How Do We Know That Captivity Is Stressful For Dolphins And Whales?

Captivity supporters often argue that we cannot know what captive cetaceans are feeling because they can’t speak to us. However, there are ways we can know whether an animal is experiencing stress. Stress is a response that affects animals both behaviorally and physiologically.

Analysis of behavior can be used to assess stress in both humans and other animals. When humans encounter stress, we experience the fight or flight response. We may lash out by becoming aggressive and short-tempered, or we may become lethargic and retreat in an attempt to flee the stressful situation. When we experience chronic stress, we may even develop nervous twitches, abnormal behaviors and destructive habits as we try to cope.

Animals react to stress in the same manner. Stress induced behavior like stereotypy, is commonly observed in captive animals, especially those that are large, free-ranging and/or social such as big cats, elephants, cetaceans and primates.  Stereotypy is a result of boredom, distress, and frustration related to an abnormal or unnatural environment. If the animal cannot satisfy their natural repertoire of behaviors, they may try to ease the resulting tension by forming destructive habits and behaving abnormally.

In captivity, killer whales habitually chew on their enclosures out of frustration and boredom. This results in broken teeth.

In captivity, killer whales habitually chew on their enclosures out of frustration and boredom. This results in broken teeth.

Captive cetaceans in particular have been seen to exhibit stereotypy by vomiting, head bobbing, pacing or circling, self mutilation, biting on gates and bars, chewing at the environment, exhibiting lethargic and comotose-like behavior and tongue playing. Most visitors to marine parks mistakenly interpret these behaviors as idiosyncrasies or play, rather than indicators of stress.

Behavior isn’t the only way we can determine stress levels in animals. Stress also causes a physiological response. Scientists can get an idea of how an animal is feeling based on respiration rates, blood chemistry and hormone levels, and overall health. For example: The level of eosinophils (a kind of white blood cell) in one’s blood can determine the level of stress hormone (cortisol) in the body. Fewer eosinophils means that there is an over-production of stress hormone.  One study found that wild bottlenose dolphins have higher eosinophils than captive bottlenose dolphins, indicating that the captives have higher levels of stress hormone in their bodies than their wild counterparts. Cetaceans also have higher stress hormones when subjected to certain procedures and situations such as capture, transport,  husbandry procedures such as blood draws, removal from the water, social instability, and having swimmers present in their pool. It may come as a surprise that captive dolphins who are in contact with humans everyday, may be more disturbed by captive swim with dolphin programs than wild dolphins who experience swimmers in the ocean.

A dolphin in SeaWorld's petting pool has pox virus. Pox virus is associated with stress and a compromised immune system.

A dolphin in SeaWorld’s petting pool has pox virus. Pox virus is associated with stress and a compromised immune system.

High levels of stress also affects the immune system and is related to certain diseases and illnesses such as stomach ulcers and poxvirus, both of which are common in captive dolphins.

There is scientific evidence which demonstrates that elements in a captive cetacean’s environment, as well as the nature of captivity itself, is stressful to cetaceans. We cannot know whether or not animals experience stress in exactly the same way that humans do. However, we know that they do, in fact, experience stress and react to it in similar ways that humans do.

The question is not whether or not cetaceans are stressed in captivity. The question is whether or not Is it okay to subject cetaceans to stress for entertainment purposes.


SeaWorld’s “Killer Whale Treadmill”

Today, the “Official SeaWorld Podcast” published an article announcing that SeaWorld is seeking to implement a new device they call the “killer whale treadmill.” The device would operate like an endless pool and would supposedly simulate the sensation of swimming in an endless, straight line. (This has yet to be publicly announced by SeaWorld themselves.)

Many people have responded to this announcement with praise and applause, claiming that the treadmill will help the whales get in shape and enrich their lives with environmental stimulation. Now captive whales could “swim 100’s of miles a day”, just like their wild counterparts. Others are against the treadmill, dubbing it a “hamster wheel” and suggesting that it is an insult to the whale’s intelligence to expect them to gain mental stimulation from such a thing. After all, if the whales get bored swimming in endless circles around their pool, won’t they get bored swimming endlessly toward a blue wall? What’s the difference?

While the treadmill looks great on paper and it’s reasonable to assume that it will offer some stimulation for the whales since it would be a new addition to their environment, there are concerns that need to be considered. Will the treadmill cause excessive noise pollution in the whale’s environment? How often will the whales be able to use the treadmill? Is it safe? Will it be offered to the other cetaceans at the park?

The treadmill could also cause people to believe that captivity is okay because it’s just like the wild. In reality, the treadmill is not like the wild at all as the whales aren’t actually going to swim in a straight line. The treadmill is just a current that provides resistance so that the whales can swim in place. It does not come close to replicating a natural ocean environment and it certainly does not solve the vast majority of problems associated with captivity.

So, what is SeaWorld’s motivation behind possibly implementing the killer whale treadmill? This announcement has come at a time when SeaWorld is facing more pressure than ever. This new “enrichment device” could be a means of damage control to distract people’s attention from the bad publicity. After all, if they were doing this out of genuine care for the animals, wouldn’t they have installed a killer whale treadmill a long time ago?

The Truth About Wild Orca Lifespans

Marine parks, like SeaWorld, have claimed that wild killer whales live, on average, 25-35 years.  Captivity supporters are desperate to back up SeaWorld in this claim, but they don’t have any scientific or scholarly sources to support them. So, some have now resorted to doing their own “research” in an attempt to calculate the lifespan of wild killer whales themselves. The latest “research” performed by a SeaWorld fan can be read here.

          Using data from the incomplete and potentially inaccurate database “cetacean cousins,” samples have been cherry-picked and a conclusion has been made: wild female killer whales live to be about 35 years and males live to be about 25. In other words, “SeaWorld is spot on”! Captivity supporters have accepted this conclusion without any further thought and are now proclaiming that “anti-caps have instantly been debunked!”

The flaws in the source of the data and the sampling techniques used in this “research” should lead any rational person to dismiss the conclusion, but you don’t have to tear apart the methodology to know that what this SeaWorld fan has found in her research is completely wrong.

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“Killer whale and short-finned pilot whale females…cease reproducing at just over halfway through their maximum lifespan of 90 and 65 years, respectively.” – Dr. Andrew Foote,

“Reproduction ceases at approximately 40 years of age, although females routinely live on for several more decades.” – Katherine McAullife, Dr. Hal Whitehead

“Post reproductive females may live for an additional 30 or more years after giving birth for the last time. The average lifespan for females appears to be about 50 years…some may reach 80 or 90 years of age.”  – Dr. John K. B. Ford, Ken Blacomb, Graeme Ellis

“During the period of unrestrained growth, [resident] females had a mean life expectancy of 46 years and maximum longevity was on the order of 80 years.” – x

     According to these scientists, wild female killer whale will begin reproducing at 15 years old and will stop reproducing at 40. During these 25 reproductive years, she will produce an average of 4 calves every 5 years. She will also live long after menopause. Scientists are really interested in this long post-reproductive life span because it’s so rare in wild animals.

SeaWorld and fans say that the average wild female killer whale only lives to be 35. In other words, the female killer whale’s post reproductive life span that has been the subject of many scientific studies, doesn’t exist. Not only does the female killer whale die before she reaches menopause, but her average life span is so short she doesn’t even have enough time to produce the average number of calves!

As you can see, there is a domino effect happening here. If you claim that wild killer whales only live 25-35 years, you need to be prepared to refute everything we know about killer whale lifespans, when they reach sexual maturity, physical maturity, their reproductive years, etc. I think this is a challenge that SeaWorld and fans are not willing to take on.