Evidence Supports the Anti-Captivity Position


The following is a paper that I have written for one of my classes regarding cetacean captivity and the basics of the marine park controversy including why the evidence supports an anti-captivity position. Enjoy!

Every year millions of people flock to marine parks and aquariums to watch shows featuring killer whales, dolphins, and other cetaceans. Tourists are willing to pay a lot of money to watch these remarkably intelligent creatures perform amazing stunts and tricks. When the public watches cetaceans perform with their funny antics and charming smiles, it is difficult to see that there is a problem. Unfortunately, there are many things that happen behind the scenes of these facilities that are largely unknown to the public. The issues with cetacean captivity are not just issues of the animal’s well-being. Marine park

Capturing and training live dolphins can fetch large profits.

facilities are a form of bad education for our future generations. Cetacean captivity generates large profits for powerful corporations, but there is no benefit for the animals who live artificial lives in shallow concrete pools.  I believe that it is important for the public to be made aware of the conditions and the treatment of these animals behind closed doors, and through this maybe we can make a change.

Animals do not simply appear in aquariums, so where exactly do they come from? The cetacean captivity industry was built on wild captures. In the 1960’s killer whales were being caught in excessive amounts for the captivity industry, especially off the Northwest coast of the U.S. Marine parks like SeaWorld had sent out cetacean captors who used speed boats, planes, even explosives to round up and capture as many wild killer whales and dolphins as possible. When the public found out about the cruelty of the captures, they created large protests which led the Washington Government to sue SeaWorld’s captor and to revoke SeaWorld’s capture permit. This put an end to the killer whale captures in US waters. (Hewlett, Gill 2007) When people went to look back at the populations of wild killer whales they realized that they were depleted, either from being captured or being killed in the capture process. In fact, so many were captured that the Southern Resident killer whale population which resides off the coast of Washington state is on the verge of extinction with an estimated 88 members remaining. (J.K.B., G.M. Ellis and K.C. Balcomb. 2000) These animals were then sent to places like SeaWorld where they were placed in small swimming pools. Marine parks in the US did not stop capturing wild cetaceans because they realized that it was cruel, bur rather because they were exposed and consequently the practices became illegal. Wild capture remains largely illegal in US waters, and many cetaceans currently in captivity were born there, but the dolphin trade is alive and well. In other parts of the world cetaceans are still taken from their families and their native waters for the purpose of exploitation. This seems to contradict a point that many marine parks push: that they care about marine wildlife and their purpose is to inspire you to care about marine life.

However, the training methods used to condition cetaceans are anything but inspiring. In the early days of the aquarium industry, trainers would punish whales and dolphins if they made a mistake.  An example of this kind of training, called dominance theory, is Orky.  Orky was a male killer whale who was captured by Marineland of the Pacific in the 1960’s. His trainer, Tim Desmond, was very open about the cruel food deprivation methods used to train captive cetaceans.

“When Orky returned to me for his reward, I refused it to feed him (any good trainer knows that poor performance is not rewarded.)” (Desmond, Tim 1987) Orky only survived two years in captivity.

Unfortunately, this type of training method hasn’t faded out entirely. Marine parks often say that they have changed their ways and now use positive reinforcement to train the animals rather than the dominance theory. But interviews with recent ex-SeaWorld

Cetaceans are trained via positive reinforcement, which is the use of an appetitive stimulus. Fish is not appetitive to an animal which is not hungry. Control of diet is given to trainers which is manipulated in order to train the animals.

trainers reveals that food deprivation is still being used at SeaWorld so that fish may continue to be an appetitive stimulus for cetaceans.

John Jett former SeaWorld trainer from 1992 to 1996 states:

“food deprivation was a tool used for a variety of reasons. Upcoming VIP shows (which were commonly held on Saturdays as I recall) would often elicit from management the order to cut whale bases by ½ for several days prior to the show…Calorie reduction would help ensure the animals were food motivated and would thus increase the likelihood that they would cooperate for shows, etc.” (Former SeaWorld Trainers Speak Out)

If you have ever been to a zoo or circus chances are you have seen animals display abnormal behavior like rocking back and forth or pacing. This is called stereotypy and  many animals in captivity, including killer whales and dolphins have been known to exhibit stereotypical behavior. This behavior is a repetitive habit that has no actual goal or function. Some examples of stereotypy include: vomiting, head bobbing, pacing/circling, comatose-like states, self mutilation, biting on gates and bars, and tongue playing. Most of these behaviors can be seen at aquariums and marine parks behind the observation glass. Patrons may be unaware that what they are seeing is evidence of boredom and poor mental health.

