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Killer Whales: Captivity or Free? Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2020


For several years already different organizations that focus on animals and their safety argue whether killer whales should be held in captivity, in such places as Sea World, or they should remain free and exist within the oceans only. Sea World, an organization that holds a group of theme parks, believes that killer whales should be captured and raised in aquariums because such an approach allows them to entertain and educate children, taking care of these animals and performing theatrical shows with them. On the contrary, activists who fight for animal rights believe that captured and/or hand-raised killer whales suffer from depression and alienation, which makes them hostile and aggressive. This research paper will examine both ideas mainly on the basis of Zimmermann’s article, Blackfish documentary, and CNN’s article Months after ‘Blackfish’ Airs that describe the issue in the Sea World accident. The work will try to prove that even though there are some positive outcomes of keeping intelligent marine mammals in aquariums, such treatment is harmful to killer whales and their human caretakers, therefore capturing should be stopped.

Killer Whales in Marine Parks

Zimmerman mentions that today, 42 orcas are located in different parks globally, and 26 are owned by Sea World. Still, people had known nothing about them until Ted Griffin bought a killer whale, Namu, in 1965 for $8000 from fishermen who captured it. Unfortunately, Namu died of intestinal infections a year later. With the course of time, Griffin and Goldberry commenced hunting killer whales (Zimmerman). As a result, by the end of 1965, they captured 15 animals. Consequently, marine parks became interested in purchasing killer whales so that Griffin and Goldsberry started a multi-billion franchise. Between 1965 and 1971, the partners had captured different orcas and had sold them to major marine parks across the world. They turned into the major supplier of killer whales to Sea World as well. Still, in 1972 such actions were prohibited due to the establishment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the USA (Zimmerman). However, such actions did not lead to the shutdown of marine parks because they started to breed killer whales themselves.

Tim Zimmerman emphasizes that every trainer who works in a marine park needs specific abilities that allow one to interact successfully with killer whales in marine parks. This person should be athletic, have well-developed intuition, be fair, and experienced. Thus, one will have a chance to establish close relationships with animals. Still, several years ago, a tragic accident happened with a trainer who was considered to be one of the best professionals at SeaWorld. Dawn Brancheau was attacked and drowned by a killer whale, Tilikum. The orca defied her command regardless of daily training received for years (Zimmerman). It caught her arm and released it only after being lifted and forced by other trainers.

Another issue happened in a marine park as its performance pools did not provide a comfortable environment for killer whales so that they died in three years. Zimmerman states that being regularly attacked by female orcas, males suffered from stress and depression. One of them rubbed itself with a net, which affected teeth and led to physical injuries. Thus, living in small pools, captured mammals change their behavior. Killer whales live in groups in the wild so loneliness in captivity has a drastic effect on them. In his work, Zimmerman tried to find out why Tilikum attacked its trainer. The author believes that being captured and alienated, the orca experienced the psychological effect of alienation so that it became aggressive and unpredictable.

Sea World Tragedy

There are different thought regarding the reasons the killer whale attacked Dawn Brancheau, which also provide insights on the controversy of whether to captivate mammals or let them be free. First of all, orcas usually live in family units so that males do not abandon their mothers and live close to them during their entire life. Therefore, the alienation of Tilikum from its mother and family that happened when it was young is more than just likely to have a drastic impact on its mental state. There is a possibility that being an intelligent animal, it remembered its past and might wish to swim freely and go back to the place where it lived. In addition to that, changes in physical activities could have affected the behavior of the orca. There is an undeniable fact that the killer whales move for a long distance on a regular basis. They swim approximately 75 miles in a day (Asper 298). Being kept in pools and aquariums, Tilikum had no opportunity to move appropriately, which might have made it anxious. The orca could have extra energy so that it was willing to participate in more active games and interact with its trainer more. Being absorbed in paying, it could have attacked a human being without even realizing it.

