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Are Captive Orca Whales Displaying Emotional Behaviors Despite Scientific Evidence? Should they remain in captivity?

March 5, 2011

From a child I have always been surrounded by animals. I feel I was blessed, as my family strongly supported animal bonding. I grew up learning to respect animals. I also grew up seeing the animals in my life displaying emotions. Even today, I can see my German Shepherd Dogs emotions play out in front of me. From Jealously to complete overwhelming excitement, my dogs remind me everyday they have feelings.

When I found out that captive marine mammals were suffering in captivity, I just could not believe it. I did not want to believe it. I wanted answers to as why this suffering was occurring along with how it can be stopped. What I have found was that it came down to the scientific community not publicly releasing studies conducted on animals regarding their emotions. Numerous studies have been conducted regarding animal emotions versus instinctual behavior.

Instinctual animal behavior is hardwired into the animals for survival of the species. A great example is the protective instincts that an animal mother provides to her young.

But what about the love, the nurturing she provides to her young? What about the pain a mother goes through when her baby has become food for another species or has died naturally? Is this NOT emotional pain? There is no biological advantage to be had for a mother to remain with her dead baby sometimes for days. Even as the rest of the family has moved on and the mother remains with her dead baby, there is no biological advantage for her. Mother’s are sometimes separated from the protection of the family, as the family eventually gives up and moves forward with life. Yet, it has been observed that a mother will stand alone, pushing and rolling her dead baby, refusing to leave its side.

In the wild recently an Orca was discovered pushing her dead baby, holding her baby above the water. What biological advantage did it serve this mother to do this? From an emotional perspective to see the loss while mourning of her young is so valuable. This mourning period may also prove to be vital to the mother’s well-being.

Sept. 10, San Juan Island:

From Cascadia Research (Courtesy Orca Network)

This morning we encountered L72 and L105 carrying a dead killer whale calf off the west side of San Juan Island. We followed the whales for just over 6 hours, and most of the time the calf was not visible, but on occasion L72 would lift the calf out of the water when she was surfacing. When we were able to see the calf L72 appeared to either be pushing it in front of her balanced on her rostrum or would be carrying the calf on the top of her head, but the calf was negatively buoyant, so had probably not been dead for long.

Although L105, L72′s ~6 year old son, was within 50 or 100 m for most of the time, we did not see L105 interacting with the dead calf. Based on the size of the calf (approximately 6-7′) we suspect it was near-term but no way to know whether it was stillborn or born alive and died shortly afterward. Upon surfacing L72 would frequently appear to ‘drop’ the calf and both whales would stop and dive deep to recover it. From the photos it appears the calf was a female, and the umbilical is still attached and clearly visible. When we left the whales early this evening L72 still had the calf with her.

L72 and calf San Juan Island Sept. 10, 2010 Photo by Robin Baird, Cascadia Research

In 2010 Sumar, a young captive born male orca at SeaWorld suddenly died. While watching the news video we noticed Orkid, an older captive female orca, was locked inside the medical pool with the trainers and Sumar while they were trying to remove Sumar from the pool after he passed away.

Orkid and Sumar - courtesy of Dailymotion

She obviously would not leave Sumar. Orkid and Sumar were closely bonded. During the video you can see Orkid continuously looking over at Sumar, watching what is happening. Orkid has to be watered down by her trainers to avoid from drying out, as her body is mostly out of the water.

Orkid and Sumar - courtesy of Dailymotion

The video offers no sound, yet as you watch you can see Orkid opening her mouth , as if she is screaming and crying out. Her trainer’s work diligently to keep her calm and distracted, sometimes even bowing down directly in front of her.

Orkid and Sumar - courtesy of Dailymotion


It is very apparent Orkid’s trainers are comforting her, while offering her protection from the dangerous elements she has chosen to place herself in. This situation offers Orkid no biological advantage to her survival although it would offer Orkid an emotional advantage.

What we as a society need to begin to understand and believe is animals do have social and emotional needs no matter what traditional science states. Science has been wrong numerous times before. Scientific research also is always changing due to technology. With regards to the emotional lives of animals, science is just now starting to catch up.

What I find confusing about the mass majority of scientists is this: A scientist will own a family pet, treating this family pet as if it does have emotions and social needs. They will tell stories of their pets showing emotions, yet in the lab the animals they work with are claimed to be emotionless beings. At home their animals have names, while in the lab these animals are given numbers. This confuses me. If a scientist treated his family pet the way he treated the lab animals, he would be arrested for animal abuse. From my understanding of scientists, they would never dare do to their animals at home what they do to animals in the lab just because that would be wrong.

I am unable to justify this behavior all in the name of science regarding rather animals have emotions or not.

