Family is Everything

On April 18, Dr. Naomi Rose gave a talk on captive orcas at TedX Bend in Oregon. She focused on the idea that family is everything to orcas and that captivity destroys their family-oriented social structure. What follows is based on her presentation.

Family is a topic we can all relate to. We would probably all agree that having a loving family makes us stronger, more secure, and more confident. Even as adults, many of us probably consider our parents and siblings among the most important people in our lives. And if we grow up in a less-than-happy family situation, we may carry emotional scars for the rest of our lives.

But I’m not talking about human families. I’m talking about killer whale, or orca, families.

Most people know orcas from seeing them in shows at marine theme parks—when they think “killer whale,” they think “Shamu.”

But orcas don’t belong in captivity. Captivity destroys family, which for orcas, just as with us, is everything. Once people understand family life for orcas in the wild, they can see why it is important to retire Shamu, for good.

What are orca families like in the wild? Orca society is matriarchal, with females the naturally dominant sex. Not coincidentally, female orcas experience menopause, a phenomenon generally considered rare in the animal kingdom. Usually, both males and females have evolutionary value only as long as they can reproduce—once their reproductive systems stop functioning due to age, death follows soon after. But if a mother’s continued presence in her offspring’s lives helps them survive or reproduce, then menopause may evolve. This will occur in species with close-knit families, where older females have value—whether it is knowledge (of reliable fishing grounds, for example) or help in raising grandchildren.

Male orcas are more successful at mating as they get older and prove their survival value. A recent analysis, based on years of data, demonstrated that male orcas with living mothers live longer. So the longer a female survives, up to 50 years past the end of her reproductive life, the more grandchildren her sons will sire. Sons who survive their mothers, in fact, often die soon after she does, especially when they have no sisters or aunts to “move in” with.

Four generations of whales can travel together. Daughters, who do associate with their mothers their whole lives, spend more time away from her once they start having their own offspring. Sons travel with their mothers their whole lives, spending more than 70 percent of their time within a few body lengths of her. They are six-ton mama’s boys!

Yet males do not mate with their mothers or sisters. This was determined by collecting skin samples and doing genetic relatedness testing. Like the vast majority of human societies, incest is taboo in orca society. Males mate outside their immediate family.

It is possible that mothers gain access for their sons to unrelated, reproductive females through their own social contacts. There is, of course, no paternal care in orcas—outside males come into a group, mate with an unrelated female, and then return to their mothers.

Sons and daughters help their mothers supervise her subsequent offspring (their siblings); basically, they serve as babysitters. Babysitting allows mothers to rest undisturbed and provides daughters practice at mothering behavior; for a son, it is a benefit he provides his mother in exchange for her tolerance of his continued presence by her side.

Older, post-menopausal females are sometimes observed copulating with adolescent males. Adolescent males are sexually but not socially mature. Reproductive-aged females exercise mate selection—they can refuse the attentions of a male they feel is unsuitable. Because young, sexually mature males remain in the social group, they can become highly disruptive, given their lack of access to unrelated females and the taboo against incest. Older females, with no fear of pregnancy, copulating with young, unproven males may reduce these social tensions.

All-male groups occur occasionally in orca society, where male relatives and “friends” socialize with ritualized interactions; for example, two males might mock fight or exhibit homosexual behavior. This ritualized behavior is one means of avoiding true male-male aggression.

Captivity destroys these elements of orca society. Captive orca groups are often made up of whales from different families, different populations, and entirely different oceans. They would never even meet in the wild, let alone live together.

Captive orcas grow up without family to teach them proper social behavior. Young males receive no “training” from older females, so they can be violent when mating. Likewise, dominant females in captivity can assert their dominance with unnatural violence. In 1989, a whale named Kandu attacked a subordinate female so violently that she broke her own jaw and severed an artery, bleeding out in minutes. In general, aggressive interactions in captivity can escalate to levels of violence rarely, if ever, seen in the wild.

And it is not just dominant females who exhibit unnatural violence. Nakai, a young male, received a massive injury a couple of years ago after an altercation with other whales in his tank. A large, dinner plate-sized chunk of blubber and muscle was torn from his chin. The facility that holds him said he was wounded by hitting his chin on some protruding bit of concrete or metal—but there is nothing sharp enough in his enclosure, nothing other than the teeth of another orca, that could have done the damage his chin sustained. Indeed, if there was anything in his tank that could have done that damage, the facility would not have been in compliance with federal animal welfare laws!

Males without mothers have no social status, no social protection, and essentially no social role other than “stud,” which can lead to frustration and violence with trainers and other whales. Tilikum, the whale featured in Blackfish, mauled and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in Florida in February 2010. His life has been one of unending frustration. In the 32 years he has been in captivity, he has killed three people. But he is not the only “killer” killer whale in captivity—a young adult male named Keto killed Alexis Martinez, a trainer in Spain, only nine weeks prior to Brancheau’s death. Yet throughout history there are no records of orcas killing human beings in the wild.

In captivity, orcas have committed incest, with at least one known case of a son mating with his mother and producing a daughter/sister. This is strong evidence that captive orcas are socially abnormal—they never learn that incest is unacceptable.

The captive population in general is inbred. Tilikum has fathered more than a dozen offspring and his descendants are now mating with each other.

Female orcas are bred far too young in captivity, when they are physically but not socially ready—they are children having children. They have not learned to be proper mothers and therefore sometimes reject their calves.

On the other hand, some captive females have borne several calves successfully and cared for them devotedly. But in many of these cases, their offspring are taken from them while the calves are still emotionally and socially dependent on their mothers, when they are less than 5 and in some cases as young as 2 years of age. This is exactly the same as taking a toddler from his or her mother.

Think about this. We all have family. How can it be morally right to do to others—even if those “others” aren’t human—what we would consider devastating if it happened to us? This comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.

There are only 56 orcas in captivity world-wide. Ending orca captivity is not an insurmountable problem to solve. But while most wild orca captures ended decades ago, in Russia the trade has started up again, with 10 young orcas ripped from their families in the past three years, to be sold into the marine theme park industry in Russia and China. Marine theme parks in the United States set an example abroad—and not necessarily a good one. The time to act is now.

The goal is to gradually phase out orca exhibits at marine theme parks, to be replaced with modern technology, including animatronics, 3-D films, and holograms. The currently captive whales would be retired to sanctuaries.

Two ways to accomplish this goal are consumer choice—people refusing to patronize parks with live orca shows—or passing legislation that prohibits the display of captive orcas. Such legislation has already been enacted in South Carolina and New York, and is being considered in California and Washington.

The captive display of orcas began with good intentions. But that was 50 years ago, when we knew little about the animals involved. Now we do know: for orcas, family is everything. So we must change. We must protect these amazing whales in their own world instead of forcing them to live in ours.