Friday, April 17, 2015

Simcox Child-Molestation Case Underscores How Court System Can Be Manipulated by Extremists

Chris Simcox during an earlier hearing in his child-molestation trial
Nobody in the suburban Phoenix neighborhood knew who Chris Simcox was, at least not by the Minuteman movement persona he had cultivated on television only a few short years before. As far as Michelle Lynch knew, he was just the dad who would hang out and watch the kids play outside, like involved dads do

“I had met him just a few times,” she recalled in an interview, describing the period in early 2013 when they lived in the same suburban Phoenix apartment complex. “He was always outside the apartments that we lived in. There were a lot of families like that, especially around 4:30, 5 o’clock, all the families would come outside and the kids would all play. There was always a ton of children outside, and he was always outside with his kids.

“I remember once he said to me, ‘You know, my motto is, if there’s light outside, there’s no reason to be inside.’ … And I thought, ‘Oh, you know, he’s an involved father,’ but that didn’t last long.

“All of a sudden they were always inside. And you know, he had kid stuff on his back porch, and my daughter liked going over there because they could paint and stuff.” The girls enjoyed each other’s company. There were sleepovers. There was candy.

That all culminated – after months of manipulation of her daughter – with the then-5-year-old girl telling her mother about how Simcox had molested her one night in February. It happened as they were going to bed together one night in May – three months later.

Even after she informed police and they began investigating Simcox, the manipulation continued.

After his arrest in July 2013, his ability to toy with her daughter changed dramatically, but not entirely: Simcox has delayed the trial multiple times, and eventually asserted and obtained his right to represent himself in court, raising the specter of the alleged perpetrator cross-examining his victim on the witness stand.

To Michelle Lynch, that was the final manipulation, and a chance for Simcox to traumatize her daughter a second time.

And until the Arizona Supreme Court intervened last week, that prospect very nearly became a reality after both the trial judge and an appeals-court panel decided to let the trial proceed with Simcox having the right to cross-examine all witnesses, including a third young girl who is expected to testify about his similar attempts to abuse her.

Meg Garvin
“This is just crazy,” says victim’s rights expert Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. “We shouldn’t ask the victims that much, and we don’t need to ask them that much. Because you can balance these easily.

“I actually don’t think this is as hard as some courts are making it,” Garvin explained in an interview. “The individual’s right to self-representation has well been acknowledged to be limited. You can put reasonable limits in place. And when those limits are necessary to protect someone else’s constitutional rights, particularly a state constitutional right, which is the one at issue here – although at other times it can be a federal constitutional right to privacy, depending on the type of question being asked – then the answer should be pretty straightforward: have a standby counsel ask the questions.”

Daphne Young of Childhelp, an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children, said that permitting such a situation would be a gross mistake.

“When a potential predator has the opportunity to cross-examine a child victim of sexual abuse, there’s a great risk for intimidation, manipulation and re-victimizing of that young victim,” Young told KPHO-TV. “When you consider all the verbal and non-verbal cues that a predator uses to groom a young victim, there’s a lot that can happen under the nose of the judges and even experts in the field because of the intimate relationship that abusers use to create silence.”

The trial judge in the case, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla, is no stranger to controversy. In 2009, he came under harsh criticism for having refused to allow a Phoenix woman named Dawn Axsom to move herself and her son out of state to avoid violence that she feared at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, who a short while later shot and killed both Axsom and her mother before killing himself.

Michelle Lynch said that her greatest concern in all this is that, if Simcox gets his way, he’ll traumatize her daughter all over again. She described to Hatewatch how her now-7-year-old girl broke down in hysterics when informed recently that Simcox might be asking her questions directly.

“I am concerned that the system will make my daughter a victim again,” she said. “There’s no reason for this to be happening. If there is this consensus as to it not being appropriate, I don’t understand why it is happening.”

