Dispelling the Arguments of Captivity Proponents

Dolphin in a captive display show

Our animals love to entertain and are always smiling.

A dolphin's smile is a product of anatomy—dolphins smile even when dead. Dolphins and other cetaceans suffer stress and anxiety when kept in captivity, particularly when there is no enrichment or when housed with incompatible animals. Medications are routinely given to dolphins to treat ulcers and other medical conditions associated with mental and physical stress.

Orcas (also known as killer whales) are inherently unsuited to being held in captivity, due to their longevity, intelligence, sociality, acoustic needs, ranging habits, and size. Orca sociality is complex and family-oriented – when a mother is separated from her calf or family units are otherwise disrupted, as is common in captivity, the animals experience profound suffering. No tank offers orcas enough space or ever could. Tanks are usually only 100-140 feet long and 25-35 feet deep. In the wild, orcas—which are 6000-12,000 lbs and 18-24 feet long—can travel 100 miles in a day and dive up to 300 feet deep.

Captivity is necessary for breeding/conservation programs.

There are no self-sustaining captive populations and animals are needed from the wild to maintain genetic viability. Bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beluga whales are the only cetaceans who have been bred with some success, but even these do not have self-sustaining captive populations. Also, captive-bred offspring are never returned to the wild, a required step for any breeding program claiming a conservation purpose.

Our captive animals teach people about conservation.

The education offered at dolphinariums often lacks a discussion of threats facing wild cetaceans beyond “pollution,” as information about threats such as hunting, marine noise, or oil and gas exploration and extraction might offend some visitors from other countries or who work for the military or certain industries. Certainly the threat live capture poses to targeted cetacean populations is never discussed.

Claims that captive cetacean performances provide educational benefits to the public and advance conservation science are also false. For example, viewing orcas that are held in concrete tanks that in no way resemble their natural environments, and that are trained to behave in ways that they would not in the wild, does not provide any insight into wild orca biology, behavior, or ecological role. If anything, it promotes misinformation about orcas. Similarly scientific research involving captive orcas has done little to advance scientists’ understanding of wild orcas. Most of the published scientific research from captive orca facilities addresses captive breeding practices, such as artificial insemination. This research has no conservation benefit, as this technology is used only in captivity.

Our captive animals are ambassadors for their species, educating the public about their wild cousins.

Most surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of patrons of dolphin parks go to be entertained, not educated. The dolphin parks know this and provide entertainment, in the form of shows, tricks and stunts. They may throw out a few facts and figures (some of which are incorrect or misleading to mask the impact of captivity on these animals) to make people feel good about why they are there, but entertainment is the overriding reason for the existence of these parks. The type of education that is provided is mis-education—that dolphin capture and/or captivity is acceptable and that tail-walking on water or leaping up to jump through a hoop are natural behaviors.

We couldn't do our conservation work without the money we receive from our customers.

The money spent by captive facilities and subsidiary entities on conservation projects is miniscule compared to the profits that are made with dolphin shows, swim-with programs and other entertainments. Very few facilities even have conservation programs and those that do spend only a fraction of their revenue on conservation or stranding responses.

Our captive animals are protected from the horrors of nature.

Cetaceans have evolved to live and die in the ocean and have their place in the marine ecosystem. Meeting and dealing with natural challenges, including finding food, is their “job”—without a job, life for these intelligent animals is at best boring and at worst stressful. Many captive cetaceans—depending on the species—do not live nearly as long as their wild counterparts. Given the threats facing wild cetaceans, such as predators, pollution, and parasites, this raises the question of why these supposedly "protected" animals have similar or worse mortality rates compared to their wild cousins. The answer could be a combination of things—chronic stress, ingestion of foreign objects, abnormal aggression from other animals, or lack of maternal skill by mothers who themselves have been born in captivity. For some cetacean species, mortality rates in captivity are far higher than in the wild. Orcas fare particularly poorly in captivity. The average life span of an orca in the wild is 30 years for males and 50 years for females. Of the orcas held in captivity (captive-bred or wild-caught) since 1964, most have died in their teens and 20s, only a handful have survived past 35 years of age, and only two have lived into their early 40s. The annual mortality rate for orcas is more than three times higher in captivity than in a well-studied population in the Pacific Northwest.

Our captive animals have been saved from a brutal death.

This argument is often put forth by dolphinariums that have sourced their animals from Japanese dolphin drive hunts. The drive hunts are incredibly brutal—with animals chased, herded and trapped in bays and coves, and then killed for their meat and other products. In recent years, recognizing the rewards to be gained from selling live dolphins to dolphinariums, the drive hunters have allowed these facilities to select some of the trapped dolphins at a price far higher than that of a dead dolphin. In some cases, however, without the demand from the dolphinariums the drives would not even take place.

Those who want orcas banned from marine parks are anti-business.

Pro-whale and dolphin advocates do not want to “shut down” marine parks. On the contrary, several marine parks have demonstrated for decades that they have many entertaining attractions other than cetaceans to draw tourists to the area. In fact removing inhumane and dangerous orca shows from their repertoires could broaden the audience of tourists interested in supporting these parks. In such a scenario orcas currently held in captivity would be moved to sea pens for a dignified retirement. Sea pens can provide much-needed space and more natural surroundings, while the orcas would continue to receive care from trainers and training for husbandry and veterinary behaviors. Retired orcas could continue to be on public display, providing visitors with a legitimate educational experience, as opposed to a circus show.