Orcas at the Olympics

The Sochi Winter Olympics have been troubling me for some time now. They begin on the 7th February and continue through to the 23rd of February. I haven’t decided if I will watch them or not. I usually very much enjoy the Winter Olympics (figure skating and the ski jump are my particular favourites), but I’m not sure if I feel comfortable watching when the hosting country has behaved in a way so contrary to my personal beliefs.

What does this have to do with animal welfare? Well there are reports that Russia have captured two Orcas specifically to display them at Sochi. That link makes the point that the IOC insists that the hosts and the Olympic event ‘respect the environment’.

I don’t know about you, but I have never heard of the Sochi Dolphinarium. I have not heard about their contributions to conservation, how they enrich pens, the massive pools they use to house their animals. After googling I’ve discovered its the largest in Russia, and that they train their animals to do the kind of tricks we criticise SeaWorld for. Apparently their performance pool is a whole 20m long. My goodness, such luxury.

This is of course the action of a private company, not the host city. But that it’s being allowed just adds another layer to my great and growing discomfort about the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Will I really boycott it in my own small way? I guess I’ll let you know.

 

Blackfish

If you live in the UK or US you’re running out of excuses not to watch the documentary Blackfish. It’s had a cinematic release and been shown on the BBC, as well as being available on iTunes.

For the uninitiated, Blackfish is the story of an orca who recently killed its trainer at SeaWorld. As a result, SeaWorld trainers were prohibited from entering the water with the animals.

When I’m not slaving away over a hot computer screen and working on my next paper, I am a bit of a film geek. In fact I wrote the first draft of this post before heading to my monthly film pub quiz (we lost). Blackfish is a truly brilliant documentary. It takes you an emotional journey, is beautifully structured, and paints the orca, Tilikum, as a flawed, sympathetic character. I love it as a film.

But we’re scientists! Let’s take a critical look at the concept of keeping orcas in captivity. As I have access to scientific papers, I decided to do a short review of the literature. When talking about science I think it’s important to cite your sources (and no doubt I’ll say this many times in future) so I will link to papers. Unfortunately some of them, if not most, will be behind a paywall.

I wrote this post over a number of days, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive literature search. This is the kind of literature search I’d do if someone asked me what I thought of orcas in captivity.

So what did I find out?

Continue reading “Blackfish”