She looks back on the situation now with a mother’s guilt, knowing there were abundant signals that something was amiss. “I felt bad because I trusted him,” she said. “There was this candy thing. The kids have all mentioned candy, which was how he lured them.

“I remember one day the doorbell rang and my son answered the door, and Chris and his daughter were standing at the door, and Chris handed my son a two- or three-pound bag of Skittles, and told my son to give it to my daughter for being a good girl. And at the time I couldn’t understand why someone would give that much candy to a child. It didn’t even register.”

That happened sometime after the February molestation, but before Lynch finally learned in May from her daughter that Simcox had molested her. “It had been happening for a couple months,” she said.

Then came what seemed like an interminable period between her report to police and Simcox’s arrest. “When I told police, and they were investigating him for over a month, my daughter and I were dodging him,” she said. “I mean, he would walk by our house and we wouldn’t go outside. The minute we got home we would run up our stairs and close the door.

“His daughter gave mine this handmade birthday invitation. And I told [my daughter] she couldn’t go, and she wanted to write a letter. I actually have the letter she wrote. She responded with, ‘I’m sorry, [Girl 2], I can’t go to your party because your dad is doing disgusting things to me.’ ”

No one in the neighborhood seemed to have any idea that the person they were dealing with was Chris Simcox, the onetime nationally famous leader of the “Minuteman” nativist border-watch movement. As early as 2005, Simcox’s erratic behavior – including allegations of an attempt to molest another of  his daughters – had been explored in detail by the SPLC. Even as late as 2010, he had managed to remain in public view, running briefly for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.

Yet in the little neighborhood where he moved after divorcing his third wife, Simcox was just another guy. It never crossed Lynch’s radar, at least not until she reported him to police, that he was someone quite well-known.

“My older [teenaged] son, once he looked up who this guy was, after the Scottsdale police department told me who he was, my son started sleeping with a knife under his pillow,” Lynch recalled.

Once Lynch realized who he was, though, more of the pieces fell in place. “Those personalities like Chris have the narcissistic traits, and that’s the first thing I think of when it comes to him, you know,” she said.

“I really feel like because of the kind of person he is, I think he’s trying to make a comeback to being a nationally known person again. Especially with representing himself and all that. In all honesty, he’s going to make a mockery of himself. Because once people start to hear what he is going to throw out there as his evidence – it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Indeed, Simcox has hinted that he plans to present a “grand conspiracy” defense predicated on the idea that he is being persecuted by nefarious forces.

Seeing justice served on Simcox is only part of her intent, though. Her chief focus is seeing that her daughter is treated the right way by the justice system. As she explained to Judge Padilla in a letter pleading to keep Simcox from questioning her daughter directly on the stand:

I understand that within the justice system, all accused have specific rights that officials do their best to uphold so to be fair and maintain the integrity of the Constitution, but it is my hope that my daughter’s rights are also taken into consideration and [she] is given the opportunity to progress and not regress due to the ensuring of one individual’s rights over another.

Meg Garvin says that these kinds of conflicts in pro se cases happen on “a not-infrequent basis.” She says that while it’s rare, there have been cases where accused perpetrators directly cross-examined their ostensible victims. But she insists that there’s no reason for that to happen.

“This isn’t that complicated. To ensure that the defendant’s rights, the real test is if he is directing his representation, and he would still be able to direct the questions,” Garvin said. “The victim would not have to be subjected to a very intrusive, invasive and harassing moment where the perpetrator is essentially assaulting again.”

Yet even though it seems simple, instances such as this one happen all too often in the American legal system, Garvin says. “Courts routinely defer to defendants’ rights without doing an appropriate calculus of the victims’ rights,” she said.

