Captive Killer Whales are Suffering From a Killer Toothache

Fagjun | Published 2017-10-25 06:33

The first-ever investigation into the teeth of captive killer whales, or orcas, show that the marine mammals are suffering from serious toothaches.

Captivity breeds a variety of health problems for orcas.



Orcas in captivity are already a sensitive, problematic issue. There have long been objections against the captivity of orcas in sea parks like SeaWorld, but the 2013 documentary Blackfish prompted a surge of objections to keeping orcas in captivity. Finally, in 2016, the US senate passed a bill prohibiting the breeding of captive orcas as well as orca entertainment shows.


There has been some back and forth between two sides of the debate on whether or not places like SeaWorld are harmful or helpful to orcas. A new study, however, provides more evidence that orcas suffer in captivity. There are about 60 orcas in captivity around the world at present. Researchers studied 29 orcas in the US and Spain and found that each individual orca in the study was suffering from dental problems.

Beyond Dental Problems

The holes drilled into the teeth of orcas [Photo via the University or Otago]



Killer whales have a total of 48 teeth. Though these marine mammals are larger than humans, it’s likely that they feel the pain of a toothache just as much as we do. Thus, they may be in quite a lot of pain due to the problems with their teeth.


“We found that the more than 65 percent possessed moderate to extreme tooth wear in their lower jaws, mostly as a result of chewing concrete and steel tank surfaces,” says John Jett, one of the study’s authors. These findings are thus another addition to a body of evidence proving that captivity is extremely detrimental to the health of orcas.


Over 61% of the orcas in the study have had their teeth drilled by dental specialists. The orcas underwent a procedure called pulpotomy, which entails the removal of the soft pulpy tissue in the teeth. When humans undergo a similar procedure, we get the holes in our teeth patched up. This, however, is not the case with orcas. The holes are left open for as long as the orcas live. Caretakers flush the teeth with chemicals every single day to prevent infections.


Drilling can also make teeth more susceptible to breaking. Unfortunately, this goes beyond just being a necessary dental procedure.

Killer Whales and the Consequences of Captivity

Orcas who have had their teeth drilled will never be able to return to the wild.



According to Jeff Ventre, one of the study’s authors, damage to the teeth is “the most tragic consequence of captivity”. These dental problems can require chronic antibiotic therapy, which can in turn compromise the immune system of an orca. This, apparently, is what happened with the orca called Kasatka. Kasatka, a SeaWorld orca, died of pneumonia earlier this year. The damage to the teeth can also get so severe that the specific fractures and tooth wear can even serve as identifying markers, much like how dental records can help identify murder victims.


Plus, killer whales that have had their teeth drilled have basically no hope to ever return to their homes in the wild. “Compared to free-ranging orca, the teeth of captive orca are incredibly compromised and you just don’t see this type or level of damage in the wild, says Dr. Ingrid Visser, a scientist who has focused on orcas for decades.

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