In 2011, the report “Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity” by former SeaWorld trainers Dr. Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett exposed that infections caused by tooth damage are one reason why captive orcas often die at a young age. Now, a new scientific study, “Tooth damage in captive orcas” focuses on this issue and shows the dimension of the problem. The study was conducted by the authors of the former report as well as New Zealand orca biologist Dr. Ingrid Visser, investigative journalist Jordan Waltz and Dr. Carolina Loch, who specializes in the dentition of whales and dolphins. Twenty-nine of the 60 orcas currently held in captivity around the world were examined for the study using high-resolution photographs, and every single one of them has some kind of tooth damage. On their website, “Voice of the orcas,” the former SeaWorld trainers and authors of the paper describe the extremely painful dental procedures captive orcas have to go through, as well as the consequences of the tooth damage, especially infections. Tooth damage in captive orcas can be caused by jaw popping and chewing on metal bars or concrete walls. “Jaw popping” can often be seen in which two whales separated by a steel gate will demonstrate dominance/aggression to each other by popping their jaws at each other between the gates. When doing this they sometimes chomp onto the bars which separate them, causing tooth breakage.
In another blog article, a marine biology student who documented the tooth damage and drilling procedures at marine parks was interviewed by the former trainers. Orcas who have had “pulpotomies” – where a hole is drilled into the tooth to extract the pulp inside – must have their teeth flushed every day to prevent infections. One can only imagine how painful this must be.
Critics of the study claim that dental damage is not only a problem of orcas in captivity, and that it also happens in the wild. However, the type of tooth wear observed in only a few orca populations was very different than what is seen in captive orcas. Wild orcas with tooth wear have specialized diets that include sharks or other rough-skinned fish, or use a foraging method called suction feeding. These diets cause a gradual wearing-down of orcas’ teeth, very different from the breakage and type of damage in captive orcas.Orcas in captivity are fed dead fish, which is thrown directly into their mouth, most of the time not even touching the teeth before being swallowed.
This paper once again portrays the impoverished existence captive orcas endure and highlights the extent of the problem of tooth damage. As Jeff Ventre points out, tooth damage is probably “the most tragic consequence of captivity.“ It can have a detrimental effect on the immune system of the orcas and ultimately compromises their welfare in captivity.