Michelle Lynch believes there’s a real cost to that. “There’s a lot of people out there that don’t even pursue stuff like this because they’re frustrated with the criminal-justice system,” she said. “And I get it. I fully understand, now that I’ve been through this process, why people would just give up and not do anything about it. But I’m a very strong-willed person.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Evidence Mounts: Big Ships Are a Noisy Problem for Orcas

Back when I was putting together a piece for Seattle magazine about the threats posed by increased shipping in orcas' territory to the endangered Southern Resident population -- particularly the lethal specter of increased oil traffic -- I noted that one of the secondary threats posed by these large ships (including, possibly, coal ships coming from Cherry Point, north of Bellingham) is the terrific amount of racket they put up:

Along the western shore of San Juan Island, across Haro Strait, the view that most people observe when the killer whales are present is generally a placid one: The only noises are the sounds of the currents rushing, the “koosh” of the whales as they surface and blow plumes into the air—although at times, the calm is broken by the engines of the boats, sometimes 30 vessels at a time, that come crowding around the whales to get a close look at them. If there are large ships in view, they are mostly distant and seem almost silent as they glide past.

But drop a hydrophone into those same waters and the picture changes dramatically. There will be whales, all talking in their distinct Southern Resident dialect to each other and echolocating for fish. There will be the whale-watch boats, whose engines are mostly short-lived whines and low-level thrums. And then there will be large cargo ships. Because sound travels so well in water, a ship or a orca can be heard across great distances. The underwater sound of a loud ship passing a mile or two away produces a sound that compares to the sound a chainsaw might make in the air.

Val Veirs, a semi-retired physics professor, listens to all this racket, and monitors and records it with an array of hydrophones he has set up off his waterfront home on the west side of San Juan Island. What he and his fellow scientists have found is that killer whales will more often than not increase the volume of their vocalizations when there is higher background noise from boats and ships around them. Researchers at NOAA Fisheries are still studying whether whales fall completely silent because noisy ships are around.

But, according to Veirs, it’s inevitable that these noise levels—particularly the high-frequency component of ship noise—are going to affect their abilities to communicate and hunt, both of which are closely connected to sound. Vocalizations not only appear to play a role in the social component of their salmon-hunting behavior, the orcas also rely directly on echolocation.

Veirs says the ship-noise potential for all this traffic worries him when it comes to the whales. “Right now, about 60 percent of the time, there’s no ship within hearing range,” he says. “But if you put a couple thousand more ships per year in there, it seems to me you’ll end up with about 30 percent of the time...that the whales are able to communicate without interference from vessel noise.”
At the time I put the piece together, the conventional wisdom among whale scientists (including those at NOAA/NMFS, who I queried regarding the issue) was that whale-watching tour boats were a bigger problem for whales, because the frequencies of noise they created were more in the zone used by orcas and dolphins, whereas big ships created lower-frequency noise that was less likely to interfere.

Now, there is further research to corroborate Veirs' views:

Marla Holt, a research biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, has found that loud boat noise forces endangered orcas to raise the volume of their calls.

But the question, Holt says, is "so what? What are the biological consequences of them doing this?”
To answer that question, Holt and her NOAA colleague, Dawn Noren, a research fishery biologist, studied captive bottlenose dolphins.

They had the dolphin swim into a floating plastic helmet device and whistle at a normal level for two minutes. Then they rewarded the dolphin with fish. The device measured how much oxygen the dolphin used to accomplish that task.

Here's the dolphin whistling at a normal level (audio).

Then by knowing oxygen consumption, the scientists calculated the metabolic rate of the dolphin while making calls at a comfortable level.

Next, they had the dolphin whistle more loudly for two minutes (audio).

Holt and Noren found that when the dolphin was whistling harder and louder its metabolic rate rose by up to 80 percent above normal resting levels.

Just like with humans, when marine mammals' metabolism goes up, they burn more calories. Dawn Noren calculates that a dolphin making the louder call for two minutes would burn the same amount of calories it would get from eating half of a small fish.
These studies mainly looked at vocalizations, which appear to be the main way that orcas communicate. But even more important is the effect on their echolocation sense, which is fundamental to their ability to hunt prey. As Veirs explained it to me, some of this is just the sheer physics involved: When the volume of noise is that high, the amount of loss in the signal return from an echolocation click can be enough to render their ability to see underwater almost useless.