Blackfish as a Tool to Prevent Capturing

Blackfish is a documentary film that was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and released three years ago. The movie focuses on Tilikum’s story and describes how a captured orca turned out to be involved in the death of three individuals. The film explains that captivity in marine parks has a negative influence on these animals. It begins with some historical information related to the issue and shows the capturing of Tilikum in 1983. Blackfish illustrates how killer whales suffer because they are taken from the wild and are transferred to marine parks. The footage also reveals the lifespan of killer whales (Cowperthwaite). According to one of the trainers who worked in Sea World, wild killer whales have live from 30 to 50 years. The director mentions that orcas that live in marine parks have a shorter life. She underlines that they usually live from 17 to 30 years, which is much shorter than the normal duration of their life. In addition to that, the documentary describes how captivated killer whales get depressed and stressed after they are separated from their families. This event makes them express their aggressive temper and dangerous behavior more often, which affects their trainers.

According to the documentary, being confined, killer whales are not only given a stimulus to alter their behavior and, being alienated from their family, they often have psychological disorders. The director believes that such things happened to Tilikum, and made it hurt its trainer. This fact and the fact that captivity shortens the life of killer whales and makes them aggressive prove that these animals should be free. The documentary claims that orcas are hard to manage when they have physical or mental problems. Thus, Blackfish provides evidence of the negative effect of captivating killer whales.

Effects of Blackfish

On the basis of the discussed accident, the Blackfish documentary appeared on the screens. According to Kuo and Savidge, this film is against the idea of keeping killer whales in marine parks for the fulfillment of entertainment purposes. The authors speak about the aggressiveness and brutality revealed by Tilikum as of its way to express resentment to a trainer. In addition to that, they focus on people’s reactions after watching the documentary, providing several examples.

Soon after the film was released, people from Florida to New York started to protest and boycott Sea World (Kuo & Savidge). Some partner companies that worked along with SeaWorld were attacked as well, which had a negative influence on their business. What is more, these protests attracted various well-known artists who started to support the boycott actively. As a result, Black Stone Group sold its major ownership in Sea World, and one of the chairmen of the marine park sold out his stocks, which were worth over $1 million. However, Sea World stated that the documentary was biased and showed only one side of reality. The company explained that the film was supported by animal rights activists that is why it focused on negative events and ideas. Regardless of this movement, Sea World was still making much profit and had lots of theatrical shows that attracted numerous visitors. Still, it cannot be denied that, with the course of time, more people got to know about this controversy, which affected the company. Still, back then this marine park claimed that it was taking care of killer whales, offering them a safe place and required treatment. It also contributed millions of dollars to scientific research of wild animals at the same time.

According to CNN’s article, the Blackfish documentary impacted the entire Sea World community, emphasizing the issue of keeping killer whales in the zoological environment. Animal rights activists did not support Sea World’s programs because they could harm wild species. However, the company’s chairman did not respond to people’s demands, and the partners of the park sold their stock. Such an action showed that the businessman was not willing to take any responsibility for the attack in the marine park.

The withdrawal of the company’s partners showed that when the captivity of killer whales turned into a critical issue, they decided to take a step back and even to start thinking of animal rights. Still, Sea World did not want to lose its customers and client. For this reason, the marine park continued its killer whales shows, emphasizing their necessity in the framework of children’s education, improvement of killer whale’s health, and support of research studies focused on wild animals. For example, in their study Clark et al. managed to examine the relation between the body size, weight, and age of an animal (118). They concluded that the environmental conditions in which the animals are kept affect their growth. Still, the park used these justifications of shows to hide the main one – its profit.

Recent Changes in Sea World

When Blackfish appeared on the screens, a lot of people started claiming that the programs of capturing killer whales that are maintained by Sea World are not appropriate and should be abolished because they have a negative influence on these animals. Still, a year ago, CEO of the parks, Joel Manby, gave an interview in which he claimed this documentary to be emotionally manipulative propaganda that is based on falsehoods and manipulative techniques. Trying to improve the situation, he underlined the fact that Sea World protects and cares for different animals, including killer whales and revealed: “69 reasons you shouldn’t believe Blackfish” (Neate). However, the number of visitors dropped by almost 20% during 2014 and continued dropping during the next year so that the necessity to implement changes appeared.

