I recently came across an article regarding marine animal welfare entitled “Dolphinaria Dilemma-Hard Fact or Hype?” The article was published in 1991 in the Journal of the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers. Two years later, the last dolphinarium in the UK would close its doors, largely due to public outrage toward the ethics of the industry. The article takes a pro-captivity standpoint as it addresses the anti-captivity position. In this post, I will tackle some of the most prominent arguments made in support of captivity as proposed in this article. They are also common arguments made by other pro-caps even today.
“Some concern was expressed at the pools these animals are kept in, statements such as “a dolphin living in the wild swims freely in about 40 square miles of seawater and that to these active creatures any pool is like a featureless concrete cage”. Although these comments sound appealing to the lay person, the
statement is basically emotive and scientifically inept…. To use the ranges of wild dolphins as a base for calculating the space needs of captives is not appropriate, because the
situations are quite different. Wild animals need to forage over a certain area in order to obtain sufficient food, something they need not undertake in captivity…In captivity, where food is provided, the space requirements are related to
social and exercise needs.”
Entire dolphin schools may reside in areas where food is abundant. In spite of this, we do not see a well-fed school lazily floating on the surface of the ocean. Foraging is not the only reason for travel, as dolphins move great distances even when there is plenty of food. Dolphins have areas of their brains (similar to ours) that are responsible for aesthetic pleasure. This means that they have the ability to enjoy the beauty of the ocean. They are naturally curious creatures and seem to thoroughly enjoy exploring and interacting with their world through their free-ranging lifestyle. Engaging in the environment through natural behavior is an important aspect of animal welfare. Unfortunately, captive dolphins are denied this simple right, or are only allowed to engage in a highly controlled manner. The dolphin’s natural tendency to travel, explore, or enjoy their environment is not regarded in captivity where the dolphins are given a pitifully empty and stagnate pool to swim endless circles in. The space given to them is meant to satisfy only their most basic physiological needs by merely allowing the number of dolphins residing there enough space to move and live comfortably.
“Modern animal training is based on reward for co-operation between man and animal, and starvation has no place in this.”
Positive reinforcement is the use of an appetitive stimulus to control behavior. For instance, many parents will reward their children with candy for cleaning their room, or washing the dishes. If the child performs the wanted behavior, this shows that the stimulus reward (the candy,) was appetitive (desirable) to the child. A child that already has heaps of candy would probably have to be enticed by different means. Captive dolphins are given food for performing wanted behaviors. This shows that the food was desirable to the animal. If the animal’s hunger was already satisfied, the food would not be appetitive. This indicates that food control is a major play in cetacean training.
“The animals have the ability to learn and retain behaviours, but most higher mammals can do this at the same rate as a dolphin. The dolphin may have a large complex brain, but brain size is an unsatisfactory indicator of ‘intelligence’. “
Undermining dolphin intelligence is a ploy often used by pro-captivity activists to support captivity. This includes marine park CEO’s like SeaWorld’s Brad Andrews who claims that orcas are “no more intelligent than my dog.” Of course we now know that there are other indicator’s of intelligence (other than brain size) that dolphins express and possess. Such as grieving rituals, self awareness, and spindle cells. Science recognizes dolphins as one of the most intelligent animal on the planet, second only to humans and other primates.
“Even if dolphins are ‘higher’ mammals, why should they be more worthy of better conservation and welfare standards than any other animal?”
Holding all animals to the same standard of welfare is a ridiculous proposition. Some animals, such as reptiles and fish, have primitive brains and operate only out of physiological necessities. Giving them food, water, shelter, etc. is enough to be considered ethical treatment. On the other hand, humans have “better” welfare standards because we are more intelligent and have greater needs. Treating a human ethically means more than just giving them food and water; it means allowing them respect, morality, and self-esteem, the right to free speech and the possession of property. The needs of animals greatly differ and therefore the standards of ethical treatment will differ as well.
“Dolphins may live in complex societies, but so, indisputably, do ants and bees. Do we ban the keeping of bees to make honey, due to their complex social life?”
Comparing dolphins to bees and ants is not just a laughably erroneous analogy, it’s also an insult to their intelligence. Dolphins do not simply live in complex societies. They are also some of the most socially bonded and intelligent animals on the planet. Keeping dolphins in captivity doesn’t just involve an utter dismantling of their society, or a ripping apart of families; they are intelligent enough to fully understand this destruction and because they are also capable of emotions, they may even respond to this by feeling anger or grief.
“Of course, freedom is an abstract human concept: nothing in the biological world, including humans, is free. Was perhaps the young sealion, shown on the excellent BBC Trials of Life programme being tossed around the ocean on the tail
of an orca, before being torn to bits and eaten, celebrating its freedom?”
Freedom is the absence of constraint in regards to choice or action. Animals in captivity are physically confined, and their ability to make decisions is also confined. In comparison and by definition, wild animals are physically and mentally free. It is not merely an abstract human concept, it is a term used in science to describe a specific state (ie, free radicals)
“Despite claims, there has not been any scientifically-controlled re release of captive dolphins.”
Since the writing of this article, there have been many releases of captive dolphins. Cetacean releases are much more prevalent than is indicated by pro-captivity activists. So far this year, there have been close to 10 releases of captive cetaceans.
“Also, animals not placed back to their place of capture can bring disease, such as viruses (which can be carried for many years without ill health to their host), into dolphin groups with no immunities to such disease.”
While this claim is often made by pro-captivity activists, there is no evidence whatsoever to support it.