The studies also did not distinguish between noise from whale-watching boats and from large freighters. But what Veirs told me was that while the whale-boat noise could be intense, and it made a significant contribution to the problem, the biggest and most constant contributor to background noise, by far, was large shipping vessels.

My own experience corroborated what Val Veirs was saying. I own a hydrophone (thank you, Cetacean Research Technology) that I take kayaking with me, and I drop it in whenever whales are present (and sometimes even when they are not, just to see if I can catch any sound of them from a distance), and I've been using it for a number of years. That experience has made it clear to me that large vessel noise is far, far more likely to disrupt and disturb orca communication. After awhile you have to take the headphones off for some ships because they throw up such a racket. 

[You don't need to go out in a kayak to experience this for yourself. You can listen to the stationary hydrophones at Veirs' observatory overlooking Haro Strait at the Orcasound link here -- or to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse hydrophone at the same website. Even if it's quiet when you start it up, leave it on for awhile and a ship will come by,]

It seemed obvious to me that the sheer volume issue alone was going to interfere with orcas' abilities to get clear signals back from their echolocation clicks. The volume of large-vessel noise was much more intense, and much, much more sustained.  

And indeed, I have heard orcas shut up when big ships were present, and start vocalizing again when their noise went away. An example of this occurred the same summer I was out gathering some of the material for the Seattle article, and I described it there:
In calm seas off the west side of San Juan Island, my kayak bobs gently in a kelp bed. In the water about a quarter-mile distance from me, orcas mill and frolic, most likely hunting their favorite chinook salmon. I drop my hydrophone (an underwater microphone) into the water to listen to their distinct calls.

A low clanging—whang, whang, whang—fills my headphones. It is the steady and overpowering sound of a cargo ship, one of the regular features of underwater life in the San Juan Islands’ Haro Strait.

At first, a quick scan of the horizon doesn’t reveal the source of the noise. Finally, I spot it: A lone log-bearing ship heads out to the open sea around the very southern tip of Vancouver Island. Whang, whang, whang. It is at least nine miles away.

Finally, the ship rounds the bend, and the sea quiets for just a moment before the orcas’ distinct whistles, grunts and rat-a-tat-tat-tats fill the water. These are J pod whales from the Salish Sea’s famous and endangered Southern Resident orcas, and they are making the well-known calls known as “S1.”

Seemingly energized, the whales head toward my kelp bed and surround it, chatting loudly and rolling in the kelp. It crackles and pops underwater as the orcas rip up fronds while “kelping” themselves, something the Southern Residents are fond of doing, apparently for the massaging effect.
I recorded the whole event, which I've embedded below. This is the whole 24-minute recording. Now, I recommend using this file non-passively: trust me, you will want to skip over the clanging ship noise, which dominates the first five minutes. But I've included it here so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about regarding the incessant and pervasive quality of the noise from big ships. Once you get a taste of that, skip forward to about the 5:00 mark and you'll hear the orcas -- which had been milling off a rocky point, well within my view but not uttering a peep the whole time -- chirp up as soon as the ship noise fades away.

One of the fun things about this encounter was that I was indeed in a kelp bed, so when the orcas came by, I was well out of their way (you can hear me making some ungodly noise in a few spots on the recording as I repositioned myself into the middle of the kelp). What I also didn't realize is the amount of tearing and breaking of the kelp fronds that occurs when orcas "kelp" themselves, as they were doing here. That's all the crackling and popping you hear amid the vocalizations.

Here's a somewhat more pleasant version, with the extraneous ship noise and some of the silent spaces and paddling/repositioning noises edited out. This is the one you want to just hit "play" on:

The larger and more significant takeaway from this is that scientists should probably take a longer look at the effects of large ship noise, and begin thinking about ways to mediate that. Considering the amount of money that we're seeing go up and down Haro Strait, we have to know that making any changes there is going to be an uphill battle. But it may prove to be an important component of recovering this endangered population.

