SeaWorld Exploits Orca’s Pregnancy, Despite Outcry Over Captive Breeding

April the Giraffe — a giraffe at the Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York — gave birth to a baby calf on April 15, completing weeks of a live stream from the zoo. Toys R Us sponsored the live feed, which attracted millions of viewers, brought in thousands of dollars in donations, and launched their own site and store for April the Giraffe. The New York zoo’s successful marketing campaign has now inspired SeaWorld in San Diego to launch a similar one, as it provides updates and livestream discussions with trainers featuring a pregnant 25-year-old orca in captivity named Takara. On April 20, SeaWorld announced that Takara gave birth to her calf.

Takara’s baby is supposed to be the last to be born into captivity after the company announced in March it would end its captive breeding program as legislation in California was being pushed through to ban it.

“SeaWorld’s business model is exploiting animals for money,” Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer who appeared in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, told Truthout. “I am saddened but not surprised by SeaWorld’s marketing and promoting of Takara’s pregnancy. Ever since SeaWorld started breeding captive orcas, they have marketed their breeding program as a humane alternative to wild captures, which they were forced to stop because of legislation and public outcry. No amount of veterinary care, PR spin or loving stories from trainers make this anything more than a tragedy from both Takara and her newborn calf’s perspective. Takara, herself captive-born, is giving birth to an animal who will never know the life he or she was meant to live. I can’t see anything redeeming about that.”

Takara was born in captivity in 1991 at SeaWorld San Diego to orca parents captured near Iceland. She will be giving birth to her fifth calf, two of which were taken from her — one transported to a park in Spain, and the other transported to SeaWorld Orlando. Orcas in the wild generally give birth to a calf every six to 10 years, but this will be Takara’s third calf in just six years. Another orca similar to Takara, named Kalina, died suddenly at the age of 25 in 2010. Kalina was forced to give birth five times in a short span of time, which likely contributed to her early death. Female orcas in the wild live on average to around 50 years.

“SeaWorld’s exploitation in any way of Takara giving birth to this calf proves they had no intentions of ending their breeding program or their circus-style shows, and fought viciously until the very end to try and kill the California bill banning captive breeding, which has now become law,” former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove told Truthout. Hargrove testified as an expert witness to the California Coastal Commission in their push to ban SeaWorld’s captive breeding program despite SeaWorld’s attempt to sue the Commission for doing so. “Takara was taken from her mother Kasatka at the age of 12 and shipped to Florida with her first calf Kohana, then SeaWorld took Takara’s daughter when she was only three years old and shipped her to another country where now she has been inbred multiple times. With no mother or any other adult female to help or teach her, Kohana rejected her two calves and the second died at only 10 months old.”

Takara then had a male calf named Trua in Florida, but Takara was shipped away to the Texas park where they needed a dominant female. There, she was artificially inseminated again. “In the wild, [female orcas] are 13-15 years old before they become pregnant with their first calf. SeaWorld has forcibly artificially inseminated females as young as 8 years old,” Hargrove said. “In the wild, it takes three years or more before a female could become pregnant again. SeaWorld has forced pregnancy as soon as the females first begin to cycle at 18 months via artificial insemination. Although inbreeding does not occur in the wild, it happens at SeaWorld.”

Activists are pushing for SeaWorld to send Takara and her new calf to live out the rest of their lives at a marine sanctuary where the orcas can live somewhat normal lives in the ocean, free from being forced to perform in circus-style shows and live in the stressful environment at SeaWorld. “Captivity itself is toxic for killer whales, but ‘the show must go on!'” said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, former SeaWorld Trainer, in an interview with Truthout. “This means Takara is exposed to a constant barrage of amplified music, pneumatic gates, construction noises, tourists banging on the glass, and more. Some have called it an ‘acoustic nightmare for cetaceans.’ Approximately 40 percent of her captive diet is composed of smelt, a food item not eaten by killer whales, anywhere, and all of her diet is frozen-thawed fish. This raises nutritional concerns for a growing calf. Orcas are predators, not scavengers, preferring more nutritionally robust live-kill vs. frozen-thawed and relatively dehydrated dead fish.”

Ventre added that orcas in captivity often fight in the tanks, with nowhere to go like they would in the ocean. This is contributing to a stressful environment, and compounded with poor nutrition, provides a very dangerous environment for pregnant females. Orcas swim on average over 60 miles per day in the wild, but at SeaWorld are confined to small concrete and steel tanks, which deprive them of the type of social interactions they would experience living in the wild.

Unlike the water in the ocean, the water in orca tanks is filled with so much chlorine to neutralize the orcas’ own waste that the water burns the eyes of the trainers and the orcas who have to swim in it. SeaWorld also regularly doses its orcas with antianxiety, antidepressant medications, proton pump inhibitors to reduce stress-induced ulcers, and antibiotics to mitigate infection from the dental issues orcas often face in captivity.

SeaWorld has tried to grapple with and rebrand itself in the wake of the Blackfish documentary, and activist-driven movements raising awareness of the inhumane, cruel and unsafe practices associated with keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment. In response to these movements, the company has promised to end captive breeding, yet is helping its new stockholder continue the practice in China.

“Takara was pregnant when SeaWorld President Joel Manby made that announcement [to end breeding in captivity at SeaWorld parks] last March. So at this point, SeaWorld is to be given credit for living up to the promise of ending captive breeding,” said Ventre. “That said, I find it completely hypocritical for SeaWorld to tout ‘ending orca breeding’ on one hand, but on the other, [it] just sold 21 percent of its stock to a wealthy Chinese company intent on expanding captivity in the East. [SeaWorld has] also agreed to offer consultation services to the company. This is where SeaWorld is not living up to its promise. Hopefully the media and public will soon pick up on this contradiction.”