On Monday, July 24th, SeaWorld announced that Kyara, ostensibly the last orca calf to be born in SeaWorld’s parks, had died, reportedly due to pneumonia.
The sad death mirrors everything wrong with keeping orcas in captivity.
SeaWorld now has a total of 22 orcas still in captivity in its three parks in San Antonio (where the calf Kyara died), San Diego and Orlando. But SeaWorld has long concealed the fact that 46 captive orcas have died in SeaWorld’s care, along with dozens of other dolphins and whales.
Under pressure from environmental and animal welfare organizations as well as state and federal legislators and the California Coastal Commission, SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that they would no longer breed orcas in captivity. But SeaWorld refused the urging of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) of Earth Island Institute and other groups to retire their captive orcas to seaside sanctuaries.
Public opposition to keeping orcas in captivity had been galvanized by the devastating documentary “Blackfish,” which recorded orca attacks on SeaWorld trainers, including four trainer deaths, and the long-term chronic stress and health issues caused by captivity. Tilikum, SeaWorld’s large male orca involved in three deaths of trainers and the focus of “Blackfish”, died in January this year.
Takara, the mother of the calf Kyara, was pregnant in SeaWorld San Antonio when last year’s announcement to end orca breeding was made, so her calf is supposed to be the last orca ever to be born at SeaWorld parks. And now she is dead.
Former SeaWorld senior orca trainer John Hargrove, who worked extensively with Takara, tweeted: “It's an absolute insult to every one of us that they keep saying ‘healthy and thriving’ as they are dying from disease right in front of us.”
Hargrove’s book, “Beneath the Surface,” chronicles his years of frustration at SeaWorld.
SeaWorld’s breeding program for orcas was anything but a benign process, involving administration of drugs to speed up female orca breeding cycles, and extensive artificial impregnation of orcas, including orcas like Kasatka, the mother of Takara, who was on medications when bred by SeaWorld and is now having serious problems with skin disease.
Most of SeaWorld’s orcas in captivity today have been captive bred. Since much of the scientific community and SeaWorld are in agreement that captive-bred orcas cannot be successfully released back into the wild, the only purpose for SeaWorld to breed its orcas was to provide more captive orcas for the popular circus-like shows featured at the parks, having orcas perform tricks, including many unnatural to their wild behavior, before live audiences with blaring music.
The plight of little Kyara, dead at only three-months-old, contrasts with the fate of Keiko, the orca rehabilitated and released by IMMP’s Free Willy/Keiko Foundation. Keiko was the orca star of the 1993 hit movie “Free Willy,” but a subsequent “Life Magazine” article pointed out that while the fictional Willy returned to the wild at the end of the movie, Keiko still languished in a small tank in Mexico City.
After searching about for a way to help Keiko, Warner Brothers and “Free Willy” Executive Producer Dick Donner contacted IMMP for help. IMMP formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, teaming up with Warner Brothers, the Humane Society of the United States, Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures, and hundreds of thousands of children around the world to save Keiko.
Keiko was one of sickest orcas in captivity, suffering in a high-altitude city (which is unnatural for orcas), with very warm tap water mixed with salt. He had developed a papilloma virus infection of his skin and was extremely underweight. IMMP had a state-of-the-art huge tank built to rehabilitate Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, featuring real seawater and an ozone water-treatment system that avoided the use of harsh chemicals like chlorine, which SeaWorld uses in their parks’ tanks. Keiko was flown from Mexico City to Newport Oregon, after receiving a boisterous farewell from thousands and thousands of children who lined the streets of Mexico City to wave goodbye to Keiko.
Keiko thrived in Oregon. He put on over 1,000 pounds, increased his diving time underwater, pursued live fish, and was completely cured of his skin disease. The next step in his rehabilitation went forward as he was flown to a sea pen sanctuary in Iceland. Finally, at last, he was back in his home waters.
In Iceland, Keiko continued his growth and exercise, including “walks” where he followed a special boat out into the Atlantic Ocean, returning to his sanctuary. Ultimately, IMMP and the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation did not really “release” Keiko – he simply swam away and was free.
