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The Hidden Cost Of Captivity- Oral Health of Killer Whales Exposed

September 25, 2010

POST UPDATED APRIL, 2012:

Part of our mission here at The Orca Project is to delve into the detrimental effects that captivity brings to orcas and other cetaceans at marine mammal parks. In this installment we take a look at the oral health of orcas (Killer Whales); the pervasive degradation, its causes and potential consequences.

Poor Orca Oral Health

Orcas in Captivity and Oral Degradation. Note the worn, drilled teeth

The PRIMARY risk factors for developing poor oral health conditions in captive orcas (Killer Whales) are AGE and CAPTIVITY. The longer animals are in confinement, the higher the risk of developing problems. Definitively, there is a high ‘prevalence’ of poor dentition (fractured and broken teeth) in a majority of captive orcas. However, there is an unknown rate of new occurrences since orca mortality decreases the ‘prevalence’ of broken teeth (dead whales get removed from the population, and younger whales have better teeth). It is speculated the risk increases for the male gender, based on increased testosterone levels and subdominant status. Additionally, social strife and moving animals from park to park may increase risk, because every time an animal moves, it must “reestablish” itself on the social hierarchy. This is more common with mid-range and lower animals within the social hierarchy. Upper echelon whales may have less of a need to establish themselves as they are already at the top of the society, therefore, subdominant animals would more susceptible to these problems.

The impact that captivity has on the teeth and jaws of various orcas can be seen in the following Photo Gallery:

SeaWorld, Six Flags and other marine mammal parks have managed to keep this cloaked in relative secrecy: Broken and fractured teeth usually occurs from common threat displays known as “barking” or “jaw popping” as they chomp down on steel gates that separate orcas in an effort to establish dominance. Dental fragments have been retrieved from the bottom of the pool after such displays and while this behavior can temporarily alleviate stress, it generates additional stress in the long run — a vicious cycle.

Compounding damage from grinding.

Chronic pain associated with poor dental health can lead to destructive behaviors such as grinding down the jaw itself.

The resulting damage and chronic pain can lead to behaviors of grinding down the jaw itself. In the adjacent image (See Photo) you can see how this orca, Nootka 5, has worn the jaw.  Nootka 5, who died in January, 2008 at the age of 32 was observed using the corner of the performance stage like a big file; swimming by at high-speed with an open mouth biting the corner of stage and wearing down the bone.

Additional contributors to the poor oral conditions of captive orcas include tooth grinding, tooth “flattening” and tooth “drilling”. Few people are aware of the practice where captive orcas routinely have holes drilled in their teeth (Pulpotomy) as well as “grinding” or “flattening” of their teeth, and fewer more understand, or have even thought about, how the holes are drilled.  Trainers are forbidden to speak of this practice publicly. SeaWorld trainers use a variable-speed tool (similar to a Dremel tool) to perform this Pulpotomy with a stainless drill bit attached.

The whales are conditioned to “accept” the noise, heat, vibration and obvious pain associated with drilling vertically through the tooth column and into the fleshy pulp below. Success is measured by blood spilling out of the hole, in which case it’s apparent the bore is complete.  – Former SeaWorld trainer.

Once the teeth are cracked, it leaves pulp exposed which will lead to infection unless treated.  Since they cannot perform a root canal on a captive killer whale, they perform a pulpotomy.  This entire procedure is performed without a local anesthetic for reasons which are not fully understood. For example, while the teeth of many of SeaWorld’s orcas are in “train-wreck” status, drilling and flushing routinely takes place regardless of whether the teeth are infected or in need of this procedure. The training and education staff at SeaWorld contends that the thrice daily “tooth flushes” are “superior dental care”. What they don’t tell you is that the teeth have holes in them, and if the impacted fish isn’t flushed with a Waterpick daily, an infection would likely occur. This is done by filling the reservoir of a device with a Betadine solution which is pumped down into the jaw.

