Dolphins - The Oracles of the Sea
Evolution and Taxonomy Behaviour
Anatomy Human and Dolphin
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  • Dolphins in Captivity

    1. Arguments for Captivity
    2. 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.

    Back to Outline 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.

    Back to Outline 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.

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    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.

    Evolution and Taxonomy Behaviour Anatomy Human and Dolphin
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    Modified: 29 August 1998, Created: 21 August 1998
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