The new rule, published in the Federal Register Thursday, would allow the Navy to increase the number of Southern Resident killer whales it could "take"—or potentially harm—from two a year currently to 51 a year through 2027, The News Tribune reported.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>
The Captivity Question<p>Some people defend keeping animals in captivity, arguing that it helps conserve endangered species or offers educational benefits for <a href="http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.574.3479&rep=rep1&type=pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">visitors to zoos and aquariums</a>. These justifications are questionable, particularly for <a href="https://animalstudiesrepository.org/acwp_zoae/8/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">large mammals</a>. As my own research and work by many other scientists shows, caging large mammals and putting them on display is undeniably cruel from a neural perspective. It causes brain damage.</p><p>Public perceptions of captivity are slowly changing, as shown by the reaction to the documentary <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackfish_(film)" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">"Blackfish</a>." For animals that cannot be free, there are well-designed sanctuaries. Several already exist for elephants and other large mammals in <a href="https://www.elephants.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tennessee</a>, <a href="https://globalelephants.org/overview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Brazil</a> and Northern <a href="http://www.pawsweb.org/about_our_sanctuaries.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">California</a>. Others are being developed for large <a href="https://whalesanctuaryproject.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>.</p><p>Perhaps it is not too late for Kiska.</p>
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Killer whales have been ramming yachts and boats off the coast of Northern Spain and researchers are puzzled by their behavior. In several attacks over the last couple of months, orcas have damaged boats and injured sailors, according to The Guardian.
Two years ago, J35, a Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) nicknamed Tahlequah, broke hearts around the world when she carried her dead calf over 1,000 miles over 17 days of apparent mourning. Now, she's given birth to a "robust and lively" calf that researchers are calling a ray of hope for the endangered population, reported The New York Times.
The killer whales, also called orcas, stay off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, near Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the SRKW population may have historically numbered more than 200 animals prior to the 20th century. Their numbers plummeted due to loss of prey, opportunistic hunting prior to the 1960s and the live capture of nearly 70 Resident and Transient killer whales for marine parks from 1967 to 1971, the commission found. There were only 88 of the iconic whales left when they were listed as endangered in 2005, The New York Times reported, and the population has continued to dwindle since. The birth of the newest orca, called J57, brings the population to 73.
"It's a bit of a nail-biter right now," whale researcher Dr. Deborah Giles from the Center for Conservation Biology told The New York Times. "I can't help but be thrilled that she had this baby and this baby didn't die right away. Everybody is worried and on pins and needles, wondering if this calf is going to make it."
"With such a small population … every successful birth is hugely important for recovery," said a blog post from SR3, the marine conservation group that used drone footage to confirm J35's pregnancy in July and monitor her condition.
Several factors have hurt the population's chances of rebounding, including food scarcity, toxic pollutants that bioaccumulate, and noise pollution, the news report said.
The whales are "essentially starving," reported Smithsonian Magazine. Eighty percent of the SRKW's diet consists of Chinook salmon, the Center for Whale Research wrote. The salmon have declined "significantly" due to commercial fishing and widespread habitat destruction, according to the Marine Mammal Commission.
Government reports also found that agricultural pesticides jeopardize the survival of the salmon. Then, when the orcas eat polluted fish, the chemicals and pesticides eventually end up stored in the whales' fat, suppressing their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to disease and affecting females' ability to reproduce, reported Smithsonian Magazine.
Additionally, according to the Georgia Straight Alliance, noise disrupts the whales' echolocation and prevents them from hunting, navigating and communicating.
"Both the physical presence of vessels and associated underwater noise hinders Southern Residents' ability to perform basic life activities," the Alliance reported.
To make matters worse, many of the population's pregnancies fail, and around 40% of calves die within their first year, The New York Times reported. Recent scientific findings suggest that these reproductive failures and high calf mortality rates are linked to malnutrition and lack of their preferred salmon prey, reported the Marine Mammal Commission.
With nothing to eat and nowhere to live, the Southern Resident orcas have thus become a symbol for animals on the brink of extinction. J35 became the poster child for her population during her 17-day "tour of grief," catalyzing many groups to call for new protections for the endangered whales.
According to the Center for Whale Research, J52, another two-and-a-half-year-old calf from the J-pod, died presumably from malnutrition one ear earlier.
After the 2018 loss of J35's previous calf, Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, estimated that the SRKW population only had about five years to rebound or face irreversible decline.
"We've got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen"— meaning, to have viable offspring — "but if we don't do it in those five years it isn't going to happen," he told National Geographic in 2018.
That's why, with the birth of J57, researchers are cautiously optimistic.
The encounter report from the Center for Whale Research announcing J57's birth said, "Her new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life … We hope this calf is a success story."
Balcom said, "The baby looked very robust and lively, so I have good expectations for this one surviving," reported The New York Times.
He told The New York Times he hoped that recent efforts such as the removal of a dam on the Elwah River would bring back more robust runs of Chinook salmon and issue a turning point for the orcas.
"This new birth brings new hope – for Tahlequah and for all of us," wildlife photographer Alena Ebeling-Schuld told The Guardian. "I am wishing Tahlequah and her new little one the very best with all of my being."
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The extremely endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales off the coast of Washington and British Columbia fell to 73 after 3 orcas went missing, the Center for Whale Research said in a statement.
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A second baby orca has been born to the imperiled southern resident killer whales in less than six months.
Is there hope for the critically endangered orcas that travel the waters between Seattle and BC, Canada? The southern resident killer whales have added a new member to their shrinking numbers: a baby that Center for Whale Research (CWR) Founding Director Ken Balcomb has named Lucky.
With only 74 left in the wild, the Southern Resident orca population in Puget Sound needs help now more than ever. That's why on Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office announced "an unprecedented investment" to help boost the population as well as the Chinook salmon they eat.
"We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state," Inslee said in a news release. "We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians."
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This week, the Canadian government announced a slew of measures to save the critically endangered species. The $61.5 million (US$50 million) initiative will address three key threats to the orcas: a lack of chinook salmon, the whales' favored prey; contaminants in the water; and vessel traffic and noise that interferes with their hunting abilities, according to a news release from the Fisheries and Oceans department.