In the case of Tilikum, the orca involved in the February 24, 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, this procedure is, or was, performed three times a day. At the time of his involvement in her death, it is also known that Tilikum was ill and receiving antibiotics and antifungal drugs to treat an unknown inflammatory issue. According to a review of his medical records, Tilikum’s teeth were allegedly ruled out by using a thermography unit.

In November, 2011 the young nine-year-old male Ikaika, who was on a breeding loan to Marineland of Canada, was returned to SeaWorld SanDiego. He has been plagued by dental issues most of his life:

“Ikaika’s problem is with the roots of various teeth in his mouth. These roots are open, allowing bacteria to enter and cause infections. The normal course of treatment is to flush his teeth consistently, numerous times daily, and treat him with antibiotics and pain medications” ~said Lanny Cornell, a veterinary consultant to Marineland.

Read more about Ike’s health issues HERE.

Twenty-five year old female Kalina, dubbed the original “Baby Shamu” died on October 4, 2010 of Acute Bacterial Septicemia. She was the first orca born and raised in captivity at SeaWorld Parks. Prior to her untimely death she had five teeth drilled and four additional teeth pulled. She was the fourth orca to die at SeaWorld Parks within 4 months in 2010.

Kayla, SeaWorld Orlando, has had 13 of her teeth drilled.

And the proliferation of poor dental health of captive killer whales doesn’t end there. According to SeaWorld’s internal documents,  most orcas now living in captivity have chronic dental problems. The animal profiles maintained on each orca outline the facts. For example; the young male Tuar, age 13, who resides at SeaWorld, San Antonio, Texas has 14 drilled teeth, another is cracked and he has worn his lower teeth from extensive rubbing and picking at paint at the bottom of the pools. Kayla, a 23 year old female orca in Orlando, Florida has 12 of her teeth drilled, another is cracked, and one is missing.  In July 1991, Kayla’s mom, the 17 year-young (and pregnant) Kenau began receiving treatment for an infected tooth at SeaWorld Orlando. Two weeks later she died of Hemorrhagic Bacterial Pneumonia (see necropsy report HERE). Her 110 lb, 12 month-old male fetus appears to have been alive up until the time of her death.

And more from SeaWorld’s “Living” orcas:
Keet, M, 19— Dental work done on 11 teeth and missing part of another.
Unna, F, 15— Nine teeth drilled. Wear on lower teeth.
Katina, F, 37— Two badly chipped teeth and another broken at the base.
Kasatka, F, 36— Missing three teeth on lower back right jaw.
Orkid, F, 23— Had one tooth removed in 1995.
Corky II, F, 45— Worn teeth on lower and upper jaw. Many decayed and discolored.
Kyuquot, M, 20— No teeth drilled- small chip on one. Extensive erosion and yellowing of lower teeth and back upper teeth at and below gum line.

UPDATE from The Orca Project- November 2011: During testimony at the SeaWorld vs. OSHA hearings, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Chris Dold confirmed the practice of drilling orca teeth after they break them on the surfaces of the concrete pools and during interactions with other whales. He also admitted under oath that about 14 of 20 orcas at SeaWorld require antiseptic flushes of their drilled teeth.

Lolita, Miami Seaquarium

Lolita: After 40 years in captivity, her isolation, devoid of social dominance issues may factor in her overall good dental health.

Although Lolita, the sole orca at Miami Seaquarium has endured 40 years of captivity and has been subjected to numerous other detrimental issues… her teeth appear to be in remarkably good form; the front teeth are barely erupted or worn down. Perhaps this is due to Lolita’s isolation, and lack of a need for social-climbing (no competitors in her facility) or other available mechanism of injury resulting from social-climbing and/or threat displays such as “Jaw-popping”.

-

UPDATE from The Orca Project- March, 2011: The killer whale shows at Miami Seaquarium were cancelled for several weeks in March 2011 while Lolita suffered from a tooth infection. She has since returned to performing. For more information, click HERE to read The Orca Project’s report on these developments.

The absence of these captive environment conditions also holds true for orcas in the wild that do not suffer the same oral degradation as seen in their captive counterparts. When compared, there is a significant prevalence of fractured and broken teeth in captive orcas which can be directly related to their confinement.

