Not So Scientific American

The article is jaw dropping in its content and one could be forgiven as not to think this was written by Ingrid Newkirk of the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA).

We live in strange times which have become even stranger if one is to judge by the recent editorial in the journal Scientific American (March, 2014) entitled "Free the Elephants and Orcas in Captivity".

This was an unashamed polemic on 'the rights' of large brained mammals such as elephants and killer whales in relation to their use and display in captive environments such as zoological collections clumsily dovetailed on the back of news of the recent restricting of biomedical testing on chimpanzees in the USA.

The article is jaw dropping in its content and one could be forgiven as to not to think this was written by Ingrid Newkirk of the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA).

Unfortunately, the trend of dangerously mixing animal-rights (a political philosophy) and animal-welfare (scientific investgation) has become sadly common in magazines, journals and 'persons-in-the-public-eye' who should know better.

Recently, the well known sceptic Michael Shermer decided to suspend any of his critical thinking by supporting the animal-rights documentary 'Blackfish'.  Therefore, whilst he might want compelling proof in issues such as the (now discredited) claim that MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines cause autism.  He was happy to support a film without any effort to check and cross-reference the 'facts' presented.

The above issue regarding MMR is relevant because David Kirby the author of the 2012 "Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity" (whose work is interwoven within the film 'Blackfish') is also a published anti-vaccine supporter (Kirby, 2006) something that Shermer seems to sadly ignore.

Much of the information in this article is dubious opinion fuelled by the animal-rights movement.  One would have hoped that a journal of Scientific American's standing would at least produce decent peer review references to support these claims but alas, this was not the case.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), elephants (Loxodonta africana, Elephas maximus) and  the killer whales (Orcinus orca) come in for special treatment in this editorial with various and questionable supportive observations that the authors use to try to convince the reader that these animals are 'highly intelligent' and need of some special status above other animals.

The authors cite tests for self-awareness as evidence to support their position for the captive prohibition of the above cited species.  However, as always, these situations are more complicated.

Indeed, Gallup (1970) showed that laboratory chimpanzees appear to be able to recognise themselves in mirror and dot tests.  Reiss and Marino (2001) suggested self-recognition in two bottlenose dolphins they studied at New York Aquarium and Plotnik, de Waal and Reiss (2006) suggested this with two Asian elephants housed at the Bronx Zoo, New York City; these last two experiments involved self-recognition via mirrors.

However, something not mentioned in the editorial is that both African Grey Parrots
(Psittacus erithacus) (Pepperburg, 1995) and Magpies (Pica pica) (Schwarz and Güntürkün, 2008) have shown self-recognition abilities.  Are the authors suggesting these species also need specialist consideration and outlawed from captive care?  Moreover, it is not with some small irony that all the test subjects from the above-cited research were in captive care in a zoo or laboratory.

The social life of elephants and killer whales was also alluded to as proof of special treatment.  Much was made of the social groups in killer whales and their aggregations as being "akin to tribes and nations" and that they had language with "dialects".  Unfortunately, this is sadly ambiguous language designed to hide thinly veiled anthropomorphism. 

In 2013, Professor Alice Roberts presented a BBC Horizon documentary on what exactly makes human beings different from the animal kingdom called "What Makes Us Human".  Spotlighting chimpanzees and other great ape she revealed that although these animals appear on the surface 'intelligent' this intelligence is inconsistent and it is not comparable to that of a humans understanding and cognition despite these animals being genetically our nearest relatives.

In the case of Killer whales, these animals do not have social structures that approach that of humans and their social, aggregative behaviour is primarily for foraging and breeding. 

Nor do they possess language that approaches humans.  As Gregg (2012) points out animals (including killer whales) communicate, they do not a possess the hugely diverse complexity of human native language.

Further, it is a fact, that many other animals show extensive social structures which is are least as complex as killer whales such as bees with their specific and structured communication (von Frisch,1967).

Much has been made of the vaulted intelligence of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) but those who actually have undertaken research of these animals are not so convinced. 

In his 2012 book "Are Dolphins Really Smart?" The Mammal Behind the Myth" Dr Justin Gregg addresses the disparity given to dolphins compared to other species.  He challenges the common dogma that dolphins should be given some form of special treatment due to their mythical 'intelligence' - the killer whale is the largest member of the dolphin family. 

Such observations are, of course, not new and as far back as 1992, the cetacean biologist Dr Margaret Klinowska made a similar published observation.

