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The Impact of Captivity on the Social and Emotional Well-being of Orcas (Orcinus orca)

Ghaaliyah Brown, and Savannah Fetterolf, Honors College, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, MS 1F4, Fairfax, VA 22030

Following the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer at the hands of a captive orca, captivity of the orca species (Orcinus orca) re-emerged as a prominent controversy. Prior to this incident, significant research studying the impact of captivity on the physiology of orcas had been conducted. However, the focus began to shift as the psychological health of captive orcas was called into question. Recent studies can generally be classified as focusing on either social, emotional, or intellectual distress. The first two categories are closely related, and thus a concurrent examination allows for a more meaningful analysis and stronger understanding of the existing scholarly conversation. This project works to address how captivity impacts the social and emotional well-being of orcas and what this suggests about their suitability to the conditions of captivity in SeaWorld’s US marine parks. A comprehensive literature review of methodologically strong sources examining the social and emotional well-being of captive orcas identifies four main psychological stressors: forced groupings, breeding practices, absence of a support system, and lack of a maternal bond. These factors were analyzed in the context of the phenomena of conspecific conflict, self-injurious behaviors, maternal abuse, and maternal neglect. While these behavioral patterns are extremely rare in the wild, and in some cases entirely undocumented, they are prevalent in captivity and were all found to be directly caused by at least one of the identified stressors. This analysis indicates that the conditions of captivity in SeaWorld’s US marine parks cause significant emotional and social distress, and as such are not suitable environments for orcas. This paper ultimately argues that breeding programs should be discontinued on an international scale and measures such as transfer to coastal sanctuaries should be taken to promote the wellbeing of those orcas already in captivity.




Additional Abstract Information

Presenter: Ghaaliyah Brown

Institution: George Mason University

Type: Poster

Subject: Interdisciplinary Studies

Status: Approved


Time and Location

Session: Poster 8
Date/Time: Tue 5:00pm-6:00pm
Session Number: 5535