Mother of Simcox’s Alleged Victim Recounts Nightmare Scenario in the Court System

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Ever since that night in May 2013 when her daughter told her that her friend’s daddy – the seemingly ordinary guy who hung out with the kids in the neighborhood, but who turned out to be former “Minutemen” leader Chris Simcox – had molested her the previous February, Michelle Lynch’s world has been an endless limbo of uncertainty while wrestling with her daughter’s pain.

It’s a feeling, she says, that has only been worsened by her experiences with the court system as she awaits the day when Simcox will stand trial more than two years after the event.

Lynch says her daughter, now seven, was a happy and well-adjusted little girl before that night in 2013.

“Before this event, [she] fell asleep with no problems and slept through the night,” explained Lynch in a letter to the trial judge, Superior Court Judge Jose Padilla. “She was very trusting; any complaints of feeling sick were far and few between and were due to true illnesses, and she was only emotional/angry when the time was ‘right,’ which was determined by your typical 7-year-­old child.

“She now has nightmares and does not fall asleep without complaining of her stomach hurting. She also complains of being ‘sick’ when I have to leave her. She does not sleep through the night and most nights she finds her way into my room, even though she has her own room and bed. She worries about the doors being locked and asks over and over if they have been secured.”

In her letter, Lynch went on to describe a litany of changed emotional behavior, including “extreme sensitivity” and frequent crying, as well as extreme anger and occasional hitting. She described what should have been a fun trip to Disneyland transformed into a series of panic attacks.

“I realize that nightmares and separation anxiety may be typical of a young child’s behavior and that many children will exhibit periods of emotional sensitivity and anger; these behaviors were never existent in [my daughter] prior to this happening to her,” she explained.

Lynch wrote her letter because she faces the horrifying prospect of having her daughter be cross-examined by Simcox himself, a prospect that very nearly became a reality when Padilla approved Simcox’s request to represent himself at his trial. Late last week, the Arizona Supreme Court intervened.

Lynch wrote the letter in March, hoping to persuade Padilla to agree to a prosecution request that Simcox be required to only cross-examine the girls through a court-appointed associate attorney.

“Her father and I continually do our best to help [the girl] through all of this by providing her with comfort, consistency, and other avenues that encourage her to work through this in a positive manner to where her daily life isn’t effected,” Lynch wrote. “Allowing Mr. Simcox the ability to address my daughter, I fear, will only set [her] back in her healing and quite possibly exacerbate her symptoms and anxiety/panic attacks.”

However, Padilla ruled in Simcox’s favor, telling Lynch and the other mother in the case that their letters did not constitute evidence that the girls would be traumatized: “With all due respect,” he said, “[the mothers] are simply not qualified to make that assessment.”

That ruling, and the subsequent decision by the state appeals court to allow the trial to proceed even as it considered the legal propriety of allowing a pro se defendant to cross-examine his alleged victim, was in many ways a culmination of Lynch’s nightmarish experience with the court system since Simcox’s arrest.

In interviews with Hatewatch, Lynch has described feeling “left hung out to dry” by both the judge and the prosecutors in the case. She’s especially harsh in her assessment of the performance of the county’s victims’ rights advocates unit, which she says “has just not done their job.”

At one point, Lynch became furious with prosecutors when Simcox was offered a plea bargain that would let him out of prison after 10 years, in exchange for not forcing the girls to testify. However, Simcox himself dismissed the offer, and it was eventually taken off the table.

Lynch was also outraged at the way evidence was handled in the case, particularly the fact that Phoenix detectives failed to seized Simcox’s computer – the one on which he allegedly showed Lynch’s daughter pornography. Prosecutors reportedly explained it away by saying that he was only watching adult porn, a legal activity, on the computer, and so no search warrant for it was ever issued.

