Nootka 5 was thirty-two when she died. She had been captured off the coast of Iceland in 1981 and she would go on to birth eight children in captivity, of which only three would go on to live longer than four years. The cause of her death was unannounced, but over the years they had found that she was suffering from extensive tooth damage and jawbone deterioration.
Could her poor dental health have caused her death?
Ever since the eye-opening and impactful documentary Blackfish, the capture and enclosure of orcas — killer whales — has been a hot, controversial topic. So much so that SeaWorld San Diego, perhaps the most well-known orca show in the world, held their last show in January. This followed the 2016 decision in California to ban captive breeding of killer whales.
What’s the big deal?
In the wild, orcas can live from 30–50 years on average, depending if they’re male or female (females live longer). According to a widely cited 2015 paper by John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre, captive orcas have a median survival rate of 6.1 years — although, if we don’t count for captive orcas outside of the United States, that rate rises to 12 years.
Captive killer whales live only a third of the life that a wild orca can enjoy, at best. Small wonder, then, that people were so angry after watching Blackfish.
Why do captive orcas live such short, brutish lives (to borrow from Thomas Hobbes)?
It’s a complicated topic and I definitely don’t want to opinionate where I’m not an expert, but there’s an interesting link between the overall wellbeing of the orca and their oral health.
One of the most common causes of death for orcas in captivity is septicemia, a bacterial infection that travels through the blood.
This may, believe it or not, be connected to the state of their dental health.
Why Wild Orcas Have Amazing Smiles and Captives Not So Much
In captivity, the social situation for a killer whale just isn’t the same. For example, in the wild, mothers can count on the whole pod — the group that orcas travel in — to raise the newborn. In captivity, this support network doesn’t exist and the mother suffers heightened stress because of it.
Neither are captive orcas as socially tight. They, in fact, are extremely competitive and they like to establish dominance over each other.
How do they do this when they’re separated from one another in cages?
They bite the steel bars of the cages, damaging and fracturing their teeth in the process. Orcas will also gnaw at the concrete walls of the enclosure. It’s not uncommon to find pieces of dental bone at the bottom of the pool.
This isn’t “normal” for these whales. In fact, wild orcas are rare to show tooth wear. Their self-depracating behavior is something that arises from their captivity.
Further along that vein, orcas can also damage their teeth during shows, as is illustrated by the story of Nootka 5 in the introduction. Nootka was an extremely competitive whale and she showed it when she performed. She liked to swim toward the corner of the stage at high speed and then bite its corner, wearing down the bone of her teeth and jaw.
The procedure involves using a drill to dig down to the pulp of the affected tooth, cracking the tooth and exposing the pulp. This is done without local anesthesia, for unknown reasons, and it’s done often. The new hole is left open and uncapped, meaning it must be cleaned out frequently — two to three times a day, to be exact.
Why is that?
Like when humans lose their teeth, those spaces trap food particles. These particles are exactly the kind of thing that bacteria like to feast on. In humans, this often leads to gum disease, tooth decay, and other bacterial infections.
Coming back to killer whales, remember that in the pulpotomy the pulp of the tooth is left exposed to the elements. The pulp contains, among many other things, nerves and blood vessels. If you remember, one of the main causes of death for orcas is septicemia, a bacteria which travels through the blood. Wait a minute.
Is leaving the blood stream exposed via the pulp the best thing to do for an animal known to die to a bacteria that travels through the blood? Leaving it exposed, mind you, in conditions that invite bacterial infection.
Doesn’t make much sense to me. Does it make sense to you?
Of course, to give them credit, orca trainers are not idiots. Where standards are high, an orca’s teeth will be “flushed” three times a day.
The question is whether this is enough.
Because, as it stands, it doesn’t seem like it.