SeaWorld, for example, routinely does the following to conceal the teeth issue:

  1. They will use a juvenile or dominant orca with good teeth for all public photo shoots.
  2. They will create an angle where the photographer can only see the top jaw (in many cases the damage is to the lower jaw only)
  3. They won’t let anyone close to an animal, citing “safety” reasons (ironic, given their safety assurances).
  4. They sell the public on “superior dental care” as they often perform the tooth flush husbandry behavior publicly several times a day.
  5. PR pictures were always done mindful of avoiding mouth close-ups for fear of inadvertent disclosure.
Wild Orca Skeleton

An example of Orca teeth after a life in the wild. Note: No Drilling, Grinding, Filing

Numerous studies of both Eastern and Western Medicine practitioners suggest that oral health, and gum disease in particular, are related to serious health conditions in humans and the relationship between teeth and other areas of the body can create a recipe for illness, infection and death. This raises the following question: Is there a correlation between poor dental health in orcas and their premature mortality?

  • In the wild, male orcas live an average of 30+ yrs and females 50+ yrs (many can live well into their 80s or 90s) and they do not to suffer the same oral degradation seen in captive orcas.
  • In captivity; orcas rarely make it out of their teens and most suffer from extremely poor dentition as we have presented here.

Regardless of whether human oral health studies can be viewed as an accepted truth for orca health, these issues and images are strong evidence illustrating another example of the callous nature of orca confinement… which predominantly results in early death.

For more on this topic please read: ‘Damaged Teeth a Consequence of Captivity for Orcas’ ~ Decoded Science, January 09, 2014 by Elizabeth Batt.

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45 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2014 10:04 am

    I’m not sure why but this weblog is loading incredibly slow for me.
    Is anyone else having this issue or is it a problem on my end?
    I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.

  2. Atila permalink
    August 15, 2014 11:30 pm

    Cruelty to orca. Should do the same drilling to those who did this to orca.

  3. Patrick permalink
    December 23, 2013 11:29 pm

    I was wondering about the Keiko, if he had bad dental health and I know in human, it will lead to pneumonia, but for whales, will it be the same, is it the reason why Keiko died?

  4. Karin permalink
    October 20, 2013 11:20 pm

    This is so awful, I’ll never visit Sea World again

  5. August 1, 2013 9:58 pm

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  6. July 26, 2013 8:30 pm

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  7. July 26, 2013 8:26 pm

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  8. July 24, 2013 6:26 pm

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  9. April 19, 2013 5:18 pm

    This world is already a living Hell. Why should we make it that way for the animals? Because of money?

  10. Orcinus Orca permalink
    August 1, 2012 3:50 am

    Thirty years ago captive Orcas didn’t have dental problems like this. They also used plastic pipe gates too back then. Oh the cost of progress.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    October 25, 2011 11:08 pm

    When we add this latest info regarding Orca dental health (or lack of it), along with the routine, painful drilling of captive orca teeth…to the previous reports of orca’s being given anti-depressants and a maalox type mixture on a daily basis, do we really need to get down to the nitty-gritty of debating what’s causing the teeth to become so worn, so early in so many of the captive orca’s in the world? Geez Louise! These Orca’s are purely used/abused and endure a life of misery, all in the name of profit. Pure and simple. It’s barbaric (and a sad reflection on us all) that we live in a world wherein such practices are tolerated on any level.

    Orca’s should exist only one place in the world…in the oceans. Living life entirely subject to their natural biological rhythms, within their natural environment. NOT forced into a lifetime of miserable captivity, for any reason…particularly to entertain ignorant humans. Who cares to debate what’s wearing the teeth down so early in their lives, when their day to day existence is so very un-natural, lonely and miserable? Let’s debate the more important issue. The only real ethical issue worthy of debate. The ONLY issue. We MUST demand legislative reform to protect all animals from imprisonment by humans. Including zoo’s, circuses, captive breeding programs, etc.. Appropriate, spacious sanctuary should be the ONLY caveat to no-captivity laws. And only then, when anyone, anywhere is found to be in possession of any wild animal and it must be seized and cared for in sanctuary, when it cannot be released back into it’s natural environment.

