Damaged Teeth a Consequence of Captivity for Orcas

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Image courtesy of Fins and Fluke. Kiska is a lone orca at Marineland in Canada. Her teeth are nonexistent due to gate chewing.

Kiska is a lone orca at Marineland in Canada. Her teeth are nonexistent due to gate chewing. Image courtesy of Fins and Fluke, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Modified Pulpotomy for Orcas

In an attempt to avert infection, aquaria use a process similarly used on humans. Witnessed during their tenure by both former trainers, the process involves a variable speed drill to poke holes through the pulp and into the jaw. Ventre and Jett refer to this endodontic procedure as a “modified pulpotomy.” I asked Drs. Ventre and Jett for more details.

EB: Modified how?

J. Ventre: Modified because it is performed on a killer whale, not a human, without anesthesia.

EB: Not even local anesthetic? Isn’t that painful?

J. Ventre: It was done without local anesthetic when I was there. The last pulpotomy I witnessed was in 1995. Typically, the animal was mildly food-deprived and asked to keep its head on deck, with an open mouth. You could tell that the whales didn’t like the procedure because they would often shudder and sink down in the water. When they finally would come into a state of behavioral control, the vets used a variable speed drill to buff and drill out the pulp. Sometimes it would take several sessions to complete the process.

J. Jett: When I participated in teeth drilling with Tilikum for example, we occasionally used Lidocaine although it appeared to have minimal anesthetic effect. It was obvious the procedure was painful as animals would squeal, shudder and sink away from the person performing the drilling procedure. 

EB: So this drilling leaves open holes in their teeth? Is this painful for them?

J. Jett: Yes, the holes are left open. There are images all over the Internet confirming this. We don’t know if the open holes are painful, but we do know that when the holes are flushed, debris, blood and blood clots commonly ooze from them.

J. Ventre: When the tooth is fractured it exposes a soft pulp which can become a focus for infection. So the pulpotomies are conducted to remove that soft tissue, leaving a cone of enamel. It’s a preventive measure.

I am not a dentist, but my understanding is the teeth are usually still growing and underdeveloped. This gets to the issue of SeaWorld misrepresenting longevity & lifespan data. For example SeaWorld says animals live 25-35 years, but we know from actual science that females don’t even hit menopause until about age 40 and as late as forty-eight.
According to the professionals that I have spoken to, the killer whales in SeaWorld’s collection are generally immature with teeth that are still growing. My guess is that SeaWorld has lost animals via trial and error of different methods, and perhaps leaving the pulp cavity open is the best way they’ve discovered thus far.

I have discussed the pulpotomies with human dentists and was even referred to a veterinary dentist from Cape Town who does root canals on dolphins and fills the pulp cavity with ProRoot MTA which stimulates bone development at the end of the root. A pulpotomy is the same as a root canal, just without the epoxy filler. Here is a link to more information about it.

EB: So teeth once drilled, must be flushed out. How was this process explained to the public when you worked at SeaWorld?

J. Ventre: When you are irrigating the killer whale’s teeth three times a day, it is visible to the public; and it attracts a lot of attention and questions from park guests. So SeaWorld has masterfully turned this potential public relations nightmare into a public relations benefit for itself. Instead of describing the fractured teeth as being a cause of captivity, the trainers tell the public what they are seeing constitutes superior dental care. It’s both devious and brilliant.

J. Jett: We were trained to explain this as “superior dental care.” Trainers are still selling it this way.

EB: How prevalent is tooth breakage in say SeaWorld’s captive orca population? Is there a percentage of animals?

J. Ventre: It is nearly ubiquitous and positively correlates with age; which makes sense because the longer an animal is captive, the more opportunities it has to break teeth. Keep in mind that the ocean doesn’t have steel segregation gates and concrete walls, so teeth breakage is caused by captivity itself.