"There is another less anthropomorphic or "speciesist" way of looking at the question of general "intelligence". All living species must be highly "intelligent" in a broad sense in order to survive. From this point of view, humans are no more and no less than one of the species living on this planet with particular adaptations (specialised "intelligence") for their own way of life. This perspective allows us to view the superb professionalism of all species with equal respect, and not in some artificial ranking order of higher or lower "intelligence" (with the hidden assumption that they are more or less worthy of conservation and consideration, and that as humans are, of course, in the first rank, their wishes have priority)" (Klinowska, 1992)
It is unfortunate that the article states that zoo elephants are often obese and infertile as this is not borne out when one looks at animals within modern zoo breeding programmes; elephants can and do breed successfully in good zoological collections.

In addition, so do killer whales with the majority of the animals held at parks like SeaWorld having been captive bred with the first successful birth in 1985. It should be noted that 21 of SeaWorld's 26 killer whales were born in captivity; these figures excludes the four animals born at SeaWorld that are now displayed at Loro Park in Spain.

The fact that both these species are able to give birth and successfully rear young in captive care should be at least one indicator that their welfare is not as compromised as this article suggests and should not be dismissed out of hand. 

This is not to say that caring for and breeding animals in zoological collections is not without challenge.  Nonetheless, it should be noted that animal welfare is after all a science and can be objectively measured in zoos and other animal keeping enterprises (Stamp-Dawkins, 2012) unlike the more grey area which depends on the idealogical considerations of animal-rights.

The authors also fall into the trap of comparing the dynamics of wild life with that of animals under human care in zoological collections that are different for many and various reasons.

Indeed, elephants are large mammals, which is exactly why they have to travel distances in the wild to obtain optimum amounts of food to survive.  Elephants feed on large amounts of herbivorous forage that is low in calories, so it can be of no surprise they travel miles to gain enough nutrients to sustain their physiology.  Likewise, killer whales have to adapt similar strategies when hunting for prey.  Therefore, it is clear that these animals undertake these activities as a matter of biological survival not recreation.  Moreover, when they are supplied with food in captivity such long distance travel is not a behavioural need for their welfare.

Further, the suggestion that captive elephants live in cramped conditions is certainly not true in contemporary accommodation found in good zoological collection. It should be noted that in the UK's Noah's Ark Zoo has just finished one of the largest elephant facilities in the world. Oregon Zoo has also just finalising construction of it new Elephant Land which is destined for full opening in 2015.  It should be noted that these are not isolated developments within the zoo world.

As far as killer whales are concerned accommodation has over the years been improved and expanded.  It is telling that the editorial could not resist comparing the exhibits of killer whales by using the word 'bathtub'; the kind of meaningless, emotive rhetoric that the animal-rights movement is so fond of using

Moreover, they also misleadingly suggest as typical the accommodation of the killer whale "Lolita" housed in the Miami Seaquarium; this animal was captured some 44 years ago and has been housed at the park since that time.  She is the only killer whale in the USA held in isolation of other killer whales since the death of her companion Hugo in 1980; she currently shares her pool with a group of white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens).  However, as stated, "Lolita" is not representative of killer whales exhibits in the USA and countries such as France, Spain and Japan.

It is probably not without a bit of irony that the authors decided to rename the article after first calling it "Free Willy—And All His Pals".  More so, when it comments in the article about releasing animals back to the wild.

"Free Willy" was a fictional 1993 adventure film about a young boy who releases a captive killer whale from a theme park.  

The real killer whale featured in the film was an animal called "Keiko" originally caught in Iceland in 1979 that eventually lived in isolation in a theme park in Mexico.  

After the film was released, various animal-rights groups began campaigning for the release of this animal back to the wild.  Money was raised and he was acquired and eventually after a number of stages was taken to a sea pen in Iceland in 1998.

However, despite much effort, he never reintegrated back into wild and post release found his way to the Norwegian coast seeking human company and begging for food.  He ended his days in semi-captivity being care for by appointed caretakers.  He died of suspected pneumonia in December 2003.  The project to release 'Keiko' is estimated to have cost around 20 million US dollars.

In a paper that reviewed the attempts to release 'Keiko' published in Marine Mammal Science the authors concluded:    
"The release of Keiko demonstrated that release of long-term captive animals is especially challenging and while we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so." (Simon, Hanson, Murrey, Tougaard, and Ugarte. 2009).
As stated above, SeaWorld displays 26 whales in the USA of which only 5 where were obtained by wild capture.  The last was caught in Iceland in 1983 over 30 years ago.  None of these animals are suitable for release and as the experiment with 'Keiko' reveals any attempts are likely to badly fail; a position supported by Jean-Michel Cousteau who organisation Ocean Futures was directly involved in the 'Keiko' release project.

As to claims of unusually aggressive behaviour of killer whales in zoological collections, we see again selective reasoning and speculation.  The facts are that these animals are not consistently aggressive towards each other or their human caretakers.

The facts are that thousands upon thousands of interactions have taken place over many years with these animals without aggression.  Incidences of alleged aggressive behaviour have been well documented but as these situations are unusual they have received disproportionate importance in the media.