    We must accept the fact that we humans are destroying the habitat of most species of animals on our planet. This fact does not, however, give us the right to capture and sentence animal’s to a life of deprivation and misery, exploitation or any other “program” we can conveniently conceive.

    The concept of “MANAGING” animals is a joke in my humble opinion. Look at our track record. We are only succeeding in managing them out of existence. We undertake to control their breeding and resulting numbers in the wild, while we, surprisingly, continue to breed like rabbits ourselves, pushing ever greater numbers of species into danger, including ourselves. We have managed to hopelessly pollute, contaminate, gouge and violate our planet in every way imaginable. Segments of us stay up nights devising ways to further pollute, while not “APPEARING” to pollute, yet the end result is the same. Devastation. We decimate so many species and there are no words to describe our recklessness. We have not been, and apparently are not going to become, good stewards/caretakers of our planet. We abuse/use and damage animals. What/who gives us the right? Sometimes, ignorance is to blame and other times, greed is to blame. The end result is the same, notwithstanding the primary “reason”. WE MUST STOP KIDNAPPING WILD ANIMALS AND HOLDING THEM CAPTIVE. It’s cruel. It’s wrong. WE MUST STOP BREEDING WILD ANIMALS AND HOLDING THEM CAPTIVE. WE MUST STOP USING/ABUSING ANIMALS. PERIOD. At some point we must become educated, learn to make wiser choices, while also demanding that our politician’s make wiser choices on our behalf. isn’t that why we put them into office? We must hold them accountable. We must make it our business to know what the folks we vote into office are doing and not doing. Their duty is, after all, to represent us. Sadly, too many only represent themselves and their own interests. Typically, many of those interests have a big price tag attached as well.

    The least we can do is to be the voice of helpless animals who cannot speak for themselves. To post here or in other forums for the welfare of animals, is fine and good, but if posting a blog is all we can do, then we’re not going to accomplish much of anything positive. We must write our Congress people and other government leaders and demand positive change for animal welfare. Our factory farms, as they exist today, must be cleaned up and the abusive, filthy practices which bring meat/poultry and fish to our plates,
    must be stopped. It’s a disgrace Those so abusing these “domestic animals” must be brought to meaningful justice.

    So, the state of captive orca dentition, is just one element in the larger composite of their miserable, deprived lives in captivity at the hands of humans. The only question we need ask ourselves, is whether we are ok with animals being used, abused, killed and tortured in marine shows, vivisection labs, factory farms, circuses, zoo’s, cheap roadside shows, hunting farms, private properties, or anyplace else? If we are ok with it, then we stand either uneducated on the topic(s) or we simply do not care and are therefore not likely to take any proactive stand on behalf of any animal, wild or domestic. In which case, you are also not likely to be reading this thread. It’s all about responsibility. Mine, yours and everyone else’s.

  12. Katrin permalink
    March 5, 2011 4:33 am

    Another excellent article, keep up the good work!

  13. kirsty permalink
    January 27, 2011 1:07 pm

    orca should not have to live in captivity

  14. anonymous permalink
    January 7, 2011 5:17 pm

    Interesting…

    Why do they drill holes in the teeth? I just don’t get it? Is it so the orcas won’t continue to wore/grind the teeth down, because it gets too painful for them or what? It really shocked me to read about this.

    It’s interesting that lolita, oldest orca in captivity (and living under such poor conditions) still has such a good oral/teeth health.
    at the same time, Corky (2) at seaworld san diego, the second oldest orca in captivity has such worn down teeths. It’s not just the old fight (1988-89?) with kandu, but she still grinds her teeth down on the edges of the pools.

    social stress, coming from being moved and reastablish the hieraki in the groups can be a reason i think too.

