SeaWorld San Diego held its final killer whale show on January 8, marking the end of 30 years of entertainment that saw some 400 million people visit the famed Shamu Stadium. SeaWorld’s other parks in Florida and Texas are scheduled to end their live orca shows in 2019.
Reading about the closure was bittersweet for me. Seven years ago I was soaking in the spectacle from the front row of Shamu Stadium and fulfilling a boyhood dream of seeing killer whales up close and firsthand. I remember the orca “beaching” itself right in front of me, and the temptation to hurdle the small barrier to touch the animal that I’ve loved ever since I first watched Free Willy. My hour with SeaWorld’s killer whales was an amazing experience, one I’ll evidently never have again. That thought makes me sad. Yet I’m also—more so—thrilled. As my interest in killer whales has grown, it has become clear to me that these animals do not belong in captivity.
Born to be wild
Killer whales, also known as orcas, are the largest members of the dolphin family, growing up to nearly 10 metres in length. Yet the biggest pool at SeaWorld San Diego is only 12 metres deep. The lack of space means orcas spend hours at a time motionless on the surface “logging,” leaving them prone to prolonged UV exposure and subsequent disease. Wild killer whales, in contrast, have been known to swim up to 160 kilometres in a day.
Orcas are extremely social and emotionally intelligent. Research into killer whale brains has revealed specialised cells for processing emotions. The depth of their ability to care for each other was revealed a few years ago when a number of adult orcas were observed feeding an orphaned animal with severe spinal defects.
Killer whales have even been known to spend their entire lives with their family. Such strong community bonds are severed in captivity, with individual animals forced to live alongside strangers, resulting in fights and even deaths.
Research into the lifespan of the species reveals the real cost of captivity, with the average age of captive animals (6.1 years) much lower than their wild counterparts (30–50 years).
In 2010, a large captive orca named Tilikum killed an experienced SeaWorld trainer during a live show in Orlando, Florida. The incident made news headlines around the world and inspired the making of Blackfish, a documentary that criticised SeaWorld’s animal husbandry practices. The film would ultimately lead to a fallout between SeaWorld and the general public, culminating in the company’s decision to end their orca shows.
The attack, while tragic, was not an isolated event. There have been more than 150 reported incidents involving captive killer whales since 1967, including four fatalities. Few may deem these numbers surprising given the animal’s reputation as a skilled and ruthless hunter. However, compare that to the fact that only one wild killer whale attack has ever been reported. In 1972, a California surfer was grabbed by an orca, which then immediately released him. Researchers believe it was a case of mistaken identity.
In a 2011 research paper, marine mammal scientist Dr Naomi Rose concluded that “a captive orca bears little resemblance to a wild one and the evidence is mounting that these animals, raised within or born into profoundly abnormal circumstances, are themselves abnormal”.
These abnormalities affect the orca both physically and psychologically, with traumatised animals grinding their teeth on the concrete walls of their enclosures and ramming the metal gates of holding pools. Life in a cage has turned captive orcas into shadows of the animals they were created to be.
Sadly, there are people around the world enduring a similar fate. Our hearts break for those trapped within the walls of tyranny and slavery (and rightly so), but there are countless others suffocating inside walls that we can neither see nor touch. As author Virginia Woolf put it: “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”
Life is a shared experience. Each of us is blessed with the incredible opportunity to have an impact on those around us (see Proverbs 27:17). But what happens when impact turns into imposition, and we force people to fit within the confines of our own beliefs and expectations?
In the workplace, our own work ethic and standard of success can fuel our criticism of others. We tell introverts they should speak out more, and demand the energetic to “grow up” or calm down. When it comes to our children, we can dictate rather than direct (as advised in Proverbs 22:6), scolding and moulding them into miniature versions of ourselves.
Christians can be especially adept at putting people into boxes, with some ready to admonish anyone who strays even a little from the religionist’s concept of model behaviour. This approach has been shown to have disastrous consequences, particularly on the young or spiritually vulnerable, who choose to lash out in retaliation or, worse still, walk away from their faith altogether.
This doesn’t mean believers should advocate for a life without ethics or limits. Adam and Eve were given a direct rule in Eden (“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Genesis 2:17), and the commandments God carved at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1–17) still apply to humanity today. God has also called His followers to restore, reprove and rebuke where appropriate (see Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Timothy 5:20).
What Christians mustn’t do, however, is add their ideas to God’s rule book. Despite what we might think at times, none of us has the authority, or ability, to make our fellow man into our image. There is only one Creator, and “we are all the work of [His] hand” (Isaiah 64:8); each a “masterpiece” (Ephesians 2:10), “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Christian author John Ortberg, in The Me I Want to Be, wrote, “Because you have been created by God as a unique person, His plan to grow you will not look the same as His plan to grow anyone else. What would grow an orchid would drown a cactus.” The quote reminds me of Jesus’ response to Peter when the disciple asked Him about the fate of John: “What is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22 ). In other words: “Peter, mind your own business.”
It’s a thought we would do well to remember the next time we are tempted to condemn or offer commentary on other people’s lives. Our single friends don’t need to find partners, and our children don’t have to go to university. Think that new Christian should attend church more regularly? “What is that to you?”
The needs, musts and shoulds we dispense to others are shackles, and an insult to the God who has bestowed on all of His children the precious gift of freedom. “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you” (Galatians 5:1, The Message).
Wild at heart
Two years after my visit to SeaWorld, I found myself on a small boat off the coast of Vancouver, Canada, searching for killer whales. It was a miserable morning and the seas were rough, making any orcas hard to spot. More than an hour went by before our tour boat eventually located a small pod of six or seven.
My time with these orcas was shorter, perhaps only 20 minutes, and certainly less intimate than my encounter at SeaWorld, yet the experience meant so much more to me. These were, after all, wild—real—killer whales, not the shadows suffering in captivity. These animals were living within the context of family and the natural world, not the confines of captivity. They were simply as they were created to be.