now SeaWorld is facing a major issue with potential inbreeding with their current stock of orcas. Some people believe the move back to France where Shouka was born would be too stressful on her, despite no orca has ever died during a transport or directly after a transport. SeaWorld moves their orcas from park to park and even out of the country frequently. Some orcas have been moved several times.
Sea World is also thought to not be a good option as they have so many orcas already. SeaWorld’s holding tanks have failed to grow in size as they have continued to add orcas from their captive breeding program. At one time Sea World was recognized for having large holding tanks for their orcas, yet as time has gone on they have added many more orcas without modifying the tanks. Today many look at Sea World’s tanks to be small and over crowded which seems to be leading to more aggression towards trainers and other orcas residing in these pools. Some people wish to see Shouka go back home to France with her family and Freya a wild caught orca who helped raise Shouka. Marineland which is in Antibes, France houses just five orcas.
SeaWorld has three parks and houses 20 orcas between them – 8 in San Diego, 5 in San Antonio and 7 in Orlando. SeaWorld is housing 6 orcas in Loro Parque in the Canary Islands as well. Sea World will only continue to add new orcas in these existing pools. As of right now Sea World San Diego has one pregnant orca due soon along with another baby orca due at Loro Parque due any day as well.
Some people think Shouka should go to Marineland Canada. We have discussed this option in a previous post regarding Marineland Canada and Shouka. Also see new shocking undercover footage from Marineland Canada
While many believe Shouka should be set free to a seapen which does not exist and will never remedy the social companion issue.
Shouka could remain at Six Flags as long as another park steps up to help find a compatible companion for Shouka. One thing is for sure whatever takes place regarding Shouka’s future will way heavy on the hearts of many. If Shouka is moved to another park other than France she will be with complete strangers and that also means lots of fighting to establish dominance. There is no assurance other orcas would be compatible for Shouka at any park. The very industry that created Shouka has failed Shouka. These are things that these parks will not tell you, the needless suffering that occurs to orcas in captivity.
In the wild Shouka would make her own choices. These choices have been taken from Shouka by the industry which has failed Shouka along with every off spring she may produce in the future. There are major flaws with regards to the laws for keeping captive orcas, housing them and even interacting with them in captivity.
Promoting captivity is very challenging for us as we are opposed to the keeping of orcas in captivity. Our hands are tied in a day when seapens are the talk for captive orcas and we are forced to sway away from this option as there are no seapens & Shouka is owned by a corporation which will never give her up. We reached out to Dr. Naomi Rose the senior scientist for Humane Society International (HSI), specializing in international marine mammal protection issues to get her opinion of Shouka’s current situation. Her areas of expertise include whaling, whale and dolphin watching and marine ecotourism, the dolphin-safe tuna label, marine sanctuaries, acoustic harassment, captive marine mammals (including swim-with-the-dolphin programs), the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the sport hunting of polar bears, as well as the protection of walruses, seals, sea lions, manatees, dugongs and sea otters.
WMTINY- Based on your extensive research of killer whale social behavior, why is it important killer whales have companionship?
Dr. Rose- Killer whales are probably among the most social mammals on earth. Animal species can be solitary; found in small groups of varying composition (in other words, they group together for reasons that vary and the members of a group are constantly changing); or live in stable groups whose members are bonded for reasons that increase the group members’ survival prospects (these stable groups may be related genetically or not, but group living itself contributes to the members’ survival).
Killer whale groups tend to be extremely stable (in some cases with lifelong bonds) and are kin-based. In some populations, the basic group is a mother and all of her offspring, who remain bonded with her into their adulthood. In other groups, the kin bonds are looser and individual animals are even sometimes seen alone, but only for temporary periods. The basic advantage to living in a group for some orcas is because it increases foraging success – in others, it is because it increases survival success in general. Regardless of the advantage, the killer whale brain is wired for companionship – just as primate (including human), canine, and elephant brains are. Evolution has resulted in an animal that thrives only in a group – a solitary animal can survive, but it is unlikely to thrive.
Given that the need for being in a group is essentially hard-wired into the orca brain, maintaining captive orcas as solitary animals – when they already face physical and mental stressors, such as confined space, monotonic surroundings, lack of choice, and so on – adds an additional stressor that compounds the problems with which they must already deal.
WMTINY - How would it benefit Shouka if she was placed with other killer whales in a captive setting and what do you think it could do to Shouka mentally and physically the longer she is left in isolation?
Dr. Rose- Shouka would be more stimulated and engaged with her surroundings if she was placed with other compatible killer whales. (I stress the need for compatibility – I think being placed with incompatible orcas would be more stressful than being alone.) The longer she is left in isolation the more frustrated and possibly depressed she will become. She was born into a social group (in France) and then was placed in isolation from her own kind. This sort of social transition is no doubt very difficult and stressful for a social species like a killer whale. She literally NEEDS conspecific companionship – again, she can survive without it, but she will not thrive.
