SeaWorld was right to stop breeding orcas, but it should go further

Takara, a 25-year-old orca living at SeaWorld San Antonio, has already delivered four calves in four different cramped tanks across the country, and is about to deliver her fifth. Due any day now, the calf will be the last killer whale born at a SeaWorld. Last March, the park announced it would stop its orca breeding program following years of protests.

Takara’s story makes clear why the captive breeding of orcas needed to end. She was born in captivity, in what is basically a cement box, at SeaWorld San Diego to parents who were captured rodeo-style off the coast of Iceland in 1978. Her mother, Kasatka, is still being held in a tank at the San Diego park. Her father, Kotar, died at SeaWorld San Antonio two decades ago after a pool gate closed on his head, fracturing his skull.

Research shows that female orcas in the wild typically don’t reproduce until they are 15, but SeaWorld artificially inseminated Takara, and she gave birth for the first time when she was 10, to a female named Kohana. The sperm SeaWorld used was taken from Tilikum, the killer whale whose harrowing story was told in the award-winning documentary “Blackfish.”

Although wild orcas usually remain with their mothers for life, Takara was separated from hers at the age of 12, when she and Kohana were shipped to SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. Afterward, her mother, Kasatka, began “emitting vocalizations that had never been heard before” in what cetacean  experts believe was an effort to locate Takara, according to a former SeaWorld trainer interviewed on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”

SeaWorld San Diego visitors view an Orca whale through a window at the park on Aug 14, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Takara’s first two calves were also taken from her at a young age. Kohana was sent across the Atlantic at the age of 3 to Loro Parque, a Spanish zoo where she was bred twice with her uncle, Keto, the first time when she was only 3. Young and unschooled in mothering, Kohana rejected both of her calves, Victoria and Adán, and Victoria died within a year.

A male calf, Trua, was fathered by a male offspring of Tilikum, Taku, and born in Orlando. He was only 3 when his mother was moved again, this time to SeaWorld San Antonio. Takara was then seven months pregnant with her third calf, a female who would be named Sakari, fathered by Tilikum.

In nature, orca pregnancies are typically spaced out every three to 10 years, but SeaWorld bred Takara less than two years after the birth of Sakari. They used the sperm of an orca named Kshamenk who lives in isolation at the Argentinean marine park Mundo Marino. Takara lost the fetus, but three months later, SeaWorld artificially impregnated her again. Her fourth calf and third female, Kamea, was born in San Antonio in 2013. Takara had not finished nursing Kamea when she was bred again. The calf she is now expecting will be her third in seven years.

Takara’s story of forced impregnation, painful separations and pregnancy loss is especially regrettable given that she is less than halfway through her life. But her future, and that of all her calves, could be so much better.

Last fall, California became the first state to outlaw orca breeding programs like the one run at SeaWorld. The legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, also banned parks from featuring orcas in theatrical shows. Starting in June of this year, orcas may be used for “educational purposes” only.

But the only humane outcome is for the orcas already in captivity — and all the other marine animals kept in tanks at SeaWorld, including bottlenose dolphins, belugas and walruses — to be released into coastal sanctuaries. These large, protected areas can be created to serve as transition sites where marine animals would be rehabilitated. Orcas could be prepared to be reunited with long-lost family members in open waters. Those whose health has been so compromised that they cannot be released into open waters could still live out a much more fulfilling existence in the sanctuaries.

The animals would have the opportunity to swim in seawater, feel the tides and waves, and engage in the natural forms of behavior they’ve long been denied. It’s the ethical thing to do.

Ingrid Newkirk is the president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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