Further, killer whales are large powerful animals that could easily kill a human but there has to date been three incidents leading to the deaths of trainers: 1991, Sealand of The Pacific; 2009, Loro Park, Spain; 2010 and SeaWorld, Orlando, Florida. 

Moreover, despite these tragic accidents, it should be noted that aggressive behaviour on humans by large captive animals (both wild and domestic) are not just exclusive to killer whales.  In addition, many of the so-called aggressive behaviours listed by captive killer whales could be consider play and other types of behaviour.

Killer whales - like many other animals - have dominance and social hierarchies, which in this species is primarily matriarchal.  It has been suggested that aggressive behaviour within captive groups is an anomaly for these animals and not seen in the wild.

One area that is cited to support this is rake marks on captive killer whales; rake marks are tooth abrasions on the skin surface seen in most if not all toothed cetaceans.  It is popularly promoted that wild killer whales do not sustain rake marks and this is only seen in captive animals and is evidence of poor welfare.  However this is not the case and it has been cited in numerous research papers on wild whales, e.g.
"Resident and transient whales typically showed extensive rake marks on their dorsal fins and body made by the conical-shaped teeth of conspecifics" (Ford et al. 1992, Black et al. 1997, Dahlheim et al. 1997). Cited in Dahlheim, Schulman-Janiger, Black, Ternullo, Ellifrit and Balcomb (2008).
The claim that there have been no reports of humans being killed by wild killer whales may be correct but this statement needs some qualification.  Wild killer whales have attempted to prey on humans in certain situations.  One incident was during a filming session of wild killer whales by the BBC for the series Frozen Planet; the whales attempted to "wave wash" the film crew's boat; a techniques the whales used to dislodge seals and penguins from ice.

However, perhaps the main reason there has been no incidences of overt aggressive behaviour in wild killer whales is that they tend to live in areas where recreational swimming does not occur to any large degree and observations of these animals take place from the land or boats.

However, other wild cetaceans have behaved aggressively towards humans.  In wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) there have been a number of well documented cases of animals behaving aggressively towards humans.  In Brazil in 1992 a man was killed by a wild lone social dolphin which caused him fatal internal bleeding after ramming him and breaking his ribs.

A diver was subjected to apparent aggression by a wild pilot whale
(Globicephala macrorhynchus) in Hawaiian waters in 1992.  While swimming with a group of pilot whales  one animal grabbed her thigh and dragged her 40 feet under water. The diver managed to escape and sustained minor injuries (Shane, Tepley and Costello, 1993).

Finally, we have speculative claims from 'researchers' that captive killer whales are 'stressed' and 'psychotic'.  Unfortunately, like so much else within this editorial, no names or bona fida research to such claims is presented.

In conclusion, this editorial in Scientific American is disturbing particularly as scientific journals like this should be leading the way in objective and critical thinking.  Why is it when the subject of animal welfare is commented on people who should know better seem drawn away from science to embrace the ideology of animal rights.


Dahlheim, M.E., Schulman-Janiger, A., Black, N., Ternullo, R., Ellifrit, D. and Balcom III, K.C. (2008) Eastern temperate North Pacific offshore killer whales (Orcinus orca): Occurrence, movements, and insights into feeding ecology. Marine Mammal Science, 24(3): 719–729

Gallup, G.  (1970) Self-Recognition in Primates. American Psychologist. May. 329-338

Gregg, J. (2012). Are Dolphins Really Smart: The Mammal Behind the Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kirby, D. (2012). Death at Seaworld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity. New York: St Martin's Griffin.

Kirby, D. (2006). Evidence of Harm: Mercury In Vaccines And The Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. New York: St Martin's Press.

Klinowska, M. (1992).  Brains, Behaviour and Intelligence in Cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises) - In: Whales and Ethics. Iceland: University of Iceland Press

Stamp-Dawkins, M. (2012). Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare and human well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shane, S. H., Tepley, L and Costello, L, (1993). Life-threatening contact between a woman and a pilot whale captured on film. Marine Mammal Science. 9(3): 331-336

Pepperberg, I. M.; Garcia, S. E.; Jackson, E, C.; Marconi, S. (1995) Mirror use by African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus).  Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol 109(2), Jun 1995, 182-195.

Plotnik JM, de Waal, FBM, Reiss, D. (2006) Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. PNAS. 103: 17053–17057.

Prior H, Schwarz A, Güntürkün O (2008) Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition . PLoS Biol 6(8): e202. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

Reiss, D. and Marino, L.  (2001) Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence. PNAS. vol. 98. no. 10.

von Frisch, K. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. (1967) Harvard: Harvard University Press. Translated Reprint, 1993