Marine Mammal Monday – Is a Captive Orca like Having a Pet Dog?

An argument, by pro-caps (pro-captives), that turns up time & time again on anti-captivity articles is that having an orca, or dolphin, in captivity is exactly the same as having a dog as a pet. They pointedly tell anti-caps how hypercritical they are to be disgusted by cetaceans in captivity whilst their dog lays at their feet. I find this argument not only uninformed but also an insult to good dog owners the world over. To treat a dog the way orca & dolphin are treated would result in said dog being removed from its owner due to unnecessary cruelty. Think I’m being overly simplistic? Let’s look at the FACTS…


Dogs were domesticated sometime between the years 30000 BC & 7000 BC. Their ancestors were wild, probably wolves, & over the centuries mankind has selectively bread them; removing their more wild traits, magnifying their compliant traits & physical features & making them the obedient domesticated animals they are today.

Orcas & dolphins are not domesticated animals. Many individuals currently in tanks were caught in the wild. The first captive orcas were taken during the 1960’s. There are probably three generations of captive bread orcas (grandmothers, mothers & calves). Even if facilities were selectively breeding out less predictable traits & breeding in more obedient traits (which they’re not as Tillikum has killed several times but has been used to sire many offspring) three generations alone would not achieve such a feat.

Training, performance & mental stimulus

Dogs require training & exercise, that’s a given. But what is the accepted frequency? Well that depends on the size of dog but on average, two to three walks a day of approximately 20 minutes is deemed enough outside activity to keep the animal healthy & mentally stimulated. Training for behaviour & tricks should be in short bursts of 5 to 30 minutes a couple of times a day. The rest of the day the dog gets to play, sleep & do its own thing.

Orcas in captivity have to do a lot of work. They can be working 365 days a year, eight hours a day. Hell, most humans get the weekend off plus 20+ days of vacation a year. Orcas don’t. They work day in, day out, trick after trick in a noisy auditorium.

Orcas require mental stimulus. An orca in the wild would get this from interacting with its pod-mates, hunting prey & investigating new things in its immediate environment. Much like a dog does when it’s taken out for a walk. Though, preferably, you would hope the dog’s owner won’t let it kill anything (the wolf is still in there).

For most captive orcas their sole mental enrichment comes from repeating tricks in shows &, if it’s lucky, physical contact with its trainer (though thanks to Tilikum’s revolt, this is not currently an option in most places). The level of stimulus an orca receives from performing these tricks doesn’t come close in variability to the amount of stimulus a wild orca, or a free roaming pooch, gets.

If a captive orca is REALLY lucky it may have tank mates. However, as quite often these are not natural family members the clash of personalities & following violence can end up doing more harm than good, mentally & physically. In large facilities the problem individuals can be isolated (which, for a social animal, is hardly ideal). In small facilities this is often not possible… creating more stress for the animal at the receiving end of the abuse.


The average wild wolf lifespan is 8 years. A captive wolf, away from the stresses of the wild can live up to 20 years. On average domesticated dogs live 12.8 years (averaged out for all breeds). Basically, captive wild wolves & domesticated dogs are a bit better off than their free-living brethren.

The average lifespan for orca is 50 years for a female (maximum can be 80-100 years) & 29 years for males (maximum can be 50-60 years). In captivity an orca is lucky to make it to its 20’s. Most die in their teens. This is an incredible decrease in life expectancy when compared to what age wild animals can live to.

Many pro-caps will point out that several captive orcas are reaching their average life expectancy. First off, these older animals are usually wild caught animals (Tilikum & Lolita to name two). Secondly they gloss over the large number of animals that died whilst young. Published scientific papers, in peer-reviewed journals, have shown that mortality rates in captive orcas (& their dolphin cousins) are actually higher than their wild counterparts. Wild born calves have a greater chance of survival living in a dangerous, wild environment than they do being born in captivity.


Housing conditions

In the wild orcas can travel close to 200km a day & may dive to depths of 60m. In captivity orcas live in small, round, barren, concrete tanks. The minimum depth of these tanks is only required to be 3.6m. Sea World tanks are usually bigger, but at approximately 7-11m in depth these tanks are nowhere near close to natural conditions &, in the case of a male orcas (which can be 6-8m in length) that’s barely enough room to be vertical in, let alone dive a distance.

