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Op-Ed: Orca bloodlines show rampant inbreeding in captive orcas

By Elizabeth Batt     Jun 22, 2013 in Environment
After Loro Parque in Spain, announced the death of a 10-month old SeaWorld-owned orca named Vicky, questions were raised over SeaWorld's breeding program.
Rejected at birth by her mother Kohana, Vicky was hand-raised by Loro Parque, staff. As with her brother (Adán) before her, both young orcas were born as the result of inbreeding by their owners, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment LLC.
Their questionable lineage saw their dam, Kohana, bred to her own uncle (Keto) twice, making the two young killer whales blood-related to 21 out of 26 SeaWorld orcas. Why Kohana rejected her babies remains a puzzle, but many experts believe that it was due, in part, to the female orca being ripped from her mother's side at just 19-months of age and impregnated way too young.
Despite the claims of providing superior care for its cetaceans, once an orca enters a marine park facility they are treated as livestock. Orcas bred at the park can be shipped anywhere at any time. They can be loaned out for breeding purposes (as in the case of Loro Parque orcas), or reclaimed, as in the case of Ikaika who was caught up in a custody battle after SeaWorld demanded his return from Marineland in Canada.
Artificial insemination enters the equation
Across the captive cetacean industry, there are few standards governing breeding. At the discretion of the marine park, they can breed an orca or any other cetacean, at will. Having perfected the art of artificial insemination, most of them now do. Yet occasionally, accidents also happen.
Taku (now deceased) for example, impregnated his own mother Katina. She gave birth to a female calf named Nalani in 2006. As revealed in David Kirby's book: Death at SeaWorld, Nalani has the regrettable distinction of being the world's first fully inbred captive orca.
It isn't the first time it has happened. At SeaWorld Orlando, a dolphin named Ariel also bred with her uncle, a male dolphin named Razzle. A source informed me that a veterinarian revealed that first generation inbreeding is "not considered a problem" to most facilities.
Yet in any other case, most scientists would agree that inbreeding across any species can cause significant health and psychological problems. This is a proven fact.
Orcas are trained to present themselves for  the artificial insemination process. It involves extrac...
Orcas are trained to present themselves for the artificial insemination process. It involves extracting sperm from a male orca and placing it in the female.
Voice of the Orcas
Inbreeding problems
For years, scientists have chalked up mental illness and deformities to rare genetic mutations, which come to the fore only when related individuals breed.
In Sweden, a population of 40 adders were forced to breed with one another after farming activities in Sweden isolated them from other adder populations. This 'inbreeding depression', said the University of California, Berkeley, led to, "higher proportions of stillborn and deformed offspring," than seen in larger adder populations elsewhere.
Other animal species across the spectrum, share the same fate when they interbreed.
In this 2009 article printed in the UK's Telegraph newspaper, vets warned that pedigree cats were suffering from life-threatening diseases and deformities due to inbreeding.
In wolves, writes Dog Breed, "the lack of genetic diversity makes them susceptible to disease since they lack the ability to resist certain viruses. Extreme inbreeding," they added, also "affects their reproductive success with small litter sizes and high mortality rates."
BBC News in 2011, also revealed how thoroughbred racehorses around the world are becoming more inbred. As a result they said, it raised questions over the physical soundness of racehorses and whether it was ,"contributing to the failure rate of pregnancy among breeding Thoroughbreds. So called "reproductive depression," they added, "is one of the first signs of inbreeding problems seen in populations of animals."
Human and cetacean inbreeding
King Charles II of Spain was so affected by an  inbred  deformity  that it is said he could not chew...
King Charles II of Spain was so affected by an "inbred" deformity, that it is said he could not chew.
Claudio Coello
The notorious Habsburg Royal family spent generations marrying within the same family. They inbred so successfully, that they actually closed the ranks of their own gene pools.
The epitome of this inbreeding was Charles II, King of Spain from 1665 to 1700. He was born with a deformity called the Habsburg Jaw or Habsburg Lip. Historical testimony remarks that this deformity affected Charles so badly, that he could not chew his food. Charles was also notably 'retarded' and impotent.
According to PLoS One's: The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty:
The kings of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty (1516-1700) frequently married close relatives in such a way that uncle-niece, first cousins and other consanguineous unions were prevalent in that dynasty.
Much like Kohana and Keto.
A study by Celene H. Frere et al, published in Sept. 2010 by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, studied inbreeding in a wild population of bottlenose dolphins found in East Shark Bay, Western Australia. Scientists concluded:
Levels of inbreeding are higher than expected by chance alone, and demonstrate that inbreeding is deleterious to female fitness in two independent ways. We found that inbred females, and females with inbred calves, have reduced fitness (lower calving success).
