Just 3 weeks after her granddaughter Kyara died at the age of only 3 months, Kasatka, an orca held at SeaWorld San Diego , has lost her battle with a chronic illness. According to SeaWorld’s website, Kasatka was diagnosed with pneumonia in 2008 and has been treated for a bacterial respiratory infection ever since – that’s nearly a decade of medication and treatment with, presumably, no real signs of improvement. In August 2016, SeaWorld posted an update on her condition, and in recent photos from a park visitor, severe skin damage and a deformed lower jaw were also clearly visible, suggesting she may be suffering from additional health problems. Kasatka also appeared to be in a very weak condition. The information SeaWorld provided in its update from 2016, however, focused more on Kasatka’s ability to take part in the medical treatments and the “special bond” between her and her trainers than on her condition or any improvement in it.
Former SeaWorld trainers have also stated on their website “Voice of the Orcas” that Kasatka could be suffering from more than a bacterial respiratory infection:
“The reality is that Kasatka is being eaten away, possibly by a bacteria, fungus or photo-toxicity due to antibiotic overuse.”
SeaWorld states that pneumonia has been identified as one of the most common causes of death for orcas, both in the wild and in aquariums, but a recent report from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which included a review of orca strandings on the US west coast, contradicts that statement. There is little evidence to suggest that pneumonia is the leading cause of death of wild orcas, and in fact the role and prevalence of infectious diseases in wild orca populations is still not fully understood.SeaWorld claims that Kasatka’s age has impacted her ability to fight off the infection, but at around 40 years old, if she’d remained in the wild, she would only just be reaching middle-age for an orca. Granny, the matriarch of the Southern Resident orca community, just recently passed away at the estimated age of 105 years old.
The lack of transparency and openness about Kasatka’s condition from SeaWorld is frustrating, but typical for the industry, as they continue to refuse acknowledgement of the true cost of captivity. SeaWorld will probably not release the full details of Kasatka’s death, so we may never know what eventually took her life.
Kasatka was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1978 and had been held in several SeaWorld marine parks over the years. She was one of only four wild-caught orcas surviving in SeaWorld’s care. In 2012 a video surfaced showing Kasatka attacking trainer Ken Peters during a SeaWorld show. The incident actually took place in 2006, but was only made public during a court trial following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
While the US is taking steps to end the practice of orcas performing circus-style tricks for a paying public, the business of capturing orcas for marine parks and breeding them for entertainment continues elsewhere. In Russia, at least 19 orcas have been taken from their natural environment and their family groups since 2012, at least 13 of them were sold to China where the marine park industry is booming. Just recently an orca breeding facility was set up in China.
The extended illness and loss of Kasatka, so closely following the tragic death of the young Kyara, is another heartbreaking example of how harmful a life in captivity is for orcas and other whales and dolphins. Individuals of all ages have succumbed to illnesses made worse by the stress and confines of captivity. If she had never been captured, Kasatka would probably still be living with her family in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, the matriarch of her own pod, swimming wild and free. WDC is working to make sure that no more wild orcas meet this same sad fate, and that the orcas currently held in captivity are retired to coastal sanctuaries.
Looking for additional ways to support our work on wild and captive orcas? Adopt an orca for monthly updates and news about orcas of the Pacific Northwest and around the world, subscribe to our blogs and enewsletters or make a donation!