During several months in the wild, Keiko fed himself, maintained his weight, and interacted with wild orca pods, although he never joined up with them. It is unlikely that he ever found his own pod of orca relatives.
He finally swam all the way from Iceland to the Norwegian coast. There, he began interacting with people on the shore and was in danger of being hit by boat traffic, so IMMP and the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation led him to an isolated cove where he could be watched and fed, but was free to come and go as he pleased.
Sadly, that winter, Keiko died of pneumonia. At this point, SeaWorld and other captivity industry advocates called the effort a “failure.”
But the facts say otherwise. When Keiko died, he was the second-longest lived orca ever kept in captivity at that time. He lived for about five years in his Icelandic seaside sanctuary and in the wild in the North Atlantic. He was far healthier in natural seawater than in captivity.
SeaWorld never bothered to mention that during the time IMMP and the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation were rehabilitating and releasing Keiko back to his wild ocean home, 17 orcas died in captivity. I’ll repeat that: 17 orcas died in captivity during the time Keiko was being rehabilitated in Oregon and his sea pen and finally free in his ocean home. SeaWorld has nothing to say about their captivity failures.
But the parallels with Kyara go even deeper. Both Keiko and Kyara died of pneumonia. Why? A likely cause for both of them is that captivity, and its related stress – from being kept in small tanks, surrounded in close quarters with strangers instead of family (SeaWorld routinely removes calves from their mothers to send to other parks), and doing the same tricks for food over and over again - suppresses the orca immune system.
Many experts believe captive orcas fall prey to diseases like pneumonia and other bacterial infections all too readily. Contrary to false claims by SeaWorld, pneumonia deaths of orcas in the wild are fairly rare.
SeaWorld and other parks routinely feed their animals with a cocktail of antibiotics, anti-depressants, valium-type drugs, and antacids. Orcas, and dolphins, are bored literally to death in captivity, under psychological pressures that don’t exist in the wild.
Meanwhile, pause a moment to mourn with Takara, the mother of Kyara. Researchers have observed mother orcas and dolphins in the wild keeping a dead baby at the surface after they died perhaps hoping they will come back to life. Takara, however, did not get that chance – Kyara was taken away from Takara and put in a small pool for treatment.
“Takara was deprived the RIGHT to mourn the loss of her calf,” tweeted John Hargrove.
It is not clear how many of SeaWorld’s orcas could be released back into the wild. Only four of their 22 living orcas were wrested from the sides of their mothers in the wild and brought into captivity; the rest were born in small tanks and have never experienced the ocean.
But scientific experts believe all captive orcas and other cetaceans would do better in seaside sanctuaries, living in an ocean environment in real untreated seawater and in much bigger and deeper enclosures than can ever be built on land. They could be retired so they would not have to do tricks 24/7 for food. Yes, SeaWorld has to keep its captive orcas hungry by depriving them of food in order to get them to do tricks on command.
The proposed seaside sanctuaries would still allow for medical care for the orcas and for feeding, but provide a richer, much more varied environment than the bare concrete tanks currently provide.
SeaWorld continues to suffer low attendance and slipping stock values, all due to their refusal to take responsible care of their orcas, dolphins, beluga whales and other species under their care. These animals do not, in fact, belong to SeaWorld – they belong to the people of the United States under the provisions of the US Marine Mammal Project Act. It is way past time that responsible federal government authorities take measures to end captivity of all cetaceans in the US.
Like Keiko and Kyara, cetaceans are too intelligent, too large and too wide-ranging, and too tuned to their family pods to find a sterile life in captivity healthy.
We must end captivity of these sea-going mammals, so like us and yet so different.
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. Earth Island’s IMMP and Palmer are providing expert consultation on a lawsuit, “Anderson v SeaWorld”, helmed by the law firm of Covington and Burling, in federal court that contends that SeaWorld has violated consumer protection and unfair business practices laws in California by providing false information to the public about the health and welfare of their captive orcas. Palmer’s blogs can be read here.