Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Whales in Captivity

The other day I was searching for dog bite videos on youtube for work purposes. By that I mean I was searching for videos so that I could watch and assess body language and warning cues in the dogs prior to and immediately after bite incidents. It's always good to stay on top of these things and remind yourself of these cues often, especially when working with a large number of dogs, as I do.

Through the miracles of youtube I somehow ended up watching orca whale videos, which reminded me of our trip to Sea World Sand Diego last October.

When my dad asked if we wanted to make a quick run to Sea World on the day I had to catch my plane I was torn and expressed this to him. I said I was uncomfortable with the idea of them keeping orca whales in captivity and wasn't sure I wanted to financially support that practice by attending the park. On the other hand the land locked behaviourist in me wanted to go and judge for myself if the keeping of the whales at the park. There are many species of animal that do quite well and can live quite happily in captivity with proper care and stimulation and so I wanted to see for myself how the whales were kept, and what the park was like before I made my judgement.

Sea World was something, if you don't spend time watching the shows, that can be done in just a few hours. I think we spent maybe 2 or 3 hours there, not much longer. I have to say that there are far better aquariums, however I was thrilled to be able to see some animals I never thought I'd be able to see in my life.

Here are a few pictures from my trip to Sea World, and I will have to start by saying, that though I liked some of the tanks and exhibits, I will on principal probably never return to a park with Orcas in a tank. But more about that later. Let's start with this awesome polar bear:

This polar bear wants that little fish out of the water, but for some reason, he did not want to get wet to get it (I can relate, I don't really like getting wet either) we watched him reach, and tantrum, and contort for several minutes. He did eventually get his fish.

Next up, in the same part of the park was this walrus. This was one of those things that I never in my life thought I would see. It was very exciting and I actually had to do a double take before realizing what it was. Walrus are way bigger than I ever imagined and this huge male was quite intimidating. However watching him made me feel a little sad. Want to know why the picture isn't great? He wouldn't stop moving. His enclosure was far too small and he made frantic stereotypic movements, repeating the same pattern over and over again. He was also alone. Walrus, according to a quick google search (and I thought this was the case when I saw him) are a very social species. His frantic display probably came from social isolation and boredom. Maybe he was pulled from the wild as a rescue, or perhaps taken from another aquarium where he was maybe being bullied by another male, but I can't be sure and there were no signs explaining why he was alone. Walrus I guess aren't all that common in captivity, but I hope that he gets a larger enclosure and a group to live with at some point in time. It was amazing to see him, but it would have been more amazing had he actually seemed content and more in his element.

Moving on, I have to say the penguin enclosure was pretty neat, but the new one at the Calgary zoo is way better. I'll post about that, with some pictures, later. The animals here were standing about in their respective social groups and going for swims in the water, occasionally chasing and displaying at each other.

The sea turtle tank was fascinating and I could have spent hours there watching them. I wish the lighting had been better for pictures, but this was the best I could manage. Sea creatures tend to move a lot, and water sucks light in to make photography from the outside hard. You'll just have to trust me that sea turtles are amazing colours and patterns.

The dolphins seems pretty darn happy. The park had just opened when we arrived and the dolphins were jumping and playing in the water. Their enclosure isn't really set up for viewing, it's more for shows, but even though show time wasn't on they were busy performing their tricks and jumps without the promise of a reward. If I had to judge, and it's hard with mammals that don't have much of a range of facial expressions, the dolphins seemed pretty happy to me. Kind of like really excited puppies, happy to see everyone for the day. But, like I said, my experience isn't with marine mammals. All I can say is that compared to that poor walrus these dolphins seemed pretty stoked.

Now, on to the orcas. They were actually the first animal we visited, as I was anxious to see them as soon as we got to the park. My first impression was that the tank was huge. At first I thought there was only one whale in there. The tank is set up so that it is glass from foot to above the viewer's head, and the tank extends several stories downwards and a little ways up above the viewing area. While watching one visible whale a second startled me when it rose suddenly from just below my feet right by the glass. At that point I was able to conclude that the space they are given is huge but is it really when compared to an ocean? There were at least 5 whales in that tank, and often only one and sometimes none were visible as they swam which means there was enough space in there to get out of sight and stay out of sight as they swam. Still it was hard to judge. 

I suspect this one was trying to eat some of the birds hanging out at the edge of the pool. Visitors have sometimes caught the whales killing birds on camera.

Unlike the dolphins the orcas didn't seem to want to play just to play. They swam and rolled a bit together, but compared to the dolphins, these animals behaved somewhere in between the contented dolphins and the anxious restlessness of the walrus. I would not have defined them as content, that is certain, but they weren't visibly distressed like the walrus was. However there was an air of restlessness to them that I could not shake.

It is hard to tell with an orca, how it is feeling, at least from a layman's point of view. But I think the conclusion I must be lead to is that, while captive bred whales cannot be returned to the wild, they should stop the breeding of whales in captivity. Someday, at least in north America, Sea World might, and only then would I go back. I would encourage everyone until they do, to go on a whale watching tour instead. It costs about the same as admission to the park, and whales in the wild are so neat to see. I have been lucky enough to happen to be on a boat when orcas came through the gulf islands near vancouver island a week early one spring and it was an amazing sight. While I understand the value of captive breeding programs in preserving at risk species, I'd say the currently existing breeding programs are not designed in the interest of conservation.

I'll also note, that orca whales have been known to turn on their trainers. Some whales have been responsible for multiple trainer deaths. They are extremely intelligent animals, and they are also predators. They get frustrated and when they do it can be dangerous. Tillicum, a whale caught in the wild in Iceland, has killed three trainers, and continues to be used in shows. Below is a video I found on youtube of an attack on a trainer by a different whale in Sea World Philippines. The trainer survived uninjured, but it must have been a terrifying and should have been a very telling moment. These animals aren't pets. Training of the current whales in captivity needs to be continued to keep them stimulated and prevent boredom like that poor walrus experienced, but it's time to end captive breeding. We know they're smart, and now that we know, we should respect them a little more.

Here is another video that shows whales in the wild.

My dad had a great idea for what to do with that great huge tank that they currently have for the whales. He thinks they should make an arctic community tank with seals, walrus (so he won't be so lonely and in such a small space!) and beluga. The enclosure is certainly big enough! And a community tank resembling as much as possible their natural habitat and relationships with each other would be absolutely amazing to see and would be great for the animals. It has been great for the gorillas at the Calgary zoo to have the Colobus monkeys in with them, giving the silver back something to do, I think it would be great if they could find a way to make it work for the arctic marine mammals as well. The polar bear should probably keep his own place though, or they'll run out of seals.


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