    Look at freya (marineland antibes) she’s the oldest and the dominant orca there. The front teeth(s) is a bit worn down but overall she has a very good oral health. Same goes for the second oldest orca at MLF, her son valentin (born 96) And the younger orcas has very healthy teeth. (but theyr’e so young so i guess that doesn’t count) And non of them have holes drilled in the theets. (from what i can see on pics)
    If you look at old pics of shouka, when she still lived at MLF she had excellent orcal health, but as soon as she moved to Six flags, she started to grind them down, and the staff started to drill holes in them…
    The pod stucture at MLF has always been “natural” with no more transfers then that of shouka (and tanouk back in the 80’s)

    So the stress of being moved and all that could really be affecting them..

    yeah.. just wanted to say all this, on a very interesting (and sad) topic.

    // I K

  15. Kate Hakkinen permalink
    December 8, 2010 6:12 am

    It was very interesting for me to read this post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

  16. Kim permalink
    November 22, 2010 12:40 am

    The problem with this article is that it’s all supposition and you can’t really claim a direct causal link.

    This phenomenon does happen in the wild and has been documented in offshore orca:

    “[David] Bain found that their teeth had been excessively worn down, even in fairly young orcas. His findings raised the possibility that offshores may eat sharks, whose sandpapery skin could have caused the tooth wear and whose ferocity may have caused the tears in the whales’ fins.”

    (Listening to Whales, by Alexandra Morton)

    Making claims with just vague speculation is just bad science. It’s not any more valuable than the weird data Sea World puts out to support their claims. Surely chewing on walls indicates a problem, but it’s not necessarily linked to their deaths.

    You also have to completely ignore the cases where the opposite is true. Corky is probably around 46 years old and her lower teeth are completely gone and have been for decades. (Line Teko – this is not the result of any issue with Kandu. This stems from her time at Marineland of the Pacific where staff presumably removed them. I can’t verify that data – it came from Sea World. But photo evidence demonstrates they were gone long before she ever showed up at the Sea World park.)

    • Jordan permalink
      January 16, 2011 10:36 pm

      You’re forgetting that the orcas kept at SeaWorld are Pacific NW Resident, Icelandic, Transient/Icelandic and Resident/Icelandic hybrid orcas. Icelandics’ diet consist of herring, Pacific NW Resident consist of salmon. Their teeth should not be worn down at that fast of a rate.

      Even if the teeth damage isn’t correlated to diseases (although in humans it generally is), the fact that their teeth are being worn down by SeaWorld’s dentistry practices is a bit barbaric, considering they can’t be given anethesia. Plus, I’m pretty sure MOST respected zoological facilities would want to keep their teeth intact for the animal’s well-being. And, if their teeth are being worn down due to chomping the gates or waring down on the tank walls, then I would be considerably alarmed and concerned for their mental well-being.

      • Jordan permalink
        January 16, 2011 10:36 pm

        *anesthesia

  17. November 2, 2010 5:57 pm

    this happends in wild too. Corkys tteeth isn’t there because of the fight with kandu. she have to have medicines from humans, if not, she dies.

  18. October 8, 2010 10:21 pm

    This post is fantastic! Your evidence definitely rebukes the argument that Killer Whales are
    healthy and happy in captivity. The pictures clearly show massive amounts of tooth degradation. And this is definitely a recipe for illness, infection and death.

    I’d like to offer some insight from my perspective as an Eastern Medicine practitioner – I am a licensed and board certified acupuncturist.

    According to the principles of Chinese Medicine, the health of the teeth and bones is strongly connected to the health of the kidneys and NERVOUS SYSTEM. The kidneys are like your core energy reserves. When you run out of kidney energy that’s it, life is done. The kidneys are also linked to the function of the adrenals and thus the entire adrenal, thyroid, pituitary system.
    Think also of the the parasympathetic vs. sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest vs. fight or flight).

    The jaw popping and chewing on gates behaviors suggest that the whales spend much more time in
    the sympathetic nervous system state (fight or flight).