There is a study that was conducted on reheses monkeys where one monkey was starved while the other monkey was attached to an electronic device that offered a shock to him ONLY if the starving monkey took food to feed himself. What scientists found was that once the starving monkey realized every time he took food his counterpart was electrocuted, the starving monkey stopped taking the food. In this case there was a real biological need to be met, the monkey was starving….his preservation of his own life depended upon that food. Yet, once that monkey was able to realize his action of preserving himself was inflicting pain upon another, he no longer cared about his own preservation, his biological needs and his survival instincts were over ridden by emotions.

Our dependence upon science as a way to measure rather we truly respect animals in captivity or the wild is failing us and the animals. To base how we treat animals on science alone is not accurate, it’s not working. This is selective behavior on our part. Orca trainers even acknowledge and publicly verbalize that captive orcas have feeling and emotions.

Excerpts from former Marineland trainer Ted Desmond, Eye to Eye with Orky and Corky:

“His left eye (whales generally look at us with one eye at a time) opened wide, showing its bloodshot white. The red eye, as we call it, signals anger, sometimes surprise.”

“There will always be those times when Orky is highly emotional and nothing can prevent a confrontation.”

“these experiences have given me a sense of Orky’s personality: he is proud, with a strong need to control his environment. He is not only a fast learner, but an adept game player. He also has an excellent memory, easily recalling tricks he hasn’t performed in a year or more. He needs intellectual stimulation and, though he is only occasionally playful, positive support from people. Despite his gruff demeanor, he has a sensitive, even fragile, side. Finally, he has shown great awareness, tolerance, and patience toward Corky, his mate. ”

“Corky may refuse to perform if a trainer is not being friendly enough. When this happens, no amount of discipline can get her to work. Yet she has never hurt anyone. Squirting water, pushing against the working platform, and detaining her trainer in the tank when she was being ridden have been her worst offenses. Asked to describe Corky’s personality, I would say she is intelligent, alert and extremely sensitive. She needs a tremendous amount of affection from people, but she has great patience, endurance and resilience. If you cross her, she can be stubborn and exasperating – but she’d really rather play. “

Excerpt from an interview with former SeaWorld trainer, Carol Ray, as she talks about a mother orca’s (Katina) reaction when her first baby, Kalina, was taken away and moved to another park:

“After Kalina was removed, I stayed and made observations throughout the night. This is one of the worst memories I have from my time there. Her mother, Katina, was not an overly vocal whale but that night I watched her for hours as she stayed floating in one spot, alone, emitting such heart-wrenching vocalizations it truly broke my heart. The other girls, including Katerina (Kalina’s sister, Katina’s other baby at that time) left her alone in her grief even though the gate between their pools was open.”

The majority of wild orca whale research comes from field workers or ETHOLOGISTS, not actually white lab coat wearing scientists. What I find interesting is that many people gladly accept these field workers data as truth, scientific proof which they will base their arguments on.  Yet when it comes to captive orcas, these ethologists points of view and the data they provide is meaningless. People want to see the scientific research from the lab techs in the white coats regarding captive orcas and suffering. What a double standard this is.

Why do people want to see scientific research conducted on captive orca whales when we all know science is cruel to animals and we all know what torture would come to these whales. This way of thinking is kinda sickening to me. They claim to love them, respect them even so far as to claim to honor them….yet they demand we show them scientific proof to back up the truth regarding marine mammals in captivity emotionally suffering.

Naomi Rose, Marine Mammal Scientist for the HSUS along with other scientists have proven scientifically that orcas have the same spindle neurons that we humans have. The connection is these shared spindle neurons are the neurons that enable us and orcas to feel emotions and even act out on our felt emotions. This is proof enough that we need to change how we treat captive orcas. The evidence is there, as of right now, it is our double-sided decisions which keep the controversy and the senseless neglect and abuse occurring, not the scientists.

If you have not seen the April 2010 Congressional Hearing on Marine Mammals in Captivity, I highly recommend that this be one video you do take the time to watch. This video allows all parties the right to state their concerns, including a SeaWorld representative and also the lovely Naomi Rose. As an added bonus this video also touches upon SeaWorld taking dolphins from the Taiji Hunts and their explanation of why they took from the dolphin hunts in the first place.

My point is orcas form close social and family bonds, they show emotions, and they are dying prematurely in captivity. Captivity is not meeting their needs to be who nature intended them to be. Captivity may provide dental care, food and social interaction with humans but it is failing to meet the emotional needs along with the physical needs of these orcas and we are killing them.

The majority of these captive orcas form close bonds and breaking them up either by moving them from park to park or allowing whales to encounter so many premature deaths is showing to lead to negative consequences. Disrupting the needs and ignoring the needs of these animals is leading to negative consequences. Orca whales have never killed a human in the wild, yet 4 humans have died due to killer whale attacks in captivity.

How much more can you ignore the truth?

