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The Orca Who Can Mimic: Captive-Born Wikie

In recent days, a female orca at Marineland Antibes has shot to "fame" as a result of a case study published by the entertainment park in France. Dubbed as "research", the study has recorded Wikie mimicking human sounds through her blowhole. I use the word "dubbed" (plus multiple quotation marks) as this is not something new that we have learned and it does nothing to aid the conservation of wild killer whales.

One earlier example includes the experience of former orca trainer Dr. Jeffrey Ventre. Ventre noted in an interview that whales and dolphins have been mimicking human sounds in captivity for years, including belugas making human-like whistle sounds. I can attest to this as well - many years ago, I witnessed an orca at SeaWorld, Florida in the USA being instructed by a trainer to make a "raspberry" sound through its blowhole.

Another example is of a free-ranging Southern resident orca known as Luna who was recognised for mimicking boat sounds.

The orca that Marineland Antibes has used is Wikie. She was born on the 1st of June 2001, making her sixteen and a half years old at the time of writing. Wikie is the daughter of wild-born Icelandic orcas Sharkan and Kim, both dead. She is the sibling of male captive-born Inouk, also held at Marineland Antibes, and female Shouka who was moved to the Six Flags entertainment park in America and is now displayed at SeaWorld, California.

It has been recognised by Marineland Antibes that Wikie has been very motivated to learn new behaviours and that she can become very vocal, especially when left alone by herself in a tank. It is also acknowledged that Wikie has aggressive tendencies towards the trainers and other orcas. All of this seems indicative of a highly intelligent being who is frustrated in her artificial cage.

Medically, Wikie has worn down teeth from biting on concrete walls (a welfare indicator of frustrated needs in captive orcas), which has been documented by Marineland Antibes in her health records. Her teeth have been drilled and are flushed daily, without pain relief and with risk of infection. She also suffers from the pathogenic fungal infection Candida and a cyst. Wikie has been artificially inseminated several times, however, has only produced two calves. There are questions surrounding whether both male offspring, Moana and Keijo, are inbred from Wikie's half-brother Valentin, who is also now deceased.

Valentin died following the mud flooding at Marineland Antibes in 2015, a few months after his mum died, another wild-born Icelandic orca known as Freya. Numerous other orcas have also met tragically short ends at the park, but despite this, Marineland Antibes has refused to follow in SeaWorld's footsteps, ceasing its captive orca breeding. This leaves (for now) Wikie inhabiting the concrete tanks with her two calves and brother Inouk.

As Ventre logically surmised, Wikie mimicking human sounds is akin to parroting. She has been recorded as mimicking the sounds of numbers, simple words such as "bye" and one of her trainer's names, "Amy".

This capability is yet another testament to the fact that orcas should not be held in captivity and it certainly does not justify their continued confinement. They are simply too smart and too complex to be taken from their natural social groupings and environment to be held in too-small spaces performing tricks for human entertainment - which this mimicking may instead reflect.

And it is perhaps too coincidental that this has broken the news at the same time the French high court has overturned the decree banning the breeding of captive whales and dolphins in the country.

No doubt this story will remain in the news for a little while longer - and it will be debated for a time after that. Then Wikie will be forgotten. But she will still be swimming around in circles in the concrete tanks of Marineland Antibes as reports of the orca who mimics human words becomes tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

Wikie and calf Moana at Marineland Antibes, France © orcaaware.org