• Share to Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Email
    • Print

Do Marine Mammals Belong in Captivity in the 21st Century?

Capture, confinement, and transport of whales and dolphins is cruel and unnecessary

The Humane Society of the United States

At the turn of the last century, showmen like P.T. Barnum exhibited exotic and "freakish" animals for the amusement and amazement of their customers. Barnum displayed the first captive whale, in fact—a beluga whale from the Arctic. The animal, held in a small box filled with water as a sideshow at Barnum's circus, lived only a few months. But the idea caught on, and by the end of the century, trained whales and dolphins, leaping and spinning to entertain wide-eyed spectators, were on display in dolphinaria from Belgium to South Africa and from the United States to Japan.

In the last 100 years, the global community has made significant progress on the issue of animal cruelty. There are anti-cruelty and humane slaughter laws in many countries now. Yet the practice of keeping whales and dolphins in water-filled boxes, started by a huckster who callously exploited animals for profit, persists. The boxes are bigger. The water is cleaner. The food is better. The training methods are kinder. But the concept—capturing intelligent, socially complex, wide-ranging animals from the wild and confining them for the public's amusement and amazement—is basically the same.

In Barnum's day, profit alone justified the capture and confinement of whales and dolphins. In the 1960s, with the popularity of the television program Flipper and the rise of the environmental movement, the public learned that whales and dolphins were intelligent and social creatures. People became uncomfortable with dolphinaria whose sole motive was entertainment and profit. The dolphinarium industry had to come up with a better raison d'être. The themes of education and conservation had great potential to justify the continuation of what was, in essence, an archaic and exploitative practice. Unfortunately, the public's love affair with these graceful and intriguing ocean mammals is so intense that people seem reluctant to look beyond the glossy surface of the new philosophy to the unchanged reality beneath.

Most captive whales and dolphins have been captured from the wild. Breeding these species in captivity has been largely a hit-and-miss affair. Only the orca and the bottlenose dolphin have been bred with any significant success. Some species have had only a few successful births, while others are no longer held in captivity because they simply did not survive when confined. However, despite their relative breeding success, orcas and bottlenose dolphins do not have self-sustaining captive populations. Both species are still captured from the wild, especially when dolphinaria in the developing world need to increase their "collections."

Capture is a violent affair. Animals are herded toward shore into shallow water, or chased by catcher boats. When driving the animals to shore, capture operators ruthlessly separate juveniles (those still swimming with their mothers but no longer dependent on milk) from frantic females, truss them in a sling, and carry them from the water to a transport vehicle. When chasing animals, capture operators either encircle them with nets or use specially designed lassoes on bow-riding individuals, before dragging them on board. In Canada, men actually jump on the backs of belugas in shallow water and "ride" them to exhaustion in a traumatic "rodeo." The trauma is real; in an analysis of a U.S. government-maintained database, researchers found that mortality rates for bottlenose dolphins shoot up six-fold immediately after a capture. The rate only drops back down after about 35 to 45 days.

Most disturbingly, this spike in mortality occurs every time dolphins are transported. Each time they are confined and shipped from one place to another, it is as traumatic as if they were being newly captured from the wild. The experience of being removed from water and restrained is apparently so stressful to dolphins that they never find it routine. This is in marked contrast to other wild mammals (including other marine mammals such as sea lions), who eventually acclimate to the transport process.

Captive dolphin husbandry has apparently improved over the years, again based on analyses of this U.S. database. As noted above, bigger tanks, better water quality, and healthier food, as well as some progress in veterinary medicine, have allowed captive dolphins to live longer in captivity. In "the old days," captive dolphins rarely lived more than a few years. The dolphinaria industry calls this improvement a "learning curve," a phrase that obscures the fact that animals died prematurely for decades while people figured out how to care for them.

In the last dozen years or so, captive dolphins began living about as long as their wild counterparts. Given that dolphinaria emphasize that their captives are safe from predators and pollution, receive regular veterinary care, and do not suffer from food shortages, the failure of captive dolphins to routinely live longer than wild dolphins is significant. Many wildlife species live longer in zoos—they have greater quantity of life, regardless of quality of life. This is especially true of prey species who, despite their confinement in cages or pens, at least are spared from becoming a predator's lunch. However, captive bottlenose dolphins live as long as their wild cousins, but not longer. Orcas live significantly shorter lives in captivity. If sharks, habitat degradation, and starvation do not kill captive dolphins, what does?

Dolphinaria cannot have it both ways—either captivity is safer than the wild (therefore captive dolphins should routinely live longer than wild dolphins) or there are factors acting on captive dolphins that simply replace causes of mortality found in the natural environment. One possible factor is stress, suggested by the number of captive dolphins who die of infections (stress is known to lower immune response in many mammals, including humans). Dolphin medicine is still relatively primitive; dolphins, with their perpetual smiles, often do not exhibit recognizable symptoms of illness, such as lost appetite, until they are near death. Veterinary care may thus be a poor exchange for natural habitat when it comes to maintaining dolphin health.

There is a movement in the animal-protection community urging dolphinaria to return captive whales and dolphins to the wild. Some individuals are not good candidates for release—they are injured, chronically ill, very old, or simply too timid in personality. But others could probably survive, and survive well, if allowed to once again become self-sufficient. The dolphinaria industry strongly opposes this movement. Since several species of endangered wildlife have been successfully reintroduced to the wild, this opposition seems to arise more from economic than conservation concerns. In voicing their opposition, dolphinaria frequently claim that captive dolphins are like domesticated dogs (implying that "abandoning" them would be cruel) and that natural habitats are so degraded that dolphins are better off in human care.

Whales and dolphins are not domesticated. They are naturally benign toward people, a characteristic ruthlessly exploited by P.T. Barnum's entrepreneurial descendants. But they have not been selectively bred for generations to become dependent on humans. With proper and careful rehabilitation, many wild-caught captive whales and dolphins could undoubtedly relearn the survival skills they were taught as calves, no matter how long they have been held in captivity. Captivity dulls their independence but does not necessarily destroy it.

As for claiming that releasing wildlife into degraded habitat is cruel, this is hardly a good conservation message. Many people might feel that saving the natural environment is hopeless or beside the point after hearing such a message. They might think that the only safe place for dolphins (or any other wildlife) is in captivity. With such an attitude, habitat degradation will merely continue, with more populations of whales and dolphins put at risk of extinction. The solution to habitat degradation is to clean up the habitat, not remove wildlife from it. Zoos and aquaria are not Noah's Ark—such a concept is unrealistic and dangerously counterproductive to effective conservation.

The world should not enter the 21st century clinging to archaic 20th century practices. We should shed the mantle of the exploitative and greedy sideshow barker and recognize that teaching whales and dolphins to perform tricks does not showcase their abilities—it exploits them. These circus acts are not educational—they are entertainment. And out-dated entertainment at that. Dolphins do not belong in captivity in the new century. They belong where they have lived for millennia, in the ocean, where their continued presence will motivate us to protect them.

External Link: The Killer in the Pool (Outside Magazine)

Button reading donate now