So long as there are captive orcas, we must begin to learn to satisfy the emotional and physical needs, as it is our obligation. So long as we keep them in captivity we should thrive to be able to provide them the very best lives captivity can offer. This does not just mean teeth cleaning, food and social interaction with humans.

Quality care and meeting the needs would mean offering captive orcas the space they really required to live in, the space for entire family pods to grow and not have to be separated. Did you know that in captivity many babies have to be removed from their mothers due to aggression from their own mothers? Mothers have tried to even drown their own babies in captivity. This is insane behavior from an orca. This is wrong. Captivity can not offer them proper social interactions with their own family members and even other pods for mating choices. Captivity simply can not meet their needs.

Sometimes I get asked, well what makes them different from all the other animals in zoos and captivity, why them?

This answer is so simple. We can not meet their emotional and physical needs nor can we mimic their natural habitats. They live in concrete empty pools. You can take fish and place them into a tank with sand, coral living rock and they do not know the difference. You can provide them what they normally would have in their natural element. A vast majority of fish housed in tanks are living long healthy lives.

Some species are just not meant to be in captivity, and orcas are turning out to be one of those species.

And for those of you who want to attack me by saying I am assigning human emotions to animals, well maybe I am but what does it matter in the end…. we all feel the same pain when a captive orca dies prematurely. We all cry the same tears and feel the heartache.

It is not just “anti-caps” who are affected by the loss of these captive majestic creatures. You can say I am an idiot, you can ignore the truth to meet your own needs, but what am I really doing wrong by just trying to cover the basic rights of these animals. What harm am I doing to these animals, none at all.

I am not ashamed to believe that animals have emotions and feelings, I am not ashamed to believe in the science that backs this fact and I will not be ashamed that I will continue to educate and raise awareness regarding marine mammals and their emotions.

Whales and dolphins want out, they are dying to entertain us.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. JEN permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:19 am

    SeaWorld said that Orkid was there for company for Sumar.

    That always confused me because at the time they didn’t know what was wrong with Sumar they just knew he was very sick. They didn’t know if it was contagious. Why would the risk another whale catching a disease?

    Its obvious she refused to leave his side as they were so close.

  2. March 6, 2011 6:59 am

    I completely agree with you in regards to killer whale & dolphin captivity.

    However I find your conclusion about other animals in captivity very puzzling and quite surprising. The way I interpret the last part of your blog post, is that you view killer whales & dolphins as different from other species of captive animals…? I have to say that this hurts your entire argument. In essence, you are supporting the views of those who are “pro-cap”, only arguing that these marine mammals (and only these marine mammals) have needs that are fundamentally different than any other species of captive animals.

    I have to admit I find that very disappointing and I would suggest that you might want to consider examining your own beliefs in regards to other species who, just like whales and dolphins, are deprived of . Whales and dolphins are not more deserving of rights, freedom or consideration and their lives in .

    On one hand you included examples of dog’s emotional lives, you also cited a study done on rhesus monkeys to support the claim that whales & dolphins indeed have emotional needs that cannot be met in captivity but then immediately deny that other species are just fine in captivity and (presumably because…. they have no emotional needs?) therefore you see no reason why the argument you are making in the case of captive orcas/dolphins should be relevant or apply to any other animal currently in captivity.


    To me, it seems that for all intents and purposes, your position is essentially the same as any “pro-cap” out there and the only difference is that you believe orcas and dolphins are special and should be an exception. The problem here being that I’m unsure how you determine or justify why only these two Especially since, as I noted you used studies and personal experience as examples to prove a point about orca & dolphin emotion.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to understand the scientists who view and treat their pets very differently than the animals they have no bond with… there is some similarity between this and the way you seem to have deliberately chosen to limit your “anti-cap” beliefs to dolphins & orcas only. To me, both of these examples are just as illogical.

    In fact there are a few more of your comments, arguments and your justifications that I am having issues with and that I would like to point out to you for reflection.

    I wanted to point out that ethologist *are* scientists, their field *is* in fact science and their work *is* scientific. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say that *all* science is bad for animals.. In fact, Science is the reason we know anything at all about animals, including what we know about their behavior in the wild, their family structures and how we know about their spindle cells. Additionally, Science is what you are using to back up statements about their emotional needs..and our inability to meet those needs in captive environment!

    Fish may or may not live longer lives in tanks, a longer life doesn’t mean quality of life. Case and point: Gregoire, a chimp who was rescued from a zoo in Congo by Jane Goodall after 40 years of solitary confinement in a tiny cage and such horrible conditions that he was completely hairless, was one of the oldest chimp ever known to have lived in captivity or in the wild when he died in 2008. While it’s wonderful that he at least got a chance to enjoy 10 years after his rescue, it’s pretty safe to say that in his case a long life was not an indication of a good one.