In the framework of a new program, Sea World decided to end theatrical shows in San Diego and start a new experience in more natural settings during 2016-2017. However, it cannot be said that such a decision was made because Sea World changed its views and beliefs. Other parks were not going to alter their strategies, and even the one in San Diego had to do so just because many influential people, such as celebrities, representatives of organizations that protect animals and congressmen, actively supported campaigns against Sea World. Still, the issue was not resolved yet.

In 2015, California Coastal Commission claimed that it would support the park only if Sea World ends captive breeding, and Congressman Adam Schiff developed an act that required such action. As a result, the company started implementing changes. Two main executives fired, which provided it with the opportunity to reconsider the situation and generate new strategies that can help all parks to survive. At this stage, Sea World changed its worldview and made a step forward to get back to its previous position, attracting a new audience. It was revealed that the company infiltrated animal activist groups, which made it more transparent. Soon, the killer whale that was at the center of controversy all this time was announced to be dying. As a result, this year, Sea World claimed that the orca breeding program would not be continued.

Due to new leadership and public influences, Sea World is now trying to restore its image. Its views and ideas changed greatly so that the company became more open. It believes that those theatrical shows that had been already maintained fulfilled the company’s mission to provide its customers with an interesting and extraordinary experience so that another approach can be utilized. The current generation of orcas that live in parks is claimed to be the last one. Even though some activists claim that the company should release these animals too and let them live in the oceans, Sea World believes that being raised with people, they will not be able to live in the wild and will die because of pollution and other threats. Anyway, activists seem to be satisfied with recent and future changes. The Animal Welfare Institute believes that the company should spread its new views and policy all over the world so that the collection of wide animals ends (Jamieson).

Thus, with the alteration in Sea World leadership and influence from the outside, the company is now implementing a meaningful change and stops breeding killer whales. New shows with those animals that already live in the parks will be performed to restore Sea World’s image and improve its performance.


Thus, being kept in marine parks shows with orcas can be used to enable scientists to study these animals. Killer whales are also seen as major stars of the multi-billion entertainment industry. However, captivation and life in marine parks have negative effects on mammals because it can lead to brutality and aggressiveness that might be targeted at human beings. This research shows that killer whales are social animals that prefer living in groups. In the wild, they move a lot on a daily basis, which is not possible to maintain in pools and aquariums. What is more, orcas have no history of attacking human beings in the wild, which proves that they are not initially dangerous for people. However, in captivity, they reveal different behavior, which can be explained by environmental differences. In parks, killer whales spend most of their lives in a small pool.

They are also alienated from their groups, which makes it difficult for them to live alone. As a result, these animals conduct unexpected actions. In Sea World, three individuals were killed by Tilikum, which is a prominent example. The duration of killer whales’ lives also becomes shorter. They often experience depression while being in marine parks. Thus, these positive effects of keeping these animals in marine parks do not seem to be enough to justify capturing. Taking care of their health and maintaining research studies, professionals make killer whales suffer from isolation and depression at the same time, which tends to contradict scientists’ initial purposes. It is more critical than marine parks make these animals become extremely aggressive, with the course of time, due to the psychological stress. Thus, it can be concluded that regardless of the positive influences of capturing, intelligent marine mammals, including orcas should not be captured anymore and should be released to the wild.

Works Cited

Asper, Edward et al. “Observations on the Birth and Development of a Captive‐Born Killer Whale Orcinus Orca.” International Zoo Yearbook, vol. 27, no.1, 1988, pp. 295-304.

Clark, Steven et al. “Aspects of Growth in Captive Killer Whales (Orcinus Orca).” Marine Mammal Science, vol. 16, no. 1, 2000, pp. 110–123.

Cowperthwaite, Gabriela. Documentary Movie, 2013, Web.

Jamieson, Amber. The Guardian. 2016, Web.

Kuo, Vivian, and Martin Savidge. CNN. 2014, Web.

Neate, Rupert. The Guardian. 2015, Web.

Zimmermann, Tim. Outside Magazine. 2010, Web.

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