If this kind of behavior is not addressed, it may cause many physical health problems. (Davis E, Down N, Garner J 2004) Most captive killer whales and dolphins have fractured, worn down, or broken teeth. This is often due to “jaw popping.” A display of dominance or aggression that captive cetaceans take part in which involves biting down on the steel gates in their tanks. Sometimes this becomes habitual as the animals will bite at their tanks and cages out of boredom. ( Jett, John S. and Ventre, Jeffrey 1990)

The consequences of this behavior is devastating to the animal’s dental health. The consistent biting causes tooth breakage which can expose the inner pulp. Trainers will then drill out the exposed pulp in a modified pulpotomy. The procedure is done without anesthesia or any numbing agent. Many captive killer whales exhibit holes in their teeth where the pulp was drilled out. Trainers flush out the killer whale’s teeth 2-3 times a day for the rest of their lives to avoid food plugging which may result due to the fact that the drilled teeth are not sealed or capped. This practice is sold to the public as superior dental

A captive whale's drilled teeth.

care. The holes allow a direct route for bacteria to enter the blood stream which puts killer whales at high risk for infection. (Jett, John S. ; Ventre, Jeffrey, Graham, M.S. and Dow   1990)

The stress of living in captivity doesn’t just put wear and tear on the animal’s teeth but also puts the animals at risk for major health problems like stress-related stomach ulcers which must then be treated medically. The fish that are given to the cetaceans are often stuffed with pills and antibiotics like Tagamet to help control the consequences of high stress in the animals. The long-term effects of these medications have not yet been studied. (Jett, John S. and Ventre, Jeffrey M. 2011)

Due to the stress of captivity, injuries are not uncommon in captive cetaceans. In the wild, dolphins and whales live in one of the tightest, and most complex social groups known in nature. (Heimlich, Sara; Boran, James 2001). Most cetaceans will stay with their family throughout their entire lives. Socialization is extremely important to cetacean life. Yet some captive cetaceans will never even have contact with a member of their own species. Those that do have contact are often victims of aggression because the individuals are strangers, and not of one family group or pod. The whales and dolphins are often confined and separated. This leads to dangerous levels of aggression.

The only record of a killer whale fatally attacking one of its own kind happened in captivity. (New York Times, 1989) In August of 1989, a performance was taking place at SeaWorld San Diego when a female killer whale named Kandu V, attempted to rake another killer whale with her teeth. After approaching head on at full speed, she rammed into a wall. The trainers attempted to keep the show going and only stopped when they saw her spout blood. After a 45 minute hemorrhage, Kandu V died (as seen in the photo below.) This aggression and bullying within unstable, artificial “family” groups has led to

Captive whale Tekoa became covered in rake marks after being transferred at a young age to a socially unstable environment.

many animals being covered in scars and puncture wounds, as those who are less dominant have nowhere to escape within the confines of the tank. Not only is there aggression and injury amongst captive cetacean tank-mates, but trainers are also being injured, and even killed by aggressive killer whales and dolphins. There have been 4 human deaths (the most recent in 2010), and countless injuries to humans since cetaceans were first captured. (L. Dierauf 1990)

The animals aren’t the only ones who are exposed to health risks. The health of those who work with marine mammals are also at risk. A survey was conducted in 2004 which questioned marine mammal trainers, researchers, and caretakers. (UCDavis 2004) The survey found that 52% of the 482 people solicited had experienced traumatic injuries sustained by marine mammals. 36% of those were described as being “severe.” And 23% of respondents said that they had gotten skin rashes from working in close contact with these animals. You can imagine that this would pose a danger for members of the public who take part in swim-with dolphins programs, or dolphin petting pools.

In captivity, humans hold leverage over cetacean’s food and water intake. All wild cetaceans feed on a variety of live prey items ranging from squid to seals (depending on their species and area of residence.) But in captivity their diet is depressing and bleak as they are forced to take on the lifestyle of a scavenger eating a few kinds of dead fish. Live fish offer moisture to hydrate whales and dolphins who are predators. (Kenney Robert, 2001) But because the chemically treated water cannot support fish populations, captive dolphins must eat these dead, frozen fish instead. Frozen fish contain little moisture which

A dolphin is hydrated by a hose.

means that they hold no hydration value. Instead, trainers use one of 4 methods of supplemental hydration for captive dolphins. Including feeding the animals jell-o or ice, injecting each fish with a bit of water, or the hydration hose which involves a trainer inserting a hose  into the dolphin‘s throat in order to funnel freshwater directly into its stomach as seen in the photo to the right. (Schaefer, Carol 2009)

Confinement is another major issue for captive dolphins and whales. In the wild, these creatures are always traveling, and in motion. They have the entire ocean to roam and may swim hundreds of miles in a single day. This starkly contrasts to the artificial life of a captive dolphin as it takes mere seconds for them to swim from one end of a tank to the other. Most often these creatures are reduced to swimming in circles. Several whales are crammed into tiny pools behind the stage.