I can’t say more than this because it would be pure speculation – each orca is different psychologically. Shouka may have more resiliency regarding her solitary state than another whale might have or vice versa. We can’t know what she’ll do until she does it.
WMTINY - Just earlier this month, Shouka aggressively lunged out of the water towards her trainer 3 times during the beginning of a show that resulted in her trainers working from behind bars for several weeks without physically contact with Shouka during a show. Also, many people who have recently visited the park have commented that they have noticed there have been problems with Shouka refusing to perform. Do you think this could be due to her lack of companionship? And do you feel Shouka could become a liability to Six Flags if she continues to have aggressive moments with her trainers along with refusing to perform?
Dr. Rose- It is very tempting (and parsimonious) to attribute these aberrant behaviors shown by Shouka to her isolation. She has been without another orca for a companion for over a decade, however, and the appearance of these behaviors is relatively recent. Of course, she now doesn’t even have a dolphin with her, as Six Flags has recently moved Merlin, a bottlenose dolphin, into another enclosure. So it may be that being entirely solitary is in fact affecting her mood and she is now acting out of frustration over this untenable social situation.
If Shouka continues this behavior pattern, it may be that Six Flags will have to phase into a non-show format of displaying Shouka (although given the stadium seating at Six Flags’ facility, it’s hard to imagine how they might do that). Or they may have to consider moving her to another facility with other orcas. Obviously if she continues to refuse to perform (let alone act aggressively with her trainers) some sort of change in her circumstances will have to occur!
WMTINY – Could you expand a little bit on the killer whale brain structure in comparison to the human brain as it relates to emotional processing and do you feel from a scientific point of view that killer whales may be capable of feeling emotions we are incapable of feeling or emotions that we may not even be aware of?
Dr. Rose- You are asking for information that doesn’t exist. I am not a neurobiologist, but I can say we know nothing about the emotional processing of the killer whale brain. We don’t know how they process a lot of things – we do know that the orca brain has a very well developed auditory processing area, which makes sense given their dependence on acoustic cues and echolocation, but otherwise the analogs with the human brain are only in the early stages of understanding.
As for whether orcas can feel emotions we are incapable of feeling, that doesn’t make much sense from a biological (scientific) point of view. All mammals probably have the basic capacity for feeling certain similar emotions, such as fear, attachment (affection), depression, and even humor and shame. Whether any non-human animal can distinguish between like and love or feel nervous or be disgusted is unknown but I find it hard to believe that species with sophisticated brains cannot feel sophisticated, subtle emotions. However, given that humans have brains that are clearly capable of extremely sophisticated feats of cognition, the idea that another species with a sophisticated brain (such as orcas) can feel some emotion we can’t feel is difficult to imagine, but obviously anything is possible. Just not probable.
I’m really not sure what you were trying to get at with this question – orcas are mammals, just as humans are mammals. We share some common traits as mammals – and we share some other less common traits, as mammals with sophisticated brains. I DO think orcas think thoughts that we would no doubt find pretty foreign, but I really doubt they feel emotions we wouldn’t be able to recognize.
WMTINY - To your knowledge, is Shouka being kept in isolation a unique situation or have there been other killer whales in captivity that have been housed without another killer whale or dolphin in the same tank or separated by gates?
Dr. Rose- Shouka’s situation is unfortunately not unique. Keiko was held in isolation in a tank in Oregon and later in a sea pen and then unconfined. Lolita has probably been held in isolation periodically over her long life in the Miami Seaquarium – her dolphin companions have come and gone. Same with Kshamenk in Argentina – he has no doubt had periods where he has been entirely alone. Morgan was held in isolation for over a year separated from dolphins by a gate.
WMTINY - How do you feel about Shouka being isolated from companions of her own species for so long?
Dr. Rose- She has been isolated from companions of her own species for over a decade. I think every orca that does not have another compatible orca for companionship is living in the equivalent of solitary confinement for humans. It is a form of punishment in human culture and frankly I don’t see it as anything different in the orcas’ case. They are being punished for nothing at all – and the facilities holding them refuse to accept this and act as though this extremely aberrant social situation is normal.
WMTINY - What do you think is the best option, at this point, to immediately improve Shouka’s situation?
Dr. Rose- The best option to immediately improve her situation is to send her to a facility with other orcas, who will hopefully be compatible with her socially. It is wrong to hold her isolated from other orcas and it is absolutely untenable to hold her without any cetacean companionship at all. Her behaviors and mood will probably continue to deteriorate until she has SOME companion once again in her enclosure. Ideally and pragmatically, I think she should be repatriated to France, where she can once again be with her family.