Captive Dolphins, Spoiled – Wild Dolphins, Suffering?


” 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

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5 thoughts on “Captive Dolphins, Spoiled – Wild Dolphins, Suffering?

  1. I would say that they are still surviving, although I’m not out-ruling your sentiments. Since they do have unique brain attributes from other animals, their alleged pleasure sex is more than likely connected to that and not due to what you consider ‘thriving’, as though animals who do not have pleasure sex are merely surviving. This is just an attribute of that particular animal for whatever evolutionary reason, and, I don’t see why they can’t engage in these behaviors in captivity. In fact they do. And I’m also in no way suggesting that this is a ‘fair’ trade off, but that they can still have a ‘reasonable’ existence in captivity. I say this because non-humans do not have rights, and cannot choose what they want over human desire (I am highly aware of the proposed movements to try and change this). But I do believe in animal welfare and do not accept cruelty in captive conditions. I’d say that the animals appear to possess vitality in the proper conditions and are not suffering.
    I still don’t see how you’ve refuted my original proposition that wild dolphins ‘need’ toys, as you claim that they enjoy using ‘toys’ in the wild. Toys in captivity are just a surrogate of the stimulation that they would receive in the wild from oceanic elements, and it is also necessary because they are not preoccupied with hunting for survival. I’d probably guess that if a dolphin had the choice, it would choose freedom, but who can really know? I’d say that until the animal can communicate that to us, it cannot possess ‘rights’.

    • I don’t believe that animals that don’t have pleasure sex are merely surviving. My goal in this was to point out that dolphins do not spend all their time hunting, battling their environment, struggling for survivial, etc.
      I’m not sure what you mean when you mention the “toys,” I think I’m missing something.
      The rest of your response will have to be settled with agreeing to disagree as I clearly have a very different view in terms of animal rights and welfare.

  2. “If captivity is so stimulating, why do the animals have to be given supplemental toys to play with?”

    Environmental enrichment is -part- of captivity for any intelligent animal and is essential to proper husbandry just as much as nutrition is. I doubt anyone is making the claim that you simply need to fill the tank with water and add food to keep a perfectly enriched dolphin. No other animals, including dogs, would enjoy that existence. Wild animals cannot afford to be truly “bored”. That doesn’t mean that boredom is good, but that it is not possible when you are constantly trying to stay alive. It is very stimulating to survive in the wild. That doesn’t necessarily mean that animals ‘enjoy’ it, they just do it. It’s how they evolved and that’s why they continue to exist. Clearly in a captive environment, the conditions change. There are positive and negatives to each situation. Animals are no longer in danger of predation or in charge of feeding themselves, but they need a source of mental activity, whether or not it is ‘desired’. Wild dolphins do not necessarily choose their own enrichment, as you describe. Nature decides what will be available at the specific time and location. Perhaps ‘boredom’ in the wild prompts dolphins to play in ways that you describe.

    It is an essential part of the environmental enrichment process to rotate toys so that it does not become routine. Their training sessions and toys should be controlled by the caretakers. Animals do not ‘consciously’ enrich themselves in the wild, but they do, as you have said, explore elements of their environment when not hunting. The toys may not be ‘rocks’ and ‘kelp’ (this also contradicts your claim that they do not ‘need’ toys, as these objects in the wild are the same exact concept), but the toys provide the same benefit. Either way, husbandry is a science. Dolphins may die for many reasons as they do in the wild, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been ‘bored to death’. Some (bottle-nose) dolphins have exceeded the natural wildlife span in captivity by a large amount. In addition, they provide a far more substantial opportunity for research than with free-ranging dolphins.

    • “That doesn’t mean that boredom is good, but that it is not possible when you are constantly trying to stay alive…It is very stimulating to survive in the wild. That doesn’t necessarily mean that animals ‘enjoy’ it, they just do it. It’s how they evolved and that’s why they continue to exist.”

      I believe I already addressed this notion in this blog post (perhaps it was a different one.) The majority of the world’s dolphins are not in a constant battle to stay alive or risk dying tomorrow. One indication of this is the fact that much of their time is spent having sex for pleasure, or simply socializing, playing and enjoying each other’s company. When an animal engages in such luxuries, you can deduce that they are not merely “surviving,” but are thriving. And why not? As you said, dolphins are experts at what they do. It doesn’t take much work for them to live in their natural environment, that is where they have been evolving for millions of years – not in tanks. (I also read somewhere – I believe it was in a Smithsonian ‘Whales and Dolphins’ book – that dolphins generally spend about 20% of their time hunting. I’ll have to get you a source if I can find it.)

      “There are positive and negatives to each situation. Animals are no longer in danger of predation or in charge of feeding themselves.” These are the only two benefits to the animals I think anyone can name for captivity (and one of them – predation – doesn’t apply to killer whales.) The problem is, the animals are denied their freedom, decision making-skills, natural lifestyle, control over their own breeding and social structure, in most cases – a long and healthy life, even their own families, etc. etc…all for the benefit of dead fish handouts and possible protection from predators. Is that a fair trade-off? Of course not.

      “Nature decides what will be available at the specific time and location.” Wild dolphins are free to travel wherever they wish, though many of them tend to reside in one general area. Wild dolphins do not NEED toys, and certainly not in the same way that captive dolphins need them. Wild dolphins do explore their own environment or play on their own, if, when, and with whatever they choose.

  3. Two things How long a whale lasts in captivity depends on the animals age at capture and his personality – also on the trainer. You have to be able to challenge them, to know how their minds work. The mark of a good trainer – to too many aquarium owners – is how many tricks you can train them to do in two months. That’s not the point. It’s how long you can maintain the whales sanity….

    But you take juvenile orcas: they’re really pretty eager for at least a year, after that, if you can keep them interested…But it’s difficult because the novelty wears off. – But they’re curious enough and interested enough that they wont be driven neurotic in a year. Based on the whales I worked with at Sealand and at the Vancouver Aquarium and the ones I’ve observed in the Californian Aquariums, They all start to get a little bit nutty after two years.” – Graeme Ellis.

    No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea. And no dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal.”
    Jacques Yves Cousteau

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