Lynch described feeling abandoned by the system. “Over the whole two-year process, victims’ rights in general have just not been followed,” she said. “I’ve gotten more information from reporters and television than I’ve even had with my own victim’s advocate. And I do all the reaching out to them, they never reach out to me.

“My daughter has only met her two times, for a maximum of two hours. So Padilla wants the victim’s advocate to be up on the stand with my daughter, but that’s a stranger too. So you want a stranger to sit with my daughter so that a man who has hurt her can question her. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“You know, she’s not going to want to reach for somebody she doesn’t know, while somebody she does know who hurt her gets to talk to her.”

Lynch did, however, credit Phoenix New Times reporter Stephen Lemons with keeping her informed on the case, saying Lemons texted her with vital updates on the various court rulings and had apprised her of other developments in the trial as they occurred. At other times, she said, she was informed through the social media grapevine.

“I found out about Chris representing himself two weeks after it was filed and approved, through a television news picture that my boyfriend sent me,” she said. “I had a panic attack at work, because nobody had told me about it.

“I went on the county website and found that it was all there, but no one had given me a heads up,” she added. “I should have gotten a phone call the day that he filed to represent himself. I shouldn’t have to do all of that work. I shouldn’t have to become my own legal aide.”

The most difficult part, she says, has been helping her daughter – who gets counseling weekly – heal from her trauma.

“It’s definitely no fun,” she said. She described the recent upheaval in the case as especially trying, since her daughter had not yet been told that Simcox would be asking them questions.

Her daughter was shocked. “She was hysterical. She started crying. She didn’t want to talk to him, and she cried herself to sleep in the car. And then it was an hour later that the advocate texted me and said there was nothing going to happen on Thursday and the judge was going to wait until Monday. So after all that I had to go in and tell her it wasn’t going to happen.”

She is elated that Phoenix attorney Jack Wilenchik (who had been referred to her by Lemons) was able to stop the train wreck from happening, at least for now, by persuading Arizona Supreme Court Justice John Pelander that, in the words of his petition, “if the court allows the child victim to be subject to cross-examination by her abuser, then the victim’s constitutional right [under the Arizona Constitution] to be free from harassment and intimidation will be permanently violated.”

“It’s been really, really difficult,” Lynch said. “I honestly am pleased about the delay, because it’s about making sure that my daughter doesn’t suffer more trauma than what she has been going through."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why SeaWorld's Ads Claiming 'Our Whales Live as Long As They Do in the Wild' Are False

J2, aka 'Granny, estimated to be over 100 years old, plays in the kelp
A lot of my non-dorca friends have been remarking about how frequently they have been seeing the SeaWorld counteroffensive to the #Blackfish Effect on their teevee sets these days, especially on sports and news programs.

What they mostly remark on, in fact, is just how utterly insincere the people they are putting onscreen are coming off. "There are people who believe the crap that Sea World says," says my friend Michael Rogers. "The people in the ad are not two of them."

That's just the tell, though. If you dig into the factual content of these ads, what you'll discover is that they are deeply misleading, bordering on the outrageous.

See for yourself. Here's the most frequently seen ad, featuring a SeaWorld veterinarian and the company's animal-rescues chief, Pedro Ramos-Navarrete (which is kind of weird, considering that SeaWorld has never rescued an orca nor does it support people such as New Zealand orca scientist Ingrid Visser, who actually is engaged in orca-rescue work).

You'll notice that Ramos-Navarrete says the following:

"And government research shows they live just as long as whales in the wild!"

This, over a text that reads:

"Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity." -- Wall Street Journal

Note the little sleight of hand there? The first statement actually describes longevity -- how long the whales live. The second statement in fact is about survival rates -- that is, the likelihood of a whale surviving any given year. These are completely different things.

