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 and Fans Avoid “Blackfish” by Changing the Subject

At 9pm E.T. on October 24th, “Blackfish” premiered nationwide on CNN and 1.36 million households tuned in to watch. Audiences were prepped for the premiere as CNN dedicated an entire week to the topic of killer whale captivity. The network featured a lengthy investigation of the issue by Jane Velez-Mitchell, interviews with “Blackfish” director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, and lively discussions on the topic between animal advocates and SeaWorld defenders.

After the premiere, audiences were asked whether they would take their kids to SeaWorld. 86% of respondents said no. Anderson Cooper followed the film with a special report focusing on killer whale captivity and questioning industry representatives like Jungle Jack Hanna. Twitter was dominated by #BlackfishOnCNN and SeaWorld Facebook pages lit up with comments from angry fans cancelling season passes and demanding answers from their favorite marine park.

SeaWorld has issued a couple responses toward the film since its theatrical release, but the answers they are giving the public in these responses are less than satisfying. One of the main arguments brought against “Blackfish” by SeaWorld and fans is that it does not mention the company’s work with conservation and rescue. This is an obvious attempt to change the subject. The ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity is totally irrelevant to conservation and rescue programs. Using these programs to justify killer whale captivity is a bit like defending an abusive person because they volunteer at a soup kitchen. The two are not related. Just because someone does something “good” does not mean that they are excused to do something evil.

In fact, the “good” of SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been called into question. The park mostly rehabilitates and releases manatees, sea birds and sea turtles which are not entertainment animals. It has been said that staff will train rescued entertainment animals like dolphins, whales and sea lions to see how well they take to doing tricks. Those that prove to be submissive performers remain in captivity, those that do not submit are eventually released. SeaWorld has also been criticized for their failure to follow up on releases to see if the animals they save actually survive.

Not only is the nature of SeaWorld’s rescue program under question, but it should be noted that these efforts to save wild animals are NOT funded by SeaWorld! The program is operated by a non-profit organisation, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, who funds these efforts with government grants. SeaWorld’s conservation fund is also largely supported by grants and public donations.

Since these efforts do not rely on money from animal shows, SeaWorld could easily stop keeping animals for entertainment purposes, and simply continue their conservation and rescue programs. In the meantime, we should continue to pressure SeaWorld and fans to provide answers to the topic at hand: the ethics of killer whale captivity, rather than allowing them to divert attention to an unrelated topic.

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?