Study on Orcas in captivity stirs up controversy - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Study on Orcas in captivity stirs up controversy

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - SeaWorld San Diego released a study Tuesday that was published in the Journal of Mammalogy which compares for the first time orcas longevity in captivity with orcas living in the wild.

According to the study, orcas living in captivity and in the wild live just as long, but animal activists say it's misleading.

Since the 2013 documentary Blackfish criticized SeaWorld's handling of killer whales and questioned the orcas' life span, SeaWorld has been on a PR campaign.

The new study, published in the Journal of Mammalogy by a Minnesota Zoo biologist and two SeaWorld researchers, looked at the longevity between SeaWorld captive orcas and free-rang whales in the North and South residents.

"Our animals are living as long as wild populations," said Dr. Todd Robeck, Vice President of Theriogeneology at SeaWorld.

Dr. Robeck is the primary author of the study, and according to the research, at SeaWorld the average lifespan of an orca is about 41.6 years. In the wild, the average for an orca is about 20 to 42 years.

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that wild killer whales can live up to 30 to 100 years.

"The data shows without a doubt that our animals live as long as the ones in the wild. There can be no debate about that," said Dr. Robeck.

Animal activists, however, are casting doubt on the new study, since most whales at SeaWorld San Diego are in their teens and 20's. Corky is the oldest who is 50-years-old.

"What kind of a life is she [Corky] living being forced to perform circus-style tricks," said Ellen Ericksen, an animal activist.

Ericksen said it's about the quality of life, not about how long they live, but should they be living at SeaWorld.

"Doesn't matter about these studies. The animals don't belong in SeaWorld. They need to be in the ocean with their families," she said.

SeaWorld representatives say the research they are doing with captive killer whales will help other killer whales in the wild. 

"The information we can learn about the reproduction, the health, survivorship patterns of our animals can be directly used to benefit animals in the wild," said Dr. Robeck.

The study also found that killer whales born at SeaWorld San Diego live about 33 to 47 years. Currently, there are seven living orcas born at SeaWorld San Diego.

PETA issued a statement in regards to the new study which it says is designed to mislead:

"Contrary to what the authors of this study-three of whom are SeaWorld employees, while the fourth works for a zoo-would have people believe, the average age of the orcas who have died at SeaWorld is 13 years, and only one orca at SeaWorld-Corky, who was captured in the wild-has actually reached SeaWorld's claimed "average life expectancy" of 41.6 years. Every single orca who has perished at SeaWorld died far short of how long they are expected to live, though it is in fact hard to call it "living" when their "life" consists of being forced to perform circus-style tricks in a tiny concrete tank. A recent independent study shows significantly lower average orca longevity in captivity. SeaWorld's claims simply don't hold water," said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law, Jared Goodman.

Click here for the full length study by the Journal of Mammalogy. 

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