A captive dolphin or killer whale spends much of their time at the surface of the water begging for fish or interacting with humans unlike their wild counterparts who eat and socialize and live, largely underwater. It is speculated that this excessive time at the

The world's largest captive killer whale cage (circled in red.) Some seven whales are kept in that tank.

surface is the cause of the collapsed dorsal fins. Captive cetaceans cannot swim fast enough, far enough or often enough for a water current to form an erect dorsal fin. All captive adult male killer whales and some adult females have collapsed dorsal fins, compared to 1-5% of wild adult male killer whales. (W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig, and J.G.M. Thewissen 2009)

Cetaceans are highly acoustic creatures who, in the wild, live in a world of sound and senses with waves, currents, an entire world to explore. Not only do captive cetaceans live in small spaces, but their environment is largely empty and featureless compared to the ocean. The artificial environment is devoid of everything that could be mentally stimulating as their surroundings are simply walls of concrete and glass. Some captive cetaceans live indoors and so receive no natural sunlight at all.

Captivity doesn’t just mean more disease and more risk of injury for cetaceans, it also means a shorter life. 1992 was the last year that a complete set of annual data from the Marine Mammal Inventory Report and the National Marine Fisheries Service was provided. A peer reviewed paper written by Small and DeMaster drew from this information and found that captive killer whales had significantly lower annual survival rates compared to those in the wild and that the annual mortality for them was more than two and a half times higher in captivity than it was in the wild. (Small, R.J. and DeMaster, D.P. 1995) There have been about 200 killer whales in captivity since the captures began in the 1960’s and 157 are now dead.

As joyful as marine parks seem, the public often watches these creatures waste away before their eyes without even taking notice. The industry likes to hide behind education and conservation and most of the public has fallen for it hook line and sinker. Harris Interactive conducted a poll on behalf of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums in the summer of 2011 regarding the public‘s thoughts on marine parks and aquariums. (AAMPA Harris Poll) 94 percent of the people polled believe that those who care for the animals at marine life parks, aquariums and zoos are committed to the welfare of the animals.

Instead of educating the public on facts of natural cetacean lifestyle and culture, marine parks help promote bad education by presenting wild animals as though they are pets who

Dolphins languish in tiny pools at SeaWorld's dolphin stadium.

are here to do circus type tricks in concrete pools for our entertainment and their profit. The anti-captivity position is only growing as these facts are being promoted and awareness is being raised. We ought to be keeping a close eye on the captivity industry and the treatment of the animals in their care, and the safety of their employees. It’s important to make a decision on whether or not to financially support these facilities and carefully consider where your money is going. We cannot meet the physical, mental, or social needs of cetaceans in a captive environment. Humans rule the lives of caged cetaceans. They make every decision for these animals who are fully capable of making decisions on their own. Cetaceans and humans should not have to give their freedom or their lives for the sake of putting on a show.  Instead given this kind of information we can begin to make a change in the lives of these animals.

Be sure to check out the Blue Freedom blog and Voice of the Orcas for more information.

Works Cited:

Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums Harris Poll February 9. 2011 ammpa.org

Davis E, Down N, Garner J. Stereotypical Behavior: a LAREF discussion (2004)

Desmond, Tim Eye to eye with an Orca (Taken from the October/November 1982 edition of Animal Kingdom magazine, published by the New York Zoological Society)

Emmons, Katie ; Ventre, Jeffrey ; Berg, Samantha ; Ray, Carol ; Jett, John BlueFreedom 16 March 2012 Former SeaWorld Trainers Speak Out bluefreedomblog.org

Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis and K.C. Balcomb. Killer whales: the natural history and genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia and Washington State. (2009) 2nd ed. UBC Press, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Heimlich, Sara ; Boran, James Killer Whales (2001) Stillwater Voyageur Press.

Hewlett, Gill Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales” (2007) Harbour publishing

Jett, John ; Ventre, Jeffrey Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity The Orca Project 20 January 2011

Jett, John ; Ventre, Jeffrey ; Graham, M.S. and Dow Dental care for a captive killer whale  Zoo Biology (1990)

Kenney, Robert How can Sea Mammals drink saltwater? Scientific American (2001)

L. Dierauf  Marine Mammal Behavioral Diagnostics, Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine, (1990) pp. 53-72

New York Times “Performing Whale Dies in Collision With Another” (1989)

Rose, Naomi. Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity. Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C. (2011)

Schaefer, Carol  Dolphin Hydration http://www.understanddolphins.com (2009)

Small, R.J. and DeMaster, D.P. Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science (1990)

UCDavis assessment of the risk of zoonotic disease transmission to marine mammal trainers and the public. (2004)

W.F. Perrin, B. Wursig, and J.G.M. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals Thewissen Academic Press, New York, (2009) pp. 669-676

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15 thoughts on “Evidence Supports the Anti-Captivity Position

  1. I am already totally against captivity. Trained as a Marine Mammal Medic with BDMLR in the UK.
    Your paper is a very good read. Good Luck with your exams!
    May all captivity of dolphins/orca and any other marine mammals end soon!

  2. Great article, it pains me that the captive industry is still going, these water circuses must be phased out.

  3. Pingback: Evidence Supports the Anti-Captivity Position « thedabitchycode

  4. Pingback: Evidence Supports the Anti-Captivity Position « savedolphinsph

  5. Pingback: Evidence Supports the Anti-Captivity Position « Kirsten Writes

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