    The link below is a diagram that was created for kids – the diagram explains
    the difference between the two nervous system states in a way that is simple enough for most people to understand:

    http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/auto.html

    Basically, and this is also very simplistic, we need some stress in our lives to promote growth and change and adaptation, but if we spend our lives constantly in a state of stress that is beyond our ability to handle, we will start to evidence premature aging as well as potentially being constantly agitated and on edge. Someone who is constantly under stress is always in “breakdown mode” and never in “rebuilding mode” or “healing mode”.

    The jaw popping and raking and chewing on gates probably temporarily alleviates stress, but the behaviors create more stress in the long run. So, it’s a vicious cycle.

    SeaWorld likes to emphasize that its animal trainers are putting a lot of time into keeping the whales stimulated and interested enough so they don’t get bored and irritated and start to exhibit stress induced behaviors. But if these sorts of behaviors are happening to the extent that the whales are harming themselves, then something is being missed.

    I did a quick internet search and found a number or articles on humans linking emotional stress to poor dental health. But if you want to learn more on the subject, in humans anyway, check out the
    research of Weston A Price, DDS. He was a dentist in the 1930’s who travelled the world looking at the health of primitive cultures eating their traditional diets and what happened to the health of their jaws and teeth when those same populations changed to a more westernized diet
    and lifestyle including processed foods, sugar, chemicals etc.

    Dr. Price found clear links between dental health and the health of the rest of the
    organism. In other words, if your teeth are not healthy, YOU are not healthy. Period. So, based on the photos, I think you’d have to say that there is plenty of evidence that the whales are not as healthy as SeaWorld or other marine parks might claim.

    If you want to know more about Weston Price, here’s some links:

    http://www.ppnf.org/catalog/ppnf/price.htm

    http://www.westonaprice.org/

    BTW, also from my standpoint, as a Chinese Medical practitioner, I’m
    not so interested in what a blood test shows, since the body does everything it can to maintain homeostasis. By the time an imbalance shows up on a blood test, the person (or whale) has probably been sick for a long time.

    A perfect blood test doesn’t necessarily indicate health. Absence of outright disease does NOT equal health. Acupuncturists look for signs and symptoms and indications of things that are going
    on functionally with the organ systems that wouldn’t necessarily show up on a blood test until a person is WAY out of balance. You can often tell from looking at someone’s tongue or feeling their pulse that an organ is out of balance (spleen, liver, kidney etc.) before any indication ever shows up on a blood test.

    Also, just by spending time with a person and watching their behavior there is generally a
    good indication of what organ (or organs!) are in jeopardy. Chinese medical practitioners ideally see the imbalance before it becomes a pathology and then they administer treatment – herbs and acupuncture – to prevent the pathology from showing up. Plus, the idea of waiting to go to the doctor until you are already sick is like waiting for the car’s engine to blow up before you take your car in.

    So, from looking at the tooth photos, my conclusion as a Chinese Medical practitioner is that I would be seriously concerned about kidney health, nervous system health and resistance to pathogens and disease. I would also add that any whales showing a lot of unexplained aggression either toward other whales or trainers would be considered to have a some kind of liver issue going on (again this is Chinese Medicine speaking) and this would also be connected with the
    aforementioned kidney issues as well as from possible exposure to whatever toxins are in the pool such as chlorine.

    • Anonymous permalink
      October 23, 2013 11:45 pm

      Whales in a pond is always going to be an issue. It is not natural. It is not in the whales best interest. It is detrimental to both a whales emotional/mental and physical health,. What more do we need to know? We’re debating the cornucopia of captive whale health issues as if the fact that they’re captive in the first place is relatively ok. It isn’t! Ask any whale you see if they’re happy? If they feel great? If they’ve had an interesting day by whale standards? Ask if they are confused? Miserable? Longing constantly for their ocean home? Ask if they’ve lost their minds by virtue of their cruel captivity? Figure it out. Whales don’t belong in captivity. Period.

  19. Jeff permalink
    September 25, 2010 8:23 pm

    Thank you for posting such an interesting and informative article, TOP!
    Great expose. A picture is worth a thousand words.

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