Why Are We Celebrating Birth of an Orca Whale at SeaWorld?
On Valentine’s Day, 37-year-old Kasatka gave birth to a 300-pound baby in the Show Pool at SeaWorld San Diego’s Shamu Stadium, much to the delight of park officials and curious onlookers.
“After 18 months of gestation and just a little over an hour of labor, Kasatka gave birth to the calf, who, seconds later, instinctively swam to the water’s surface to take its first breath. Mom and baby appear to be doing well, but as with any newborn, the first days are critical. Zoological staff will monitor breathing and nursing round the clock,” SeaWorld announced on its blog.
SeaWorld is of course thrilled because, as the San Diego Union-Tribune puts it, the orcas there are “crucial to the park’s financial well-being.” The Shamu show has been operating since 1966 and is the park’s biggest attraction – drawing what analysts estimated to be about 4.3 million visitors in 2011 alone.
This birth was the fourth for Kasatka, following Takara (1991), Nakai (2001) and Kalia (2004), and the sixth successful birth at the park since it started keeping orcas there almost 50 years ago, but not everyone is thrilled with the birth announcement.
Those opposed to keeping orcas in captivity are worried about the calf’s future in an artificial and inadequate environment, along with being born into what journalist David Kirby calls SeaWorld’s dysfunctional family of orcas.
Kasatka herself has a sordid past. She was the one who nearly killed her trainer Ken Peters, in what was her third “attack,” after becoming frustrated over not being able to reach her calf Kalia, who was crying to her from another pool. Footage of the incident was released last summer by Kirby, author of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. No one is allowed to get into the water with her anymore.
The new calf’s sire is Tilikum, who was responsible for three human deaths, including trainer Dawn Brancheau. Clearly SeaWorld has no interest in selecting for temperament here.
Some argue that places like SeaWorld offer a good way to get people involved and interested in wildlife and conservation efforts, but do they really do anything but teach everyone that animals are here for whatever we want to use them for, regardless of the effects on their health, safety and overall well-being?
We know they are remarkably intelligent, with complex cultures, dialects and rituals. They are inherently social in their own pods, diving, hunting, raising young and breathing together. They stay together for life, passing along their unique knowledge through generations.
They lead fascinating and secret lives in the wild that we may never fully understand, yet we continue to exploit them and claim it’s educational while leaving the public with a seriously distorted understanding of who these creatures are and what they need to thrive, along with arguing that we offer them exceptional care.
Sadly, most die in captivity before they reach the age of 20, while their wild counterparts can live to be 80 or older, although SeaWorld’s educational material tells people that their life spans average only 25-35 years. At least 137 orcas have been brought into captivity from the wild since 1961, most of who are now dead.
What kind of care is it we’re providing considering the number of premature deaths that have occurred in captivity along with other problems they face including abnormal behavior, captive breeding disasters, depression, aggression, effects of stress, death from diseases they would never contract in the wild and injuries
Last year Nakai suffered from a nasty gash in his chin so deep it exposed bone, which SeaWorld attributed to a little bump with the side of the pool.
What we’ve learned of their natural life in the ocean contrasts vividly with being separated from their families to live in a stark tank and perform dull routines amid machine, music and human noise that’s excruciating to their sensitive auditory systems. Deprived of the ability to live in the splendor of their of song, hunting, socialization and freedom, we too are deprived of learning to appreciate the balance they bring to the ocean.
The Declaration of Cetacean Rights, drafted by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, calls for the recognition of cetaceans as persons who “have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.” Unfortunately, the law doesn’t currently recognize them as such, and so they continue to exist as objects and property.
Hopefully some day they will be recognized as unique individuals with the right to exist freely and this newest calf will be one of the last born in a tank. Until then, please don’t visit facilities that keep whales and dolphins in captivity.
Photo credit: Thinkstock