Then there's the longer SeaWorld propaganda ad addressing the same topic, appended to the above video. It features Chris Dold, SeaWorld's head veterinarian, holding forth to a confused member of the Twitter public, deriding their critics' claims that SeaWorld whales don't live as long in captivity as "false":

You don't need to take our word for it. Some of the best marine mammal researchers in the world work for the federal government at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. You know what they found? That killer whales that live at SeaWorld live just as long as killer whales in the wild. One of the authors of that report told the Wall Street Journal, "Survival in the wild is comparable to survival in captivity."
You'll note that it indulges the same sleight of hand -- assuming that people will believe that survival rates determine how long a whale lives. But they are completely separate measures.

SeaWorld's claim, you see, rests entirely on the work of Alaska scientist Doug DeMaster, who has been compiling statistics on annual survival rates. These are handy numbers and probably give us an accurate picture of the likelihood of any given orca surviving the year, both in the wild and in captivity.

Back in 1995, DeMaster and his partner found that there was a significant difference in those rates between orcas in captivity and those in the wild, favoring wild orcas by a large percentage (as differences in these rates go). But by 2013, he explained to Politifact, he had found their annual survivorship rates to be comparable. That's the study cited in the WSHJ piece as well.

But what SeaWorld isn't telling you is that there's a caveat to DeMaster's observation, and it's a big one:
"[A]s long as you use data from 2005 to 2013."
That's an eight-year data sample to assess how likely an orca is to survive in an institution that has been in operation for over fifty. In statistics, that's what we call a "skewed sample", or more precisely, an "inadequate sample.

That's SeaWorld saying, "Hey, we may have been insanely awful in how we handled orcas before, but we've been doing much, much better the last eight years!"

More to the point, annual survivor rates won't tell you how long the animals will live -- which is, of course, exactly what both Dold and Ramos-Navarette were claiming. All that number gives you is a kind of snapshot of the current health of the population, how likely their animals are to live through the year. If you want to know how long the animals will live, you need to look up longevity statistics.

Now, let's be specific: We don't really have a complete longevity picture for the orcas in SeaWorld's care, in part because they have only been in business for a little over fifty years now, and orcas in the wild (particularly females) are known to live often into their eighties, and even beyond. Atop the post, you'll see my 2013 shot of Granny, the matriarch of the Southern Residents' J clan orcas who is believed to be over 100 years old (though her age is in fact an estimate).

A whale whose age we know a little better is this one: L-25, believed to be about 85. She is also believed to be the mother of Lolita, the L-pod female who has been held captive at the Miami Seaquarium for the past 45 years and counting.

The oldest SeaWorld orca, by contrast, is the female Northern Resident orca Corky, who was captured as a 2-year-old calf from the A5 pod, whose whereabouts remain well known (though in fact her mother has since passed away). She is 47 years old.

The next oldest are the Icelandic orca females captured on the same day in 1978, Katina and Kasatka, who are estimated to be 39 and 38 years old, respectively. The oldest male in the collection, Ulises (another Icelandic capture) is 37.

Those are, however, the outliers when it comes to longevity at SeaWorld to date. The bottom line is much more grim.

As Naomi Rose has explained in detail, SeaWorld is even distorting the annual-survival-rate (ASR) data, which still does not favor SeaWorld:
However, the most recently presented ASR – not peer-reviewed, but presented at a scientific conference (Innes et al. in prep – this is for the period 2005-2013) – calculated from captive killer whale data in the Marine Mammal Inventory Report is lower, at 0.983, than the Alaskan ASR for both sexes aged 1.5-2.5 (0.997), females aged 15-19 (0.996), both sexes aged 10.5-14.5 (0.992), both sexes aged 3.5-5.5 (0.991), females aged 25-29 (0.990), both sexes aged 6.5-9.5 (0.989), females aged 20-24 (0.987), and even males aged 15-19 (0.986). It is higher than all other age classes (mixed and single sex) in Alaska. The Matkin et al. paper did not calculate an overall ASR, so none of these comparisons (a mixed age/mixed sex group vs. a specific age/sex class) is actually valid. Regardless, they are not similar. (Note: the MMIR ASR for the decade 1995-2004 was 0.968, lower than most of the Alaskan values.)
Meanwhile, as she notes, the average life expectancy for wild orcas is “around 50-90 years for females and 30-70 years for males."