J. Jett: Nearly all whales at SeaWorld (from subadult to adult) have broken, ground, missing or drilled teeth. No percentage has been generated, but we’re working on that. It is truly epidemic in their collection, and among orcas held by other companies. Poor dentition is a strong predictor of a variety of health issues among other mammals, so it is reasonable to assume that, over time, teeth problems negatively impact the health of captive orcas.

EB: Obviously a chronic issue. Has SeaWorld attempted to implement measures to prevent tooth breakage in its captive orca population?

J. Jett: “Jaw popping” can often be seen in which two animals 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.

My opinion is that it is impossible to counteract in a captive environment given the concrete and steel structures present, given that they must separate animals with steel segregation gates, and given their high degree of boredom. The last point shouldn’t be diminished as we commonly witnessed bored animals “chewing” on solid pool structures.

Whales engage in a high degree of observational learning so all it takes is one whale to chew on structures and before long all whales are doing the same thing. Teeth issues are also a direct result of general stress secondary to social strife and social incompatibility.

SeaWorld has not, to my knowledge, implemented any measures to prevent teeth problems.  They do, however, select young animals with relatively intact teeth for photo shoots as a means of managing the flow of negative information.

J. Ventre: One change that I’ve recommended is to switch the horizontal steel bars to a vertical orientation. I believe this would save a lot of teeth because when jaw popping, it would force the orca to rotate 90 degrees right or left to actually chomp down on the gate. That said, it’s probably impossible to prevent tooth breakage all together.

EB: Now Lolita at Miami Seaquarium in Florida still has all her teeth. Why is that?

J. Jett: It could be because Lolita lives by herself and therefore does not experience social strife and the general stress of being packed into small tanks with animals she shares no ancestral history with.

J. Ventre: Since Lolita has lived alone since 1980, she really hasn’t had a social group. No reason for her to jaw pop. And while her teeth are in relatively good shape, they are not perfect. She does have a couple of chips, but it hasn’t exposed the pulp at this point. This is good as it makes her an excellent candidate for a sea pen, or even full release, since her family is known. She is, in my mind, the single most appropriate captive animal to attempt a release on.

EB: I’ve seen some images that show orcas with teeth ground down to the jaw. Will this consign them to captivity for the remainder of their lives?

J. Jett: Unfortunately, the reality is that most captive orcas are very poor candidates for true release. All other health issues aside, the bore holes drilled in the teeth of many captive orcas must be flushed several times daily with an antiseptic solution in an effort to manage local and systemic infection. Without ongoing human intervention these animals would likely die from infection.  Ground down teeth would likely reduce their ability to catch and hold onto prey items as well.

J. Ventre: I believe that dental issues in captive killer whales are the primary reason why many are not good candidates for release, such as Tilikum.

Other Marine Park Orcas

Oral degradation in killer whales isn’t exclusive to SeaWorld. In Niagara Falls, Canada, images show that Marineland’s lone orca Kiska, has ground her teeth down to the jaw bone. Former Marineland trainer Phil Demers, told Decoded Science that unlike SeaWorld’s orcas, Kiska, “was never trained to have her teeth drilled.”

In contrast, Demers added, when Marineland hosted Ikaika, a SeaWorld male orca sent on a breeding loan to the facility, “his teeth were drilled regularly.” Demers also confirmed that Kiska swims around with the pulp of her teeth exposed.

She’s been heavily medicated for her life’s entirety,” Demers said.

Although the former trainer could not recall if the reason for medicating Kiska was “directly attributed to her teeth,” he did explain that she would regularly bite down on the bars separating adjacent pools. This went on for years,” Demers concluded, before Kiska was moved to another tank. 

Orca Dental Drilling in Captive Populations

Dental degradation occurs in most captive killer whales housed in aquaria. As the sole causation of the conditions needed to safely house whales, and the forced proximity of an artificial environment, the act of drilling an orca’s teeth is perhaps the least defensible of husbandry practices conducted by marine parks. Given that it also results in a lose-lose situation for the animal, it is also a practice that courts much controversy.     

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