In the late 1970s, my housemate had a dog she didn’t want. With her fierce belief in all things natural, she decided to turn Barney, a rambunctious retriever mix, loose in the wild.
The only “wild” we had, however, was Topanga Canyon. Maybe someone found Barney and took him in. Or maybe he was killed by a car or starved to death. He could no more have survived on his own than his dimwitted owner could have.
During those years I worked at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes with two captive orca whales. They lived in a tank originally designed for smaller pilot whales, pseudorcas and dolphins. At 500,000 gallons it was the largest tank in the park, but it wasn’t big enough. By the time Orky reached adulthood he was slightly longer than the depth of the tank. His tail flukes were curved at the ends. He could not successfully stretch out.
But back in the early and mid-1960s, “killer whales” had become the thing. An orca had been captured in Puget Sound, named Namu, and displayed in a sea pen. He only lasted a year, but before he died a mate was “collected,” which involved harpooning her mother. In 1965 “baby Shamu” was sold to SeaWorld, thus beginning the era of performing “killer whales.” In the early '70s Marineland acquired Orky and Corky. Whether it had adequate facilities to house them never seemed to enter into the decision.
At the tender age of 18 I thought I’d landed my dream job. Like a lot of little girls of that era I’d been infatuated with dolphins and all things marine mammal ever since seeing Flipper. But the thrill wore off pretty quickly. Day after day I’d ascend the stairs to the orca tank and look into their eyes. The waves of sadness I experienced overwhelmed my adolescent excitement. I started to wonder what we, as a species, where doing to these “others.” How could crowds cheer and clap through those shows? The animals were so smart, so sentient, it felt like watching human prisoners in 9 by 12 cells standing on their heads and doing somersaults.
I stayed for five years, doing lab work, then moving into a caretaker position at the Stranded Animal Facility. I could feel good about myself in that position. Animal control would bring in sick and injured animals and I got to help rehabilitate them. The mortality rate was high, particularly for whales and dolphins. Once they beach themselves they’re pretty far gone.
Finally, in 1981, I left and went to college. I loved the animals but had come to hate the business. These days I can’t even stand to see a bird in a cage.
But Marineland still remains one of my most profound and intense experiences. I have many memories both good and bad, but a few stand out. One day, having grabbed a bottle of sample water to check the chlorine level of the orca tank, I asked an old keeper — a guy who’d been there since the '50s — “you think those animals are ever going to get out of there?”
His look was sad and resigned at the same time. “Only in pieces.”
At Marineland, when Corky had babies, they starved to death. She couldn’t nurse them; no one knew why. Maybe without her sisters and aunts, she simply didn’t know how. In the wild, orca whales live in matriarchal pods and as highly social animals, they learn just about everything from pod members. Maybe the problem was that since the pool was round and she couldn’t straighten out, her calves couldn’t get into a nursing position.
Somewhere along the line the scientists figured it out. The nursing problem has been solved at SeaWorld. The park no longer collects animals from the wild, but raises its own through its captive breeding program. It takes great pride in this program, in which males are taught to roll over and “present” their erections for semen collection.
This pride is a little hard to understand. Captive breeding programs may be necessary in zoos trying to maintain endangered species. But orcas are not an endangered species.
Since the release of Blackfish, there has been a lot of talk about the evils of SeaWorld’s entire enterprise. Personally, I’m thrilled that we’ve finally come to view orcas in captivity with the horror the situation truly warrants.
The emphasis of many well-meaning individuals, however, is wrong. Shutting down SeaWorld will go exactly nowhere towards bettering the lives of those animals.
The idea that captive orcas can simply be released to the wild, or even rehabilitated, is naïve at best and woefully uninformed at worst. Let’s take a look at the only example we have of humans trying to rehabilitate and release a lifelong captive orca: Keiko.
Turn the page to read Keiko's sad story
In the early 1990s, production began for a movie called Free Willy. It was about a kid who makes friends with a captive orca and resolves to get him back into the wild. Most of the whales used in the production were animatronic, but inevitably the studio needed a real whale as well. Free Willy found a usable animal in a rundown park in Mexico. Keiko was 2,000 pounds underweight, had a nasty skin condition—the result of living in warm Mexican waters instead of the cooler waters of his native seas—and was overall, in extremely poor health.
The movie was a hit with the kids and questions arose that would lead to one of the greatest let’s-put-our-money-where-our-mouths-are experiments of all time. There was no choice. Keiko had to be removed from that situation, but due to his illnesses, which may or may not have been contagious, he could not simply be purchased by another sea park.
The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation was formed. Keiko, who had been captured in Iceland in 1976, underwent two years of rehabilitation in Oregon and when he was healthy again was transported by cargo plane back to his native waters. He was trained to eat live food—having been fed dead fish from buckets for most of his life the change was something he had to get used to—taken on numerous open ocean swims, and after being tagged with a tracking device, released into his native seas.
Noble and well-meaning as it was, The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, later Ocean Futures Society, did not succeed. Keiko did not, as was hoped, reintegrate with his family pod. Three weeks after his release he turned up in a Norwegian fjord letting little kids ride on his back. On December 12, 2003 he was found dead in Taknes Bay, Norway. Though a necropsy was never performed, according to The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation and The Humane Society of the United States, pneumonia, which is common in starving marine mammals, was most likely the cause.
Freeing Willy/Keiko, a project that took nearly ten years, cost more than $21 million. It was a failure. He could not readapt to the wild any more that Barney the dog could have adapted to the wilds of Topanga Canyon. He did not know how to be a killer whale. The sea is a harsh place. Thriving there takes a lifetime of learning, profound social ties, communication and teamwork. His time in captivity had robbed him of all those things.
SeaWorld currently has 29 captive orca whales. All have lived their entire lives in captivity. Many have been born there. So the question becomes, if SeaWorld were to be dramatically and righteously driven out of business, what would happen to these animals?
A full-grown orca whale eats in excess of 300 pounds of high-quality fish every day. Isn’t it possible that, without SeaWorld’s continuing care for the orcas it already has, the suffering imposed upon real animals by uninformed ideologues could be greater than the suffering they already endure? These animals are not just used to captivity, they are functionally dependent on it.
Obviously, no more orcas should be taken from the wild. Ever. But now that these majestic animals are in our care, shouldn't our emphasis be on pressuring the organization to phase out its captive breeding programs, not to drive it into bankruptcy? It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a bankrupted SeaWorld elects to sell its existing orcas to parks in other countries with far less animal welfare regulation than is currently on the books in the United States. Hell, it’s not implausible to imagine all of them winding up in situations similar to what the Free Willy crew found Keiko in the first place.
As long as these orcas live, we as human beings have a responsibility to them. And we might best live up to that responsibility with a chastened SeaWorld committed to doing its part — not defaulting its way to bankruptcy court. Slogans are not going to get the job done. A well-researched plan, and some deep-pocketed partners, will prove much more helpful in the end.