Dolphins in Captivity
- Arguments for Captivity
- Arguments against Captivity
One of the more controversial issues surrounding the relationship between
humans and dolphins is whether maintaining dolphins and other cetaceans in
captivity is just. There are currently nearly 3000 bottlenose dolphins kept in
captivity across the world, along with hundreds of pilot whales, spotted
dolphins, and orcas, as well as smaller numbers of common dolphins, Amazon
River dolphins, false killer whales, Baiji, and others.
Humans started keeping cetaceans in captivity in the 1870s, when aquariums
would put on display animals that had stranded but were saved before they
died. It was not until the late 1930s that modern training methods began. A
Hollywood film company known as Marine Studios set up a marine tank in
Florida for the purpose of filming dolphins in movies. The dolphins in
captivity there soon became a major tourist attraction. One of the curators
of the facility took up the job of training the dolphins, and found the task
quite easy. The success of this facility spurred on the development of new
oceanariums all over the world in the 1940s and 1950s.
Arguments for Captivity
Arguably, the greatest benefit to holding dolphins in captivity is public
awareness. Very few have the opportunity to see dolphins in the wild,
but hundreds of millions of people see whales and dolphins in captivity each
year in the United States alone. For the conservation of any species to be
successful, public awareness is a necessity. For example, orcas, once
considered competitors to fishermen, were shot and maimed indiscriminantly
before they were kept in captivity. In 1964 and 1965, the first orcas were
captured in maintained in captivity, leading to greater popular interest. Soon
thereafter, boat trips into the wild started, and the public started showing
support for conservation. Now, both the United States and Canada have passed
laws protecting orcas.
A great deal of interest has developed in the conservationalist community
about the possibility of using captive breeding to sustain populations that
would otherwise be endangered or eliminated by various artificial threats.
Several successful births of cetaceans have been delivered in captivity,
primarily of bottlenose dolphins and killer whales. The improved facilities
that have come about from years of research have made captive breeding far
more feasible. It may be possible in the future to create a self-sustaining
captive population. In 1979, only 18% of captive bottlenose dolphins were
born in captivity, but by 1983, the figure had risen to 32%. There are even
cases of three successive generations in captivity.
Without maintaining dolphins in captivity, society would not have nearly
the same capacity to perform research, and its knowledge of these creatures
would be far diminished. Accurate information on breeding behavior and
reproductive cycle, needed for reliable population estimates of wild stocks,
cannot be realized without studies of dolphins in captivity. Valuable
information has also been collected on the senses, including echolocation,
taste, and smell, as well as social integration. Data collected from studies
in captivity tends to be very detailed, while information on wild specimens is
far more sketchy.
Many people who oppose dolphins in captivity feel that forcing individuals
to perform in front of audiences is degrading and humiliating. However,
dolphins are naturally gregarious animals who appreciate applause and
enthusiasm. Many behaviors shown in performances have natural analogs.
For example, throwing a ball with one's tail differs negligibly from kicking a
jellyfish out of the water, a behavior pattern known as Medusa tossing.
Critics argue that whether or not these are natural displays, forcing
dolphins to exhibit these behaviors is inethical.
Arguments against Captivity
Opponents of cetaceans in captivity criticise the accuracy of research
projects. Dolphins in the wild are free-ranging and can easily move from one
group to another. In captivity, a dolphin is limited to its tankmates and
aquarium, so the results of certain experiments may be tainted. As different
species have different social structures and ranging habits, some species may
be more affected by this phenomenon than others. In addition, the study of
echolocation in captivity is encumbered because the concentration of sounds may
cause some dolphins to go deaf. In the wild, sounds are likely to be softer
and to make more efficient use of bandwidth. Such difficulties do highlight
the need for research on wild dolphins.
Critics also argue that the creation of self-sustaining captive populations
results in their inability to survive once released into the wild. Often those
animals acclimated to the dead fish and meat that trainers feed them refuse to
eat live fish both before and after their release. Some voluntarily return to
their captive pen if they encounter a school of animals with which they are
not familiar. Others who attempt to join schools to which they are not
related are attacked. There is evidence that the natural mortality rate of
released cetaceans is very high, on the order of 15%. One might equally
suggest that this is a reason not to release captive cetaceans and that no
cetaceans should be kept in captivity in the first place.
Individuals in captivity suffer from boredom, inadequate exercise,
insufficient food variety, and bad food, especially when the facilities are
poor. In some areas, live capture actually reduces the local population.
In some areas, there is a 71% removal of the local population, which is not
considered sustainable. The United States Marine Mammal Protection Act in
1972 slowed both domestic and international trade. There is concern that
premature death and lack of breeding may lead to an increased demand for live
captured individuals, leading to an overexploitation of local populations.
Ellis, Richard. Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Alfred & Knopf, Inc., 1982.
Harrison, Sir Richard, et. al. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1994.