Kept in captivity since 1961, orcas have been spectacles for millions of people each year who flock to marine parks around the world in hopes of entertainment and education. The chance to get close to such an incredible creature that one may not have the opportunity to see otherwise is undoubtedly an amazing experience. But Melissa Richards questions in "Making a Killing off Captivity", at what cost are we getting this experience? She argues that the positive image big-name aquatic parks create for animals is in actual fact leading people to unknowingly support a cruel industry.
Explaining the detrimental effects of taking an orca out of its natural habitat, Richards emphasizes her concern for the conservation of Orcas and the importance of treating these powerful and dangerous creatures with respect. Richards begins by setting a joyful scene of a SeaWorld orca performance, an invitation for the reader to enter a high spirited fun spectacle of an orca. Weighing several tonnes the orca circles, leaps and splashes the delighted audience. Suddenly, the mood shifts horrifically as the trainer becomes victim to an orca attack in front of a stunned audience.
The sharp change in mood is established by Richards when she says, "The show ended to a usual bout of applause and cheers, until 'Tilly' grabbed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, by her ponytail and dragged the woman into his tank. " Just as one would think that the spectacle was over, the reader is shocked at the unexpected ending as the audience would have been at Seaworld. The reader's perception of the orca as being a fun loving, friendly creature, emphasized by the amusing nickname 'Tilly', immediately changes to perceiving the orca as a villain.
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Richards questions "what could have prompted this sudden violent outburst from Tilikum, a whale who has been in captivity for almost thirty years? " This question brings new dimension to the matter at hand. Suddenly the situation isn't as black and white as one would have assumed. She elaborates by stating, "the stress of being captive and made to perform daily had elicited a frustration against his trainer". Richards manipulates the reader's perception towards the orca, from a villain to a victim.
The deliberate changes of perception towards orcas helps in avoiding predictability in Richards' argument, this is an effective way to keep the reader focused and intrigued in her writing. Richards elaborates by stating that captivity has had many detrimental effects on orcas including 'atypical illnesses, erratic behavior, deformities, neurotic problems and early death'. These conditions bring light to the fact that the matter at hand is life threatening and 'counterproductive to the goals of wildlife appreciation and conservation'.
Intertwining these critical issues of wildlife conservation and animal cruelty, she stresses the urgency in her argument. There is a need to convey the message that action must be taken immediately. It is acknowledged that to know whether the orcas are being mistreated in their artificial habitat, we must know the natural habitat of an orca. Richards does a commendable job of familiarizing the reader the sheer magnitude of a creature that many people are unknown to via statistics. Travelling "one hundred nautical miles every day" (qtd Landeau 1) and weighing "1. to 3. 6 tons" it is no wonder that their power and strength has earned them the nickname of the "wolves of the sea". Despite the general unfamiliarity of these exotic creatures, Richards draws comparisons of the behavior and characteristics of Orcas to that of humans. Orcas have been found to create social and familial bonds with one another, The idea that whales share similar bonds to their family as we do encourages the readers to change their belief that whales may not be as alien of a species as they had imagined.
This is further elaborated when Richards states "Mothers are the main caretakers of their offspring, but fathers will remain with their own matriarchal pod, helping to care for the young within this maternal line. " Words such as "caretakers", "helping" and "care" appeal to the reader's emotions as we see how affectionate the orca species can be within their pod just as we are affectionate to our kin. "The familial bonds within orca pods are very strong and only can be broken through death and capture of member" (qtd Williams 9).
Suddenly, the loving image of an orca pod is brought back to our harsh reality as she clearly states that captivity devastates innocent orca families. While Richards draws emphasis to the social behavior of orcas, she also informs us of their impressive cognitive abilities. "orcas are one of the few animals besides humans to have such distinctive language and shared speech patterns among individuals living in the same area" This shows that not only do orcas have strong communal bond with each other, they also communicate so effectively that this is a rare occurrence in the animal kingdom.
She stresses the similarity between the reader and the orca species here, this creates familiarity. Moreover, she compares the habitat and behavior of orcas in the wild to those held captive in marine parks. Incorporating the opinion of a former Seaworld trainer (Jeffrey Ventre), a truly credible source considering her experience, the argument is strengthened by a bold statement. "the SeaWorld system is the best of all seaquaria in the world, if I was an orca, that would be the last place I'd want to live" This suggests that even at its best, marine parks and seaquarias are far from the ideal habitat for an orca.
