Why killer whales should not be kept in captivity

Kayla, a 2019-year-old killer whale, died in Florida in January 30. If she lived in the wild, she would probably live to be 50, maybe 80. And yet, Kayla has lived longer than any killer whale born in captivity.

Whether it is humane to keep killer whales in captivity is a question that has long caused heated debate. These are highly intelligent, social animals that are genetically engineered to live, migrate, and feed in the ocean over large areas. According to Naomi Rose, who studies marine mammals at the Institute for Animal Welfare in Washington, both wild and human-bred killer whales cannot live long in captivity.

Killer whales are massive animals that swim vast distances in the wild (on average 40 miles a day) not only because they are capable of it, but also because they need to forage for their own food and move a lot. They dive to depths of 100 to 500 feet several times a day.

“It’s just biology,” says Rose. “A captive-born killer whale that has never lived in the ocean has the same innate instincts. They are adapted from birth to move long distances in search of food and their relatives. In captivity, killer whales feel as if they were locked in a box.”

Signs of suffering

It’s hard to figure out what exactly shortens the lifespan of orcas in captivity, animal welfare experts say, but it’s clear that their health is at risk under such conditions. This can be seen in the most important body part of killer whales: their teeth. Studies have shown that in the US, a quarter of all captive killer whales have severe dental damage, and 70% have at least some damage. Some populations of killer whales in the wild also experience tooth wear, but it occurs over time – unlike the sharp and sudden damage seen in captive killer whales.

According to the study, the damage is mostly due to captive killer whales constantly grinding their teeth against the sides of the tank, often to the point where nerves are exposed. Affected areas become highly susceptible to infections, even if caretakers regularly flush them with clean water.

This stress-induced behavior has been recorded in scientific studies since the late 1980s. Such repetitive patterns of action with no apparent purpose are typical of captive animals.

Killer whales, like humans, have highly developed brains in the areas of social intelligence, language, and self-awareness. Research has shown that in the wild killer whales live in tight-knit family groups that have a complex, unique culture that is passed down from generation to generation.

In captivity, killer whales are kept in artificial social groups or completely alone. In addition, captive-born killer whales usually separate from their mothers at a much earlier age than they do in the wild. Also in captivity, killer whales are unable to avoid conflicts with other killer whales.

In 2013, the documentary Black Fish was released, which told the story of a wild-caught killer whale named Tilikum who killed a trainer. The film included testimonies from other trainers and cetacean experts who claimed that Tilikum’s stress caused him to become aggressive towards humans. And this is far from the only case when killer whales behaved so aggressively.

Blackfish also included an interview with former wild killer whale hunter John Crow, who detailed the process of capturing young killer whales in the wild: the wailing of young killer whales caught in the net, and the anguish of their parents, who rushed around and could not help.


The public reaction to Blackfish was swift and furious. Hundreds of thousands of outraged spectators have signed petitions calling for an end to the capture and exploitation of killer whales.

“It all started with an inconspicuous campaign, but became mainstream. It happened overnight,” says Rose, who has advocated for the welfare of orcas in captivity since the 90s.

In 2016, everything started to change. Killer whale breeding has become illegal in the state of California. SeaWorld, a US theme park and aquarium chain, soon announced that it would be phasing out its killer whale breeding program entirely, saying its current killer whales would be the last generation living in its parks.

But the situation still leaves much to be desired. While there seems to be hope for a bright future for killer whales in the West, Russia and China, the marine mammal captive breeding industry continues to grow. Just recently in Russia there was an incident with a “whale prison”, while in China there are currently 76 active marine parks and 25 more under construction. The vast majority of captive cetaceans have been caught and exported from Russia and Japan.

We just have to remember that killer whales have no place in captivity, and do not support dolphinariums and theme parks!

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