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Quick Summary of Laws Concerning Orcas in Captivity

Lauren Tierney


Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
2010
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Quick Summary of Laws Concerning Orcas in Captivity

For decades, people have enjoyed marveling at the sight of the orca whale whilst it performed flips and dives and splashed them with water at marine parks around the world.  The orca even serves as a mascot for the numerous SeaWorld parks.  But the captivity of such massive creatures is not without its dangers.  There have been multiple incidents over the years where killer whales have attacked and in some circumstances killed their trainer.  Some suggest that these tragedies reflect the stresses that these creatures experience as a result of entertainment-based captivity.

The orca, also known as the killer whale, is a member of the dolphin family and is easily recognizable by its distinct black and white markings.  Killer whales exist in all the oceans of the world in tight knit family groups known as pods.  Each pod has its own distinct form of communicative sounds and behavior.  Pods can typically travel over 100 miles in a single day following their food supplies in migration. 

There are currently no laws prohibiting the housing of orca whales in captivity; rather laws that specifically allow for the capture of wild orcas for purposes of entertainment and scientific research.  While the United States has not been issued a permit for the taking of a wild orca since 1989, other nations perform hunts in order to capture orcas for display.  The United States relies instead on maintaining its captive whale population through breeding programs of whales already living in captivity. 

While there is no law prohibiting the display of orcas, there are laws that govern those facilities that house them.  The primary laws governing the facilities housing orca whales are the Animal Welfare Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The Animal Welfare Act establishes standards and specifications that the facility must follow and adhere to in order to house an orca whale in captivity.  It establishes the standard of care required when handling, housing, or transporting orca whales and other marine mammals.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act is aimed at protecting the whales from being unlawfully captured from the wild by prohibiting the taking of marine mammals without specific authorization.  The MMPA requires a permit for the taking of a marine mammal, like an orca, from the wild.  Permits may be issued for reasons such as for scientific research, public display, or for enhancing the survival or recovery of specific stocks. 

Along with the established federal laws, marine mammal facilities also have a system self-regulation.  The two most prominent are The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA).  Facilities may be accredited if they meet the standards the organization has established.  These standards are typically higher than the minimum requirements established under government law. 

Even with these standards in place, the nation is still in controversy over the housing of orca whales in captivity.  The standards are difficult to enforce as there are a small amount of inspectors to inspect all of the facilities in the nation.  The 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn has sparked inquiries into the adequacy of the standards and investigations into the lives of captive orcas. Many see this tragedy as highlighting the need for greater enforcement of current standards or the passage of new laws aimed at protecting captive marine mammals.

 

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