“ If you look at the wild and look at the captive animals, which seem better fed and stimulated to you? Living in the wild is not freedom and daisies like you’re thinking, it’s tough, cruel, and relies heavily on dumb luck. Those animals in captivity probably eat and sleep better than their keepers do. Given the choice between ease and struggle, I can bet you they’d rather be sittin’ pretty with their balanced diet and toys.”
“Do you know that dolphins swim many miles a day NOT for fun, but because of desperate attempt to find some fish for eating? *facepalm* it is a fight for survival, not any, ‘hey, bro dolphin, let’s swim 100 Km for fun right now, ok?’” [sic]
Marine parks and marine park fans often paint a false picture of captivity as compared with the wild. They would have the public believe that the wild is dark and scary, while captivity is fun and happy. Some pro-caps even suggest that wild cetaceans are a day away from starvation, struggling to survive.
Which lifestyle offers more variety for a cetacean? The ocean or a tank?
In captivity, we often see and hear of “enrichment” or “exercise” sessions for the animals. These sessions consist of giving the animals some sort of toy or stimulus to play with. Rubber balls, floats to lay around on, ice to eat, rocks to scratch against. Many captivity supporters claim that captive animals are spoiled because they get to play with toys (unlike their wild counterparts who have nothing to do but fight for survival.) They may say that the enrichment sessions are fun and help to keep the animals active. And above all they claim the animals are happy that they are in their swimming pools waiting for a trainer to toss them a rubber ball. Happy that they are not experiencing freedom and eploring the vast ocean with their families. Such statements help to put the public’s mind at ease. They are led to believe that captive animals get to clown around with toys and trainers all day.
But this doesn’t put my mind at ease. In fact, there are a few glaring problems with this notion:
- 1. Wild cetaceans live healthy lives without toys or enrichment sessions, and their mental health is not at risk due to boredom. If captivity is so stimulating, why do the animals have to be given supplemental toys to play with? The logical conclusion is that if the animals weren’t in captivity – they wouldn’t need toys. This is one of many expamples of the captivity industry creating a problem and then posing as “heroes” for coming up with a solution.
- 2. Captive animals cannot choose to be “enriched” or stimulated whenever they are bored. They cannot choose which toys they want to play with or which activity they want to engage in. They cannot express their preferences at all. Instead, the trainers get to choose what the animals will do and when they will do it. It helps relieve boredom, but perhaps not at the moments it is most needed. (Kind of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?)
- 3. Toys, playtime, and physical stimulation (rubdowns) are often used as secondary reinforcers for cetaceans. That means that they are rewarded with playtime when they do as the trainers command. To cetaceans, physical and mental stimulation is a basic physiological need and a very important part of their natural lifestyle. But for many captive animals, stimulation is a treat or a reward to be given by humans. In order for training to work, the reward has to be appetitive (desired.) If the animal’s desire is fulfilled, the training will not work. Because the training works, the dolphins must be kept in want for their rewards (food, attention, etc.)
Enrichment sessions were introduced to the captivity industry to prevent animals from becoming bored and exhibiting stereotypic behavior (pattern swimming, pacing, rocking back and forth, head bobbing, etc.) The only relief of boredom for these animals is trainer initiated “enrichment.”
But what about the shows? Don’t they serve as an enrichment? Many captivity supporters will claim that all the shows are different, in the behaviors that the animals do, and the order in which they are executed. This is supposed to mentally stimulate the animals. Yet a closer look into the industry brings a different story to light. The same basic behaviors can be seen in dolphin shows across the world. Breaches, flips, spins, pectoral fin and fluke “waves”, sticking out a tongue, and of course dancing or head shaking. Not much has changed since the first marine mammal shows, and not just on the basic level…
Seaworld’s Shamu show featured a cute little segment that involved the whale being offered one fish and shaking its head “no.” But when the trainer offered the whale a bucket of fish it shakes its head “yes.” This of course, is funny and endearing to the human audience who lets out a few laughs. They have been laughing since (at least) the ’90s at this same trick. The whales are still doing this behavior as they have been for decades. Here is the show in 1997 (the behavior noted is at 2:00.) Here is the behavior done again backstage 10 years later (the behavior noted is at 2:50) Even I saw this little stunt during my trip to SeaWorld just a couple of months ago. So, to say that the shows, and the behaviors the animals do change daily, in order to stimulate the whales is just not accurate seeing as how they have hardly changed at all in the span of decades. If you care to watch the entire 1997 show it is easy to see all of the similarities to the shows that take place today at Shamu Stadium. Even the waterwork behaviors that captivate the hearts of so many Seaworld fans, are nothing new to the whales or trainers.
