Op Ed: Orcas with Jobs

There is nothing natural about the lives of the orcas confined at Loro Parque in Tenerife. During the loud circus performances that attract huge paying audiences, the orcas are instructed by their trainers to “dance” to ear-deafening pop music and beach themselves onto the concrete. They are rewarded for this abnormal behavior with dead fish and artificially-colored gelatin.” ~ Helene Hesselager O’Barry

In a statement on their blog dated June 4, 2016, Loro Parque argues that the footage shot by Morgan Monitors and released by Dolphin Project represents just a “few minutes” of Morgan on the slide-out. The park says it is “absolutely illogical and absurd” to draw any conclusions based on those two minutes.

Morgan on concrete slide-out, Loro Parque, Spain, 5_16

Morgan on concrete slide-out, Loro Parque, Spain, 5_16

Loro Parque thereby ignores the following: As clearly stated in our post, Morgan remained on the slide-out for a witnessed 10 minutes — possibly longer. This happened after the final show of the day had concluded. Loro Parque staff asked everyone to leave the stadium, which appears to be standard procedure after a show has ended. Morgan Monitors were among the final few that were shooed out the doors. Upon leaving the theater, they looked back and saw that Morgan was still fully exposed on the slide-out. They estimate that the time from the end of the show and Morgan exiting the water to the time that they were asked to leave and lost sight of her was at minimum ten minutes.

Loro Parque goes on to claim that, “A voluntary stranding is a natural behavior of orcas living in the wild.” The park likens Morgan’s stranding behavior to that of orcas in Argentina that hunt seals in the shallows near the shore. In doing so, Loro Parque ignores the intelligence of orcas and their ability to comprehend the limitations of their confinement. Morgan was not hunting for seals when she stranded herself on that concrete. In fact, Morgan is believed to belong to a fish-eating population of orcas from Norway, making the comparison with seal-eating orcas from Argentina insignificant.

Further, even if Morgan had belonged to a seal-eating orca population, Loro Parque fails to recognize another critical flaw in its reaction to the video footage: When orcas in Argentina hunt for seals in shallow water, it is a foraging act. It is a display of their highly-evolved hunting skills, based on being at home and dominant in their marine environment. These orcas combine instinct with learned behaviors passed down in the orca communities, taught to young. In contrast, and like the other orcas confined at Loro Parque, Morgan is deprived of hunting for her own food, with no opportunity to learn hunting from her family. Her act of beaching herself on the concrete cannot be compared to the learned hunting behaviors of orcas in nature.

When a captive lion paces back and forth in his cage, you cannot point at that lion and say, ‘Look, he is behaving just like lions do in nature. He is walking!'” ~ Helene Hesselager O’Barry

Loro Parque asserts that, “The orcas at Loro Parque are trained to leave the water on their own accord,” as if this somehow normalizes Morgan’s behavior. The statement is farcical. Loro Parque might as well have said, “The orcas at Loro Parque are trained to obey voluntarily.” If the orcas are trained to leave the water, then they are not doing it “of their own accord.” They are doing it at the direction of their trainers.

Orca at Loro Parque panics in medical pool

Morgan in medical pool, Loro Parque, 4/16
Credit: Video screen grab/VIMEO

Loro Parque then talks about how the orcas at its facility, on numerous occasions, are given “free time” by their trainers. This is a revealing statement, as it demonstrates that Loro Parque is fully aware that the orcas, when they are not given “free time” are in fact working. This is what all captive dolphin shows are based upon. Animals are put to work to attract paying customers. During a captive-dolphin spectacle, the dolphins jump, dance, and beach themselves on command. The spectators are amused by it and are led to believe that the dolphins, too, are having fun. In reality the dolphins are doing what they know they have to in order to obtain food rewards. In short, they work for food.

The assumption that humans have a right to take control over a wild animal, force that animal to spend its life in an unnatural habitat, where it will dance for others’ amusement, and choose when it should be granted a free time is high-handed and superior. It is not within our rights as humans to lord such power over the lives of these highly intelligent and complex beings. The idea of freedom in the “free time” is a poor illusion. There is no freedom to be found within a concrete tank. Captive orcas have no freedom to swim normally. They have no freedom to navigate, forage, explore, or engage in any of the multifaceted activities of their wild counterparts. There is no freedom from their dependence on their human keepers for food. Captivity is a full-time duty that has been forced upon them by humans, and there are never any breaks from it.

Loro Parque calls Morgan’s beaching behavior “totally natural.” In its statement, Loro Parque postulates, “To speculate that this represents a sign of stress demonstrates utter ignorance about the natural behavior of this species.” This arrogant statement comes from an institution that keeps ocean-roaming marine mammals confined to minuscule concrete tanks to perform abnormal behaviors for food rewards of dead fish. Nothing about the lives of captive orcas remotely resembles orcas’ lives in nature. There is nothing natural about their barren, lifeless tanks. There is nothing natural about the tricks they are trained to perform during loud circus performances. There is nothing natural about an orca moving its body from side to side to ear-splitting pop music. There is nothing natural about these free-ranging marine mammals swimming in endless circles. There is nothing natural about orcas trapped for life in an artificial world of loud music and yelling spectators. And there certainly is nothing natural about an orca stranding herself on a concrete floor or slamming her head into the bars of an iron gate. These are obvious signs of distress.

According to Loro Parque’s statement, in order to understand orcas, one must rely on “scientifically proven data.” One must conduct scans, scientific research and diagnostic tests in order to, as Loro Parque puts it, “make any correct conclusion.” But diagnostic tests of the animals’ blood or scans of their bodies ignore critical elements of their health: their mental and emotional well-being. Their behavior is more than just a pattern of circles in a pool. In order to truly understand orcas, one must understand, admire, and respect them for who and what they are in nature, wild and free—free from yelling audiences, free from food control and trainers’ constant demands, and free from impenetrable concrete walls and iron gates.

Loro Parque quotes: Statement: Morgan on the stage, Loro Parque blog, 6/4/16

Featured image: Captive orca Tekoa being fed dead fish and gelatin. Credit: Helene Hesselager O’Barry

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Author: Helene Hesselager O’Barry


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