Does captivity hurt or help killer whales? Scientists disagree

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The uncertainty of science: Two different science research teams strongly disagree about the positive or negative effects of living in captivity for killer whales.

In a decision hailed by animal-rights groups, the US marine-park company SeaWorld Entertainment announced last week that it will no longer breed killer whales. But whether captivity harms the planet’s biggest predator is an area of active scientific debate.

The latest arguments centre on two 2015 studies that drew dramatically different conclusions about the lifespans of captive killer whales (Orcinus orca), relative to those of wild populations. Although many factors affect well-being, an apparent discrepancy between the survival of captive and wild animals has long been cited by activists as evidence of the poor welfare of captive killer whales.

One of the studies is authored by a team largely made up of researchers at SeaWorld, which is headquartered in Orlando, Florida, and owns several animal parks that keep killer whales; the other is by two former killer-whale trainers at the company who feature in the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which is critical of SeaWorld. In letters published last week, authors from each paper accuse the others of cherry-picking data to support positions on whether the animals should be captive — charges that each team in turn rejects.

Obviously, each science team has its own agendas. The result unfortunately is that the science is cloudy and unclear.


  • Cotour

    I think this is a bit if an insane argument / question, “Does captivity hurt or help killer whales? “. Captivity is certainly not an ideal state of being for such an animal. I think we all know the answer, these scientists are searching for an answer to a question that needs not be answered.

    The better question might be: ” Is the entertainment value of, and cash flow generated from such an animal being held in captivity worth while related to the mental well being of this very high functioning animal?”

    If the only metric is how long lived a captive whale is related to a wild whale then depending of the level of care the animal receives the captive whale may be “helped”. If that is the only metric.

    Also, I would think that the Sperm Whale was the largest predator.

  • Cotour

    Follow up:

    No one commented on this story, but I still provide some evidence of the ridiculousness of the question

    “Does captivity help or hurt Killer Whales?”

    A Killer Whale kept for 45 years in a tank 20 feet deep and 60 feet in length, does this answer the question?

    Negligent? Criminal? Ignorant ? Choose one.

  • Wayne


    While not a big fan of aquariums myself & not a special-pleader for SeaWorld, they have increasingly buckled to overt pressure from the Left & animal right’s activism, and it’s a sad thing.
    I’d much rather have private-business manage resources like these whales, not exclusively but definitely in the mix. Sea World has had their lapses but at least they have natural incentives to do the right-thing by their sea-creatures, rather than State action or inaction.
    (We already know how the State treats Veterans.)

  • Cotour

    My main point is that these animals in particular (along with dolphins), being that 1st they are of extremely high intelligence and have such a complex pod culture, and 2nd because of their extreme size they should not be held in captivity like they are. Build a different kind of facility much, much, much bigger and much deeper and maybe that would be acceptable for injured whales that could not survive in the wild. Maybe.

    These kinds of decisions to create these kinds of venues are first about cash flow, without considering the larger implications about “whats best for the animal” (its a BS question). That horse left the barn long ago before the facility was even built.

    I don’t have such a concern for an aquarium that exhibits fish, other than their quality of care.

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