So what does it look like for SeaWorld orcas?

I've compiled a database of SeaWorld orcas, living and dead, wild- and captive-born. I've specifically left out other marine parks' orcas from the database, given that the record there is downright horrific, particularly during the 1960s and '70s, and granting SeaWorld's argument that its superior care should not be tainted by what occurs in other parks. Nor does it include the many calves who died stillborn.

Here's the final tally:
-- Over the years (since 1965, beginning with the first Shamu), SeaWorld has possessed a total of 66 live killer whales. Of those, 29 are still alive. Shamu died after six years in captivity, a victim of SeaWorld's dubious breeding program.

    -- Wild-born captives have both fared the worst and lived the longest. Of the 32 wild-born orcas in their collection, only six remain alive. Those six, as noted above, are also SeaWorld's longest-lived orcas. The average age of death for wild whales at the park is 14.5 years.
    -- The average length of captivity of all of SeaWorld's wild whales, including those still alive, is 15.375 years. And the average longevity for all 66 of SeaWorld's whales tallies out at 14.03 years. For males, the average longevity of all orcas living and dead is 14.78 years; for females, it is even lower, at 13.92 years (the reverse of what occurs in the wild, where females enjoy much longer average lifespans).

-- Captive-born orcas have been a mixed bag. Of the 37 who have survived infancy, 11 have died. Those deceased orcas have averaged 9.8 years alive. Of the 26 remaining in SeaWorld's collection, the oldest -- Orkid and Kayla -- are 27 years old. The average age of all their current captive-born orcas is 14.1 years (the number drops to 12.76 if deceased captive-born orcas are factored in).
In other words, it should be obvious that captive wild killer whales have not fared well historically at SeaWorld, especially when compared to the wild. There, the Southern Resident killer whale population that founded SeaWorld has, while officially endangered as one of the effects of that capture period, at least maintained relatively stable numbers. In contrast, 81 percent of SeaWorld's wild population has died, all at ages well below what is considered a normal lifespan in the wild.

And while SeaWorld loves to tout its now-increased standards of veterinary care and husbandry as the reason for arguing "Hey, we've done lots better in the last eight years!", there really is no guarantee that these short-term gains of the recent past will translate into actual longevity for the orcas, including those born in captivity.

They still are subject to the extreme stresses caused by their sterile and extremely limited environment and the obliteration of orca-society norms that they have been wired for over millions of years. They still lead the lives of slaves. There's no doubt the company has light years to go before it can even come close to replicating the complexity of environment and surroundings, as well as the multiple layers of orca social organization, that they can experience in wild waters, even if (in the case of the captive-born whales and damaged goods like Tilikum) that only means life in a seapen similar to Keiko's.

I've always felt the real bottom line for orca captivity lies in the complete history of the affair, and as I note in Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us
Study after study has demonstrated that whales in captivity are more than two and a half times more likely to die than whales in the wild. All the care in the world cannot compensate for the stress brought on by placing a large, highly mobile, highly intelligent, and highly social animal with a complex life into a small concrete tank.

Of the 136 orcas taken in captivity from the wild over the years, only 13 still survive. The average lifespan in captivity so far is about eight and a half years. In the wild, the average rises to thirty-one years for males and forty-six for females. Then there is the upper end of the spectrum. In the wild, males will live up to sixty years, and in the Puget Sound, there is a matriarchal female named Granny who is believed to be a hundred years old.
And let's remember one last stark number: Of the 55 whales the SeaWorld and other marine parks removed from the Southern and Northern Resident populations from 1964-1976, exactly two remain alive. One is at SeaWorld: Corky. And the only surviving Southern Resident is Lolita. She's not even in SeaWorld's collection.

Full database here.