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Former Staffers Lift Veil of Secrecy on SeaWorld

New report reveals life and death for orcas at the marine circus

Zoe Staff Report

A year after the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando, two former trainers have published a report detailing what life is like for orcas (also known as killer whales) in captivity.

Jeff Ventre and John Jett worked with orcas at SeaWorld Orlando and knew Dawn Brancheau. Their report catalogs cases of aggression among the orcas, captive breeding practices (including forced collection of semen) and medical problems. It also compares life in captivity at the marine circus with life in the ocean for these high social animals and their families.

Ventre, who is now a physician in New Orleans, and Jett, now a research professor at Stetson University, reveal much detail about the health and social issues that plague these animals. They explain, for example, how life at marine circuses leads killer whales to break their teeth:

“Social strife and boredom accompanying orca captivity also contribute to broken teeth. Steel gates are the primary method of separating orcas prior to training sessions, shows, or when aggressive tensions exist between animals (e.g. Kayla and Kalina).

“It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF.

“As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.”

This graphic from the report shows injury and infection to the teeth of one of the SeaWorld captive orcas.

Working with The Orca Project Ventre and Jett have compiled a complete record of the 157 orcas who have died in captivity since marine circuses began featuring them more than 40 years ago.

These records show that the average survival of the orcas who died in captivity was 6.6 years. Today 41 are still alive in these facilities.

We also learn that orcas in captivity survive, on average, 8.9 years. That means that half of all killer whales born into captivity (as almost all are these days) will die before the age of 9. In the wild, by contrast, the average life expectancy of an orca is 50 years (for females) and 30 years (for males). Many live into their 70s.

You can download the full report here.