Why Killer Whales Won´t Abandon Their Disabled Mates

English: Known types of Killer Whale
English: Known types of Killer Whale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Killer Whales Won’t Abandon Their Disabled Mates

A whale pod off the coast of South Africa was seen feeding one of its disabled members.


May 19, 2013

Killer Whales Show Compassion
Whales have shown the ability to care for members of their pod that are incapacitated or hindered. (Photo: R.D. Scott)

In many animal societies, if a member of a group is gravely wounded or born with disabling deformities, that animal becomes an unsustainable burden on the others, and is often left behind at the mercy of predators, hunger and disease.

Not so with killer whales. They are among the few species in the world to look after members of their family who cannot look after themselves. Their patience and compassion for each other surpasses, perhaps, even that of humans

The most recent example of this extraordinary commitment to one another was revealed today in the UK’s Daily Mail, which ran a story and photo essay of a disabled young male orca off the coast of South Africa; he’s missing a pectoral fin and the normally towering dorsal fin that sprouts from the backs of mature bulls.

These disfigurements make it impossible for the whale to hunt alongside his pod. Luckily for him, they are only too willing to hunt for their disabled pod mate.

The pod was seen near Port Elizabeth, South Africa hunting a 50-foot-long, 15-ton Bryde’s whale. The young orca stayed behind as the others chased and killed the whale, then brought chunks of flesh to their disabled member.

When researching my book Death at SeaWorld, I was continually amazed by the capacity of orcas to share in the responsibility of group well-being. It may or may not take a village to raise a child but, I learned, it definitely takes a pod to raise an orca, especially one with disabilities.

Orcas are seemingly hardwired by their genes to share. They have been observed delicately splitting a salmon in two, or taking turns while hunting seals on Antarctic ice floes. They make sure there is enough to go around.

Much of this I learned from Dr. Ingrid Visser, founder of New Zealand’s Orca Research Network and one of the world’s leading experts on killer whales. Last July I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by Dr. Visser on her work with New Zealand orca groups, which she has been studying for years.

Visser spoke of two killer whales who had suffered horrible, nearly fatal gash wounds caused by the propellers of passing boats. It was a miracle one of them survived at all. The animal could not forage for the rays, penguins, jellyfish and marine mammals favored by her group.

When her family would go off to find food, one of them would stay behind to look after her, until the others returned with a meal. Visser spent so much time with this group of orcas, diving in the water right alongside them, that they came to know and trust her. Eventually, she said at her lecture, the whales began to leave their disabled pod member with her as the surrogate guardian.

This remarkable behavior reminded me of the work of Dr. Naomi Rose, the lead protagonist in my book, who spent five summers studying killer whale populations in far northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Older sons routinely “alloparent,” or babysit their younger siblings so that mom could go off and rest, or socialize with other females. In exchange for their service, the mature males gain entree to females in other pods, via their mothers’ social ties.

Of course, the more you learn about the intelligence, compassion and complex social bonds these amazing animals have developed over millions of years of evolution, the idea of keeping them locked up in tanks for human entertainment and profit becomes even more alien and grotesque.

One of the saddest aspects of orca captivity is that it seems to disrupt the naturally compassionate essence of these animals. Captivity has bred bloody duels, inbreeding and attempted infanticide.

One of the most heartbreaking stories in my book is the tale of the female orca Gudrun, who had been taken from the waters off Iceland in the 1980s. Gudrun gave birth to a deformed and developmentally-challenged calf named Nyar, and almost immediately rejected the child. Instead of bringing Nyar food, Gudrun tried to drown her calf, who had to be separated from her mother.

Two years later, Gudrun endured a life-threatening stillbirth. Sick and in tremendous pain, she swam over to the tank where Nyar was being held, and lovingly nuzzled her deformed daughter through the metal bars of the gate, as if to seek rapprochement. Soon after that, she died.

Infanticde may exist among wild killer whales, but I have never heard of it. Rather than killing their disabled offspring, or simply letting them perish, wild whales go to great lengths to preserve the lives and welfare of all their members. Pods with a disabled member are known to travel more slowly than other pods.

Compassion and commitment are the hallmarks of orca society in the wild. We may never know why captivity reduces these qualities in killer whales, but neurosis and misery are certainly prime suspects….

Read more & please, sign the Petition:



One thought on “Why Killer Whales Won´t Abandon Their Disabled Mates

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s