A further study on inferred paternity published in the Journal of Heredity in 2011, involved eastern fish-eating "resident" North Pacific killer whales. Michael J. Ford et al, concluded that "many offspring were the result of matings within the same “pod” (long-term social group)."
Ford however, noted that one important factor influencing a species' mating system is inbreeding avoidance, which, he suggested, this particular pod of whales had refined:
Mammalian species employ a variety of strategies to limit inbreeding, including dispersal from natal groups, aversion to mating with natal associates, kin recognition through olfactory, acoustic or morphological cues, and suppression of subordinates' mating by dominant pairs in cooperative societies (reviewed by Pusey and Wolf 1996).
Whereas in some bottlenose dolphin pods, collusion between male dolphins led to inbreeding, Ford explained:
Killer whales and long-finned pilot whales, in contrast, have been shown in at least some cases to breed primarily with individuals from a different social group during brief periods of multigroup aggregation, which has been hypothesized as a mechanism to avoid inbreeding.
In captivity, orcas do not have this luxury. They are bred across ecotypes: resident fish-eating whales to transient orcas (whose diet is other marine mammals), and bred across bloodlines within a limited genetic pool.
Why so much inbreeding?
There are 45 captive orcas dispersed in theme parks around the world. The majority of them belong to SeaWorld. In the 1971 Penn Cove captures, some 80 killer whales were netted, "almost every member of J, K and L pods," wrote Kirby in his book, "the entire Southern Resident Community."
Many orcas were killed in the captures, their bodies were "slit and weighted down with steel chains and anchors so they didn't wash ashore," Kirby added. Washington State banned SeaWorld from ever capturing orcas in its waters again. While SeaWorld is not banned from taking live animals, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all captures must be humane.
What happened in Puget Sound was anything but, and left a nasty taste behind that persists to this day.
It has been reported that Kshamenk refuses to follow trainers instructions and cues. He was captured...
It has been reported that Kshamenk refuses to follow trainers instructions and cues. He was captured from the wild at a young age.
Marcelo campos
Cursed by its own greed, SeaWorld is limited to breeding across 45 captive orcas. It recently bred Kasatka (via artificial insemination) to Kshamenk, an orca at Mundo Marino Aquarium in Argentina. Kshamenk, animal activists say, is held in terrible conditions and displays signs of hostility to both trainers and handlers.
Consequently, Kasatka was the orca who made the news last year after video of her attacking trainer Kenneth Peters in Nov. 2006 was released. Peters was bitten and held underwater several times during a show at SeaWorld's San Diego park. She gave birth to Makani on Feb. 14 this year.
SeaWorld orcas family charts
For many experts, breeding orcas with behavioral issues is irresponsible. Breeding them to blood relatives, is something that would never occur in wild pods. SeaWorld's orca lineage published by Without Me There is No You, shows inbreeding is rampant. Here are just a few examples:
Tuar and Unna at SeaWorld Texas are blood-related to 19 out of 26, SeaWorld orcas. Sakari is blood-related to 20 out of 26.
At SeaWorld Florida, Trua is blood-related to 21 SeaWorld orcas. Nalani and Makaio -- nineteen.
Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain (SeaWorld-owned orcas): Kohana is related to 20 out of 26 SeaWorld orcas; Adan, twenty-one.
SeaWorld California: Ikaika and Nakai are blood-related to 19 out of 26 SeaWorld orcas.
When SeaWorld welcomed Makani's birth by announcing it as the "sixth successful orca birth at SeaWorld San Diego," it wasn't bragging quite so loudly over how many killer whale babies had died in its facilities -- either at birth or prematurely.
Perhaps the sickest and saddest incident involved Gudrun, one of the first ever orcas captured in Iceland in October 1976. A little over a year after giving birth to her second baby, Gudrun was pregnant for a third time. The labor was so traumatic, the baby had to be manually winched out of her with a chain.
This pregnancy cost the lives of two orcas. The calf was stillborn and Gudrun died four days later after fatally hemorrhaging. Gudrun birthed three babies in total, all of whom are now deceased. Ironically, Gudrun's daughter Taima, would also die from complications of childbirth.
As we witness issues manifesting in orcas like Tilikum, responsible for three human deaths -- and Keto, a captive born orca on loan from SeaWorld to Loro Parque who also killed his trainer, science is saying there could be another reason for Vicky's death, faulty genetics caused by inbreeding.
It's likely that Vicky's death will be attributed to some 'standard or common disease' prevalent in captive orcas. At no time will inbreeding depression be considered, even though it is well documented across a variety of species.
SeaWorld's orca population is not exempt. Restricted from their natural habitat, their existence is compounded further by inbreeding. Continuing to ignore science and the psychological and physical well-being of these highly social animals, is foolhardy.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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