Ventre compares an orca tank to "an acoustically dead cement pond" emphasizing the numbing atmosphere of a captive orca's habitat. Case studies of orcas being neurologically and physically damaged because of captivity add credibility to Richards case. Due to "inadequate space in which to swim" (qtd Williams 52), the dorsal fins of an orca can collapse. This could happen as a result of colliding with the side of the small tank. The size of orca tanks can have great effect on the neurological stability of an orca where some have been documented to self induce physical damage.
According to 'Listening to Whales' by Alexandra Morton, a young killer whale was observed "rushing over to a particular spot and banging her head against the underside of a dock". Swimming in circles and being separated from their families causes the orca to become neurotic. Isolation can be severely detrimental for an orca as some are forced to be in solitary confinement. If orcas cannot adapt to captivity they are made to endure horrifying conditions as in the case study of "Junior" who died "lethargic and psychotic" after being kept in an indoor pool without natural light and other orcas.
Richards emphasized that orcas are highly social creatures so the idea that it is common practice for captive orcas to be isolated is truly shocking. To further support her argument, Richards shows us how captivity is harmful to orcas with the use of numbers and statistics. After the first orca was taken into captivity in 1961 "at least 106 (79%) are now dead" (qtd Williams 4). The average lifep of an orca is approximately sixty to eighty years, which means the majority of orcas do not die from a natural death. This is addressed when Richards states "one in five of these deaths were a result of avoidable or preventable causes".
It is clear that preventing the death of orcas is not unachievable if more people knew the risks of captivity. Richards appeals to the reader by explaining how the relationship between a mother orca and it's offspring can be heartbreakingly affected by living in a tank. After a giving birth to a series of orcas that died in weeks, "Corky" the killer whale was encountering a problem in which her offspring could not instinctually find the spot on Corky to nurse on. This is because of the circular nature of the tank. In the wild, orcas travel in straight lines that make it easier for the offspring to feed. Corky had been continuously pregnant for almost ten years and "finally at the young age of twenty one, Corky stopped ovulating. "
" The death of multiple innocent babies that was so easily avoidable is tragic and makes the reader sympathize with these creatures. Other occurrences that may not be seen in the wild is aggression between orcas. Richards documents a sickening account of two orcas fighting aggressively. "As Kandu hemorrhaged into the tank and spouted blood from her blowhole onto the stage, SeaWorld staffed ushered a shocked audience out of the audience... This gruesome event graphically conveys the point that captivity induces strange behavior in orcas, ultimately due to neurological damage. This study makes a point of noting the sheer strength and ferocity that an orca can possess. Overall I believe Richards does a commendable job of conveying her argument. She uses credible sources and reliable statistics in order to support her point of view. I have personally been to an orca show in California, reading this article made me reflect on that experience and completely change my perception.
At the time the experience was completely positive and almost magical as we stepped in to a fantasy land where Shamu was almost a cartoon character, jumping and leaping out of glee. Reading this article has made me realize that Shamu is far from an enchanting Disney character but is actually one of the fiercest, most powerful predators in the ocean. Richards has achieved this with her various case studies that enlightened me on the magnitude of an orca and its ability to kill not only humans but other orcas too. She has persuaded the reader to support her argument with the use of emotions.
However, Richards has made an effort to avoid rambling needlessly to provoke empathy by using clear facts to accompany her opinions. An aspect of her research paper that I would change would be the incorporation of the Vancouver Aquarium. The aim of Richards argument was to eliminate captivity in order to conserve the orca population and animal cruelty. However, she has shown Vancouver aquarium in a positive light by stating it "eliminates parallel surfaces, reduces noise transmission and improves acoustics within the water".
Although Vancouver Aquarium vowed to end orca shows after the death of an orca in their aquarium, I believe Richards message in this quotation is that these conditions are acceptable for an orca in captivity. My personal belief is that no orca should be taken from their natural habitat and away from their pod at all. I believe that this article was written at a point in time that it was needed the most. Conservation and wildlife protection is of utmost importance as hundreds of species a day are rapidly moving towards extinction. This article has shown that we need to be more aware of how we treat animals.
Ultimately, Richards has done a fantastic job of educating the reader about a topic that is alien to many. With the use of powerful statistics, thought provoking points and emotional case studies, she has produced a strong argument. The ultimate reaction I believe many readers will walk away from this article with is disappointment, distaste and disillusionment towards orca shows and marine parks. The next time one makes a trip to SeaWorld they must question whether they are going for a day of education and entertainment or whether they are supporting a business built on exploitation of innocent orcas.
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