Tuesday, August 6, 2013

killer whale culture: built on family, broken by captivity

One of the things that fascinates me most about Killer Whales is how incredibly socially oriented they are. These animals are fundamentally social, spending their entire lives together within their pods. They're remarkably smart, emotive, and evolved. They seem to simply delight in being wild, in every sense of that word. 

This excerpt is from David Kirby's awesome book, Death at SeaWorld:
 “No other species but Homo Sapiens is so diverse in its rules and traditions governing such things as diet, mating, family relations, group size, foraging or communications. It’s why renowned whale scientists like Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell concluded in their research, “The complex and stable vocal and behavioral cultures of killer whales appear to have no parallel outside of humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties.” That’s right: Orcas have their own cultures.”
I'm learning a lot from this book. Like, that Pods have distinct calls, clicks, and whistles that they use to communicate pod to pod. It’s hard to explain this as anything other than language… which is passed down from generation to generation and is different depending on where in the world you find whales. Orcas in Iceland have distinct languages from those in, say, Washington.
So, obviously, when Killer Whales are captured, taken from their family pods, and put into isolated concrete tanks, there are devastating effects.  They are separated from their native families, and the whales they are placed with may be from a total other end of the earth and not even communicate in the same way that they do. Not only that, but Killer Whales from the Pacific are mammal eating, while Icelandic Killer Whales eat only fish. Trying to construct artificial "pods" by placing them together has proven problematic in the past.Case in Point: Kanduke and Kotar, residents of SeaWorld Orlando in 1988. Their regular altercations turns particularly violent when Kotar bit and severely injured Kanduke.

Let’s rewind for a second.

 In the 1960s, Ted Griffin obtained the first captive Killer Whale, one that had been caught in a fisherman’s net off the coast of Seattle.  Griffin towed the animal 450 miles and was followed nearly the entire way by Namu’s pod of 20-25 Orcas. Namu’s surprisingly friendly and gentle nature caught national attention, and his “friendship” with Griffin essentially birthed the Orca entertainment industry. Yet, “Namu was often heard calling to other Orcas from his pen in the sea, and he died within a year from an intestinal infection, probably brought on by a nearby sewage outflow.”
The success of Namu sadly led to the brutal capture of hundreds of Orcas, by means of nets, harpoon guns, and seal bombs. Whales that were inadvertently killed were weighted down by anchors to keep “hidden.” The rest were sold away from their pods to Marine Parks. The whole gruesome story can be read in Killer in the Pool (see link to the right.)

But what about now? That sort of immoral violence in order to capture Orcas doesn’t happen anymore.
That’s sort of because they breed their already-caught whales so that calves are born into captivity. Whales owned by SeaWorld are often rotated between San Antonio, Orlando, and San Diego depending on theme park needs. That includes the separation of mother and child.
 I have been astonished at the number of trainers-turned-activists there are in this city alone. A truly significant amount of people have given up their “dream job” of working one on one with captive cetaceans, simply because their conscious couldn’t allow them to continue. And honestly, who has more firsthand knowledge about the day-to-day of captive killer whales than SeaWorld trainers?
Just a few of these courageous activists are Jeff Ventre, John Jett, Samantha Berg, and Carol Ray. It was Ray who gave this heart wrenching testimony of a calf and mother being separated:
“(The calf) was just 4 years old when we were told that she would be removed from her mother and her 2 half siblings… To watch her and her mother struggle to try and stay together while they were forcibly separated by nets, and then watch the calf hoisted with a crane, put in a truck and shipped away was simply heartbreaking. But the worst of it was after it was over, and I stayed on night duty to do observations. The mother spent the night alone in a corner of her tank, shivering and screeching, crying because of her loss, for the entire night.”
So, try not to start sobbing.

Stories like this one become even more horrific when you learn that Killer Whale culture is fundamentally built around Mom. Pods are what are known as matrifocal (centered around the matriarch.) Adult females may eventually form their own pods when they old enough to be reproductive (Which in the wild is at about 15. SeaWorld breeds them much younger, as young as 5 or 6.) Male offspring, on the other hand, remain with their mothers THEIR ENTIRE LIFE. From infancy to old age, wild Orca Whales live by their mother’s side.

Not at SeaWorld, though! 
The very first Killer Whale born in captivity was Kalina. It was 1985, and "Baby Shamu" was a big hit with the press. At 4 and a half years old, she was shipped on a 4 year long "Baby Shamu Celebration Tour" through Ohio, Texas, and California, performing with whales she barely knew, far separated from her mother Katina. While on tour, baby Kalina too became pregnant, and gave birth at the tender age of six. After four years away, Kalina was eventually reunited with her mother in Orlando, but had to leave her own eighteen month old calf, Keet, behind in San Antonio.

So just to recap:
1.       Killer Whales are smart enough to have independent languages within their communities.

2.       Their lifestyle is entirely family-based, and this is ruptured when they are introduced to captivity.

3.       Whales placed in tanks together may be from opposite ends of the world and not even “speak the same language.” They have different diets, cultures, etc. This is an artificial attempt to create a "pod." Housing such different animals together has had devastating effects in the past.

4.       SeaWorld sometimes separates mother and child based on theme park needs, even though the whales would usually remain with their mothers their entire lives. Whales are bred at unusually young ages.

5.       Whales have an emotional reaction to this separation, fight against it, and retain memory of it.

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