Orcas’ Deep Emotional Capacity

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Recently, I have been reflecting about Tahlequah, the Orca Whale who carried her daughter’s body for 17 days and over 1,000 miles in the Pacific. I can’t seem to get the images and story out of my head. To me, this situation serves as a reminder of the deep emotions orcas and other animals experience. Tahlequah demonstrated the same kind of grief a human mother would have, and we know that orcas create strong bonds with mates, children and other members of their pods. 

Though Tahlequah lives in a wild pod in the Pacific Northwest, her emotions are the same as orcas imprisoned in parks around the world. To my knowledge there are still about 60 orcas held in 14 marine parks in 8 countries, including the USA, Canada, France, Japan, Argentina, Spain, China, and Russia. 

In the wild, orcas are matriarchal led pods and have complex family structures; an orca whale in the wild remains with its mother it’s entire life. They can be found in every ocean and most seas, making them one of the most widely ranging animals on earth. Each orca pod has a different “dialect”. In captivity, they are thrust into small enclosures with orcas from other parts of the world. This makes me imagine how tormented I would feel to be kidnapped and placed in a small cell with other people who I couldn’t talk to. It makes me sick to think about.  

The evidence is strong against holding orcas in captivity. Their life spans fall from well over 50 years to under 20, injuries and sickness are common, and many calves are stillborn or die young. Here in the US, SeaWorld ended their breeding program in 2016, but continue their Orca Encounter shows, which won’t be phased out until 2019.  As someone dedicated to the well-being of animals, I will never attend a show at one of the parks where orcas are held, and urge others to do the same.

There are many other threats humans pose to these beautiful creatures as well. One such example is the over fishing of salmon, the Pacific Northwest Orca’s main food source. I’m inspired by chef Renee Erickson who removed chinook salmon from the menu of her Seattle area restaurants: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-chef-renee-erickson-takes-chinook-salmon-off-menus-to-help-ailing-puget-sound-orcas/

SPCA International will continue to advocate for all animals that are not given the chance to live full, natural lives. There are several organizations working to put a stop to the terrible practice of capturing and imprisoning these intelligent and deeply emotional animals. Here are a few ways you can get involved: learn about ocean sanctuaries for previously captive orcas, support wild orca conservation, and ask companies not to support orca captivity.