Why breeding dolphins and orcas in captivity is a terrible idea

Seven years ago, Sea World San Diego announced the birth of a male dolphin calf. His mother is Sadie, a 14-year-old dolphin who lives in captivity at Sea World San Diego. Seeing a baby dolphin born in captivity isn’t new to amusement parks like Sea World. This small cetacean is actually one of about 80 bottlenose dolphins born into the captive industry.

While some may think this is great news for the world’s dolphin population, there is a huge problem with captive breeding of animals such as dolphins and killer whales. Obviously, these animals will never know what life is like in the wild. But they will also never be able to swim freely in open water, hunt or use their natural instincts. They will never be able to fully utilize their intelligence or get the exercise they need. Essentially, these captive offspring will live in a bathtub for their entire lives.

In addition to these problems, there are also smaller, but equally harmful, problems with captive breeding that many people don’t know about.

The conservation myth

Many marine parks claim that by breeding these animals in captivity, they help conserve them. The problem, however, is that the animals are not conserved. Born in captivity, they will never learn the skills needed to survive in the wild. In effect, this means that any animal born in captivity can never be released into the wild. Conservation must begin where these animals make all their homes: in the ocean.

Aggressive behavior in captive cetaceans

Studies have shown that captive dolphins and killer whales exhibit aggressive behavior not shown in the wild.

Orcas are known to attack their trainers aggressively. At least three trainers have been killed by captive orcas and SeaWorld has had more than 100 “incidents” involving orcas and captive personnel. In the wild, there have been no violent interactions between orcas and humans.

Since they are generally docile animals, many marine attractions allow people to interact with dolphins. But even the most “happy” looking dolphins can be pushed to their limits and bite park visitors.

Orcas and dolphins are incredibly intelligent animals and they are fully capable of understanding their own suffering and frustration. After years of swimming laps and experiencing mind-numbing boredom, these animals are like tightly coiled feathers.

Forsaken their youngsters

Captive cetaceans not only show aggressive behavior towards humans, but they even turn against members of their species and even their young. When these dolphins and killer whales are born in captivity, their mothers often reject them, as captivity has wiped out their natural instincts. This happened at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In December 2014, a seven-day-old man was rejected by his mother and died as a result. This is also nothing new. Go back through the years and you will still see the same rejection happening. In 1998, Taima and Tilikum (yes, That Tilikum) gave birth to Sumar. When he was three months old, Taima attacked Suma and rejected it, causing SeaWorld to send him to another facility, away from the only family he knew.

In the wild, orca pods are extremely close, and the bond between mother and child is very real. However, captive mothers have never learned how to care for a child and many have been snatched from their own mothers at a young age, so they have no idea what it means to love or be loved.


Like us, dolphins and killer whales have developed instincts so they won’t inbreed. In the wild, there are different mate options available for the animals. In captivity there are very few options and many of those options are relatives because catching wild killer whales and dolphins for captivity is no longer done in the US

An example of this kind of inbreeding is Katina, the killer whale, who was impregnated in 2006 by her own son Taku. The calf, Nalani, is the first fully inbred orca in captivity. As we turn against the captivity industry in the US, we can only expect more marine parks to turn to inbreeding to keep their shows and spectacles alive. But is it really worth the health of the animals?

Breeding too young

For orcas, the average breeding age is around 14 years. Companies trying to make a profit, like SeaWorld, don’t really care about the natural life cycle of killer whales in the wild. Once a killer whale is ready, they begin to fertilize her. In the past, killer whales were bred at SeaWorld at ages eight and ten, years before they were supposed to breed. Again, this is traumatic for the mothers and harmful to the babies who will eventually be rejected.


In captivity, calf mortality can be as high as 50 percent for calves less than six months old. Premature death is also known in adult animals. Their lifespans are extremely shortened, with only two orcas reaching 40 years of age in captivity. Compare that to the wild, where orcas live between 50 and 80 years, and it’s pretty clear that prison life is no life at all for these complex animals.

What you can do

The only reason marine parks, such as SeaWorld, continue to breed animals in captivity is to keep their attractions open. If they stopped breeding animals, they would soon run out of killer whales and dolphins to display. However, as consumers learn more about the physical and mental harm that captivity inflicts on marine species, they are beginning to fall into oblivion within the industry. If there is no longer a demand for orca and dolphin shows and spectacles, then marine parks have no reason to breed their animals.

Help us end captive breeding by boycotting marine parks. It’s time we empty the tanks and give these living creatures a chance to stay wild!

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