Damaged Teeth a Consequence of Captivity for Orcas

Kayla at SeaWorld Florida exhibits open holes in her teeth. The holes are the result of a 'modified pulpotomy.'

Kayla at SeaWorld Florida is seen with open holes in her teeth, the consequence of a ‘modified pulpotomy.’ Image used with permission, courtesy of Sara Childers – all rights reserved.

With SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment under fire following the release of the documentary Blackfish, the corporation has repeatedly found itself on the defensive over consigning killing whales to captivity.

Former SeaWorld trainers, Drs. Jeffrey Ventre and John Jett, suggest that that there is one negative consequence of captivity for orcas that remains inarguable: irreversible tooth damage.

Ventre and Jett, who both had roles in the Blackfish film, have become outspoken critics of their former employer. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the documentary enjoyed a cinematic release before debuting on the CNN Network last October.

Recently shortlisted for ‘Best Documentary’ by the Academy Awards and by BAFTA (British Academy Film and Television Arts), the movie, which focuses on SeaWorld’s prime bull orca, Tilikum, and his killing of a trainer in 2010, also examines the consequences of keeping one of the ocean’s most intelligent marine mammals in captivity.

It has been generating waves of controversy for SeaWorld since it was released.

Orca Trainers Speak Out

Both former killer whale trainers, who actually performed in waterwork with their orcas, progressed into lucrative career fields of their own. Dr. Jeffrey Ventre is a medical doctor who specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). Dr. John Jett has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Environmental Science and a Ph.D. in Health and Human Performance with an emphasis on waterway management and marine mammal conservation issues. He is also a visiting Research Professor in Environmental Science and Laboratory Manager for the Biology Department at Stetson University.

Co-authors of the 2013 peer-reviewed paper: Orca (Orcinus Orca) Captivity and Vulnerability to Mosquito-transmitted Viruses, Jett and Ventre first approached the issue of tooth damage in captive killer whales in a 2011 paper: Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity. Both suggested that confined conditions imposed on orcas, were directly responsible for multiple health issues, including oral degradation.

Decoded Science spoke with both doctors via e-mail, about dental health in captive orcas.

About the Teeth of Orcinus Orca 

Orcas have 10 to 13 pairs of interlocking teeth on each side of the upper and lower jaws for a total of about 48 teeth. While this constitutes plenty of teeth, Jett told Decoded Science that killer whales only get one set of teeth to last a lifetime.

Even though orcas possess this array of impressive chompers, with a single tooth measuring up to four inches long, killer whales don’t actually use their teeth for chewing food.

They swallow food whole or in chunks after ripping it apart, such as ripping the tongue out of a baleen whale, or the liver out of a great white shark,” Ventre told Decoded Science. Jett added that when he worked at SeaWorld, “grabbing, ripping and tearing” was the show line that trainers used for the public. “This is accurate,” he said.

Orca teeth are also highly durable. “For the most part, the teeth of a killer whale last a lifetime in the wild,” Jett said, “although some wild, shark-eating orcas have been noted to have ground down teeth as a result of eating the rough skin of sharks.” Most wild orcas Jett explained, “die with teeth that are intact.”

Ventre noted however, that while, “offshore orcas are known to wear teeth down by feeding on deep sea dwelling “sleeper sharks,” this is a slow process and does not fracture the teeth.” Tooth fractures however, are commonly seen in captive killer whales.

Captive Orcas: What Causes Fractured Teeth?

Infighting, aggression and boredom in captive killer whales; all contribute to broken and damaged teeth, wrote Jett and Ventre in their stress paper published at The Orca Project:

It is common for separated whales to bite down on the horizontal metal bars, or to “jaw-pop” through the gates as they display aggression at each other. In addition, under-stimulated and bored animals also “chew” metal bars and mouth concrete pool corners, like the main stage at SWF (SeaWorld Florida). As a consequence, tooth fragments can sometimes be found on the pool bottoms following these displays. This breakage leaves the pulp of some teeth exposed.

The authors also explained that once the pulp of the tooth became exposed, it will start to decay, forming “a cavity that leads to food plugging.” If left untreated, they added, the orca’s own immune system will, “create inflammation and eventually a focus for systemic infection.”

Click to Read Page Two: Modified Pulpotomy for Orcas

© Copyright 2014 Elizabeth Batt, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

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  1. Russell Hockins says

    It is interesting to point out that this “problem” of broken teeth was practically nonresistant in the early years (up to the late 1970’s or early 1980’s) of Orca captivity as one of the major things it is stated they chew on (the tank gates) were made of PVC plastic pipe back then and not out of metal. The plastic gave before the teeth did and the parks (bean counters) got tired of continually repairing/replacing damaged/broken gates. Yes, they probably chewed on cement tank edge at that time too which also damages their teeth.

    It would be easy to look at the data and photographic evidence from the time and see exactly when the switch was made to metal gates from plastic and how this correlates to the increase in broken teeth.

    • SarahJesness says

      Also worth noting is that the orcas in those “early years” haven’t really been in captivity very long, and I’m pretty sure most captive orcas from around that era had even shorter lifespans than they do today.

  2. The Orca Project says

    This is yet another eye-opening report from Elizabeth Batt. Thanks EB! The issues surrounding captive orca dental health is heart-breaking. Due to time constraints, the documentary film Blackfish only touched on the matter (although more information can be garnered from the “extras” on the DVD).

    Former SeaWorld trainers Doctors Jeff Ventre and John Jett have been instrumental in bringing the barbaric practice of “tooth drilling and flushing” to the public. Together, they led us and provided the critical information in our 2010 report : ‘The Hidden Cost Of Captivity- Oral Health of Killer Whales Exposed’

    Through SeaWorld’s own “orca profiles”, the practice of tooth drilling and the poor dental health of orcas is exposed. You can access the background of individual orca dental facts here:


  3. David Snow says

    Teeth are critical to wild orcas and we have found dead orcas here along the Newfoundland coast where the apparent cause of death (starvation) was associated with teeth worn down to nubs…and advanced age. I expect this damage comes from decades of preying on large, thrashing whales…which is how many of the orcas here feed themselves. As a field biologist I have seen black bears (and humans) almost driven mad by dental issues. As a fellow mammal I know that captive orcas can not be comfortable with the dental damage they present.

    • Elizabeth BattElizabeth Batt says

      Thanks for your comment David and sharing your perspective. Just a note for other readers, there are different ecotypes of killer whales and their diets vary from one region to another.

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