Captive orcas need to swim round & round their tanks to get enough exercise, which is why even a young orca will display signs of its fin flopping over. In the wild orcas swim straight & true for many kilometres, the ocean pushing evenly on either side of their fin. Swimming in circles in a tank will cause more pressure to be exerted on one side of the fin… causing a slow collapse.

Let us imagine there is a domestic dog being kept in a cage proportional to its size as a tank is to an orca. A featureless wire cage that it’s kept in, day after day &, like some Sea world tanks, it has no shelter from the blazing sun. The owner takes the top off the cage to teach the dog tricks (for several straight hours a day!) to keep it “stimulated”. If it gets a trick wrong, food is withheld until it gets it right. In all likelihood that dog would be rescued by a humane society & its owner charged on counts of cruelty & abuse, possibly imprisoned & definitely fined. The vast majority of dog owners would be abhorred at such treatment to a family pet. Their animals are regularly walked out in the open, in stimulating countryside, for miles at a time.


In gauging animal intelligence the Encephalization Quotient (EQ), or encephalization level, is generally used, which is a measure of relative brain size. It is a ratio between actual brain mass & predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size. This resulting ratio is thought to be a rough estimate of the intelligence of the animal. EQ gives the following result…

Human                      7.4-7.8
Bottlenose dolphin         4.14
Orca                       2.57-3.3
Chimpanzee                 2.2-2.5
Elephant                   1.13-2.36
Dog                        1.2

As you can see, domestic dogs are nowhere near orca & dolphin in terms of intelligence. Even wild wolves are considered smarter than domesticated dogs. Furthermore, spindle cells (neurons that appear to play a central role in the development of intelligent behaviour) are only found in humans, the great apes, elephants & cetaceans (including orca & dolphins). When it comes to the development of higher-functioning intellect, domestic dogs don’t even get a look-in.

I hope this article goes some way to dispelling the pro-cap myth that having a captive orca is the same as having a pet dog. The differences in history, intelligence, physical requirements & treatment of the two species are worlds apart. Dogs, it would appear, may be dumber than captive cetaceans, but get treated a damn site better.


4 thoughts on “Marine Mammal Monday – Is a Captive Orca like Having a Pet Dog?”

  1. Im neutral on this but more agreed with the wild side and no one listens to me and flargmuffin92 (youtube) has a video “The Glorious life of a wild orca” Is showing only negatives and is total BS. And that person won't listen to me or other people and believe that the are only right. I was actually blocked for putting my side of the story which to me is saying im right. So total BS on that person part. Nice article im going to post it youtube and facebok 🙂

  2. They are intelligent, that much has been proven again and again; yet unless they volunteer to allow you trainers, as you call them, to publicly preen their sick egos at the expense of a marine member being depraved of its natural habitat and interactions with its own kind again and again and again, day in day out, year by year, while this sensitive creature also is forced to witness his co-captives family members dying of diseases do to chemicals leeching from the artificial pools, die prematurely, die do to physical confinements weakening them and so on, all along this, being forced to breed and preform as if it had no capacity of grieve and sorrow wrecking it's soul.
    You fiends, you exploit their capacity to show joy and love and respect and willingness to cooperate, but there your egos stops and you now assume the right to punish your captive for the crimes of slavery and exploitation for gain you are committing, continue to commit at the expense of their physical and mental health, while acting as if the human specie is the only deserving of understanding, compassion, mercy and consideration. Indicating by this action you invite to justify in the future a worse faith for your intelligent, sensitive and thus traumatized sea mammal wildlife slaves and captives. I find your sea-worlds haven been taken from it's original intent to serve as research, marine hospitals and so on to vulgar public exploits for gain DETESTABLE! I do not frequent them nor do I support them in their current format. I can't! I have a conscience. Do you?!Because if you do, then the CAPTIVE WHALES and DOLPHINS will be freed and this fiasco of exterminating a creature for gain and exploits will be over. What a Thankful that that will be…

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