Bioethics Blogs

Meeting ethological needs: Conflicting data on orca longevity in captivity

by Frans de Waal

Editor’s note: Frans de Waal, PhD, is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and the Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board. His research focuses on primate social behavior, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequality aversion, and food-sharing.

de Waal, a leading primatologist, makes an argument here for thinking seriously about the captivity of certain animals such as orcas. Of course, the orca also has a sophisticated mammalian brain. Is the defining criterion of our responsibility to other animals their ecological needs, as de Waal suggests, or is it their cognitive function? What do you think?

There is so much to-do about orcas (killer whales) in captivity, with a drumbeat of voices against humans keeping this species, that it was about time we got some data on longevity. Not that longevity is the only measure to consider with regards to the ethics of keeping these fascinating animals, but since there is the claim out there that orcas in human care live short, stressful lives, there is a need to know the truth.


I am interested in this issue since I support animal keeping for educational and conservation reasons at zoos and aquariums. There are many facilities at which the care for animals is taken very seriously by a dedicated staff.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.