    I don’t mean to come down on you out of spite . I do agree with a lot of what you write – in this post as well as past ones but I had to point out a few things I don’t not agree with. I hope you can accept it and don’t take it as an attack, I assure you I’m well intentioned and only hope to encourage discussion and critical thought.


    • March 6, 2011 10:19 pm

      Thank You for leaving your concerns…. we welcome you not as an attack, yet though as an individual with concerns and questions. With regards to this article and your concerns- “my conclusion about other animals in captivity”
      I was just touching on Orcas and if they were displaying emotional behaviors, not all animals in captivity. I never stated all animals do well in captivity except orcas. If I was to discuss how all animals respond in captivity this blog would not have been about what I was trying to focus on, orcas possibly displaying/having emotions despite lab scientific evidence.

      Orcas are not so special in my eyes that I only feel the need to speak out against orcas in captivity. I believe lots of animals are suffering in captivity- here is why we report so much on orcas-

      The public has been fed for so long orcas are happy and they are doing fine in captivity. You can look up so many other animals and find tons of info on the stresses of captivity that comes to them. With orcas there is not so much info that is easy to find.

      I also understand ethologists are scientists, as this is why I stated scientific research has been conducted by ethologists and it is not being acknowlegded. I was making the public aware not all scientific research comes from the labs. Even ethologists will tell anyone their type of research is not fully accepted in the scientific community, as they do not have control over their test subjects. Fieldwork has not been completly accepted as “science” to date. It is still transitioning and is being accepted slowly.

      I never stated only orcas and whales are the only animals who do poor in captivity. I just simply used an example of fish and how you can mimic their envirnonment but not an orcas. I never stated it is was ok for all fish in captivity. Many fish die in transport, while being caught and even after being in captivity, that is a another issue that would need to be expressed on its own. The same with all species of animals. I was just using examples for the public to relate.

      Gregoire showed signs that captivity was harming him. My vague example of fish was not talking about disease ridden fish living long lives, I was referencing healthy fish, in enriched environments showing no signs of stress in captivity, which can be measured. It seems to me you chose to assign my wording to “longevity of life means animals are doing well in captivity”. That is not what I was saying at all. I was saying for some species captivity can be accomodating, while other species it can not be accomodating for them.

      I “cited a study done on rhesus monkeys to support the claim that whales & dolphins indeed have emotional needs that cannot be met in captivity” I cited this info again NOT to PROVE orcas have emotions, but to show ANIMALS have the ability to display emotions. If a dog or monkey can display emotions why not orcas?

      Here’s the thing, we encounter so many people who are UNLIKE you or us. They do not have the knowledge or the understanding about how animals suffer in captivity, they do not know what ethologists are and they have to be walked into understanding animal rights. I can not go to the extreme expecting to make changes. We encounter lots of individuals who do not accept ethologist’s or fieldworker’s data as evidence, they want the lab data as proof before they will begin to accept orcas are suffering in captivity.

      I again will state I am not persay an “anti-cap”. I believe animals in our lives are very important. I believe we need to interact and bond with them, this helps over come fears of animals that many humans have. I do not believe animals who are suffering in captivity is right. I believe if an animal in captivity shows stress in captivity they are not a candidate for captivity and should be moved to sanctuaries to live out the remainder of their lives. I believe if their environment can not meet their needs, they should be permanently removed as candidates for captivity, such as orcas. Big cats, elephants, monkey and such should also be removed form captivity, but again this article was referring to orcas.

      Just because right now in our lives we are advocating for orcas and dolphins does not mean we care less about other animals suffering in captivty

      We protest for elephants in captivity as well
      International Day of Action for Elephants in Zoos – Six Flags Vallejo CA

      Six Flags Discovery Kingdom Vallejo, Ca. Elephant Protest

      here is another video we did to show how we feel about other animals in captivity

      Six Flags Discovery Kingdom “Best” of Land Animals

  3. JEN permalink
    March 6, 2011 9:05 pm

    To AB

    You are right in some respects – not all animals do well in captivity.

    Some animals do very well in captivity and are healthy, happy and thrive (giraffe’s for example) but not every zoo is a good zoo. They must be looked at indivually.

    Not every species can be kept in captivity, even in the best zoos, personally I think orca, dolphin, polar bears, elephants, whale sharks, javan rhino’s and white tigers should be banned from all zoos as they just dont thrive in any captive enviroment, even the best we can do is not enough.

    Not all zoo’s are capable of keeping chimps correctly, some like the case you mentioed are not capable, places like Monkey World, Howletts zoo and Port Lympne zoo are.

    Zoo’s should have to start with smaller, easier species and have to prove they can look after mentally and phsically demanding species such as big cats and chimps before they are allowed to keep them.

    I have seen the authors write articles agaisnt keeping polar bears in captivity, so they are not just focusing on orca. They have also written several articles on sharks. Just because this articlce is about orca doesn’t mean they dont care about other species.


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