In the wild, cetaceans have a variety of activities to choose from, and even though none of them involve bouncing a rubber ball, they seem to keep active and healthy; more than that, they thrive. They don’t run risk of exhibiting stereotypic behavior, and they are capable of pursuing their own lifestyle. There are always rocks to scratch against, kelp and sand to play with, other creatures to interact with (especially each other). They appear so contented in controlling their own lives. They play, breach, and have sex just for the fun of it. The joy wild dolphins express is exhilarating. They are truly full of life.
“Of all the animals in the world, dolphins seem most wholeheartedly to enjoy life, to leap and play just for the fun of it. There are few more joyous sights than that of a dolphin rising from the sea into the sky in a burst of iridescent foam.”
While dolphins do spend much of their time playing, they are required need to eat and necessary time is spent fishing by using cooperative techniques and communication as a group. Socialization is continuous throughout the hunt. Once a school of fish is herded against the shore for instance, the school of dolphins may spend the rest of the day playing, exploring and grabbing bites to eat. When food is in abundance they may even be picky, preying only on their favorites. Hunting acts as the dolphin’s occupation, and while they are experts in the field, it is sometimes a challenging and certainly a mentally stimulating activity. Migration may be closely related to food supply, but travel and exploration are part of the daily routine. Dolphins are constantly in motion and can cover a lot of ground, even at their slowest pace.
Which environment is more stimulating for a cetacean? The ocean or a tank?
The vast sea is fluid and ever-changing. Dolphins being naturally curious, spend much of their time exploring and interacting with their world. Dolphins possess areas of the brain that result in enjoyment of aesthetic experiences. Scientists believe that they use this part of their brain to simply enjoy the open sea with its various forms of life, dynamic currents, waves and amazing array of sounds. Dolphins were born to roam and live harmoniously with the seas.
In captivity dolphins are forced to live in an artificial environment (concrete swimming pools, usually painted a reflective light blue) that is generally empty, featureless, stark, and quite small. It takes mere seconds for them to swim from one side to the other. They cannot interact with their environment because there is nothing to interact with. (Engaging with the environment is a factor in animal welfare.) Their entire lives are spent in what amounts to empty boxes. Far from the glorious open sea that they were born to live in.
Who is healthier? The cetacean in the ocean? Or the cetacean in the tank?
Many captivity supporters argue that captive dolphins should be grateful that they are not being harmed by pollution in the ocean. It is true that wild dolphins face threats such as pollution and few predators like sharks. In spite of this, the average life span of cetaceans is greatly reduced in captivity – where they are supposedly safe from the dangers of the scary wild. They often require medication and medical procedures such as endoscopies or pulpotomies and they are almost always housed in the midst of large cities where terrestrial pollution poses a problem. (Perhaps the pollution of the city is associated with the high levels of respritory infections in captive cetaceans, vs. wild cetaceans who live in an open-air system.) Their lives are man-dominated and, for most, will involve invasive, stressful and abusive medical and training methods just to keep them alive and performing their tricks in the cage. Many dolphins also suffer problems due to chemicals in their pool water.
If cetaceans are truly living in the lap of luxury at marine parks, if the wild is truly a dark and scary place…Why do captive cetaceans die sooner and more often than their wild counterparts? Why do captive cetaceans need toys to prevent mental breakdowns from being cooped up in cages? All in all, dolphins are unsuited for captivity. And compared to a life of freedom in the wild, life in a cage is much harsher. Captives may get three meals a day. They may get times of activity (when they are told.) But they are living in cages with no freedom at all. We don’t call that “living like a king,” we call it prison!
“Dolphins belong to the sea and should remain there.” Ric O’Barry