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Debunking Captivity: 3 Reasons Not to Keep Dolphins in a Tank

bottlenose dolphin in the wild - ©2014mbearzi
A bottlenose dolphin in the wild. (Photograph by Maddalena Bearzi)

I have spent much time in the company of wild dolphins over the last twenty-something years. I’ve built a career following their everyday movements and observing their behavior both from shore and from research boats. When I began my studies, I knew these creatures primarily as the objects of my research but, as the years passed, I came to recognize them as single individuals, not solely for their unique dorsal fin notches, but also for their cognitive abilities, personalities, and emotions.

Spending thousands of hours at sea, I began to know some of them by sight and, like my human friends, they became an integral part of my life. I learned of their needs, not only for space but also for companionship, and I witnessed their fluid, complex societies, which in many ways are quite similar to our own.

I have also witnessed first-hand the very different lives of these animals in aquaria and marine parks and I cannot help wondering about the reasons for keeping such magnificent creatures captive. In my line of work, I’ve heard all kinds of justifications for keeping dolphins confined, the most frequent being education, conservation, and research. (See: “First Person: How Far Will the Blackfish Effect Go?“)

Let’s consider whether any of these reasons are valid. And let’s do this keeping in mind that we are an allegedly intelligent and caring species with the ability to reflect and analyze what we currently know about dolphins and make sensible decisions based on these evaluations.

Keeping cetaceans (and personally I would stretch this to include other animals as well), in a restricted environment may have been more acceptable years ago, when we really didn’t know any better; when we didn’t have enough information about who these animals really are in the wild and what they need to live. But today, we know a lot more than we did back then.

So, what do we know about dolphins? Here, in a nutshell, are three important reasons why captivity and dolphins are incompatible.

1. Dolphins are large-brained, cognitive animals

If we consider ourselves as being at the pinnacle of intelligence, dolphins would come just after us, scoring even better than their great ape cousins. Looking at the Encephalization Quotient, which represents a measure of relative brain size and a rough estimate of the intelligence of an animal, dolphins possess a high EQ due to their unusually large brain-to-body- size ratios.

The last two decades have seen the proliferation of anatomical and morphological investigations on cetaceans. Neuroanatomical studies of their brains have shown that dolphins possess an intricate and developed neocortex as compared to other species, including humans, and a distinctive folding of the cerebral cortex, which in cetaceans is even more prominent than in primates.

Why is this important? Because, simply stated, these structures are both associated with complex information processing.  Dolphins also have spindle-shaped neurons, or von Economo neurons, which are key for social cognition and have been linked in humans to an ability to “sense” what others are thinking.

There is no doubt that intelligence is difficult to define and when we look into the animal world, almost any animal may be considered “smart” depending on what definition of intelligence we decide to apply. I can make a great case for any of my dogs… But only in a few species like dolphins, great apes, and humans, do we find brain complexity, social complexity, and ecological complexity closely linked, at least for now… (See: “Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in ‘Blackfish’ Flap.”)

2. Dolphins live in complex societies in the open ocean

We have established that dolphins have large and complex brains, but what is all this brain capacity good for? This brain has allowed dolphins to develop complex and fluid societies in which they can flourish against the backdrop of a challenging, three-dimensional liquid environment.

Cetaceans such as the bottlenose dolphin (the most common species found in aquaria and marine parks today) have flexible and remarkable social and communication skills. They live in social networks characterized by highly differentiated relationships that often rely on precise memory of who owes whom a favor and who is a true friend. They engage in cooperative hunting and they partition resources such that prey is shared throughout the social group.

In some dolphin populations, males form coalitions in order to sexually coerce females or defeat other male coalitions.  They care for each other; mothers and calves have long-term strong social bonds and a calf can spend up to two years next to its mother learning its place in the ocean. Dolphins play, bond, imitate, learn from each other and transfer information from generation to generation.

This ability to transfer learned behaviors to their progeny makes them cultural animals like us. And like us, they can recognize themselves as individuals and are self-aware, even if the extent of dolphin self-awareness still remains to be explored.

At sea, dolphins are always on the move, often traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. Their large brains likely help them to succeed in foraging on widely scattered and temporarily available resources. Dolphins, like some other animals, are essentially complex social mammals that need expansive space to live in. A tank can’t even begin to address these needs…

3. Dolphins have emotions (and personalities)

We like to think of dolphins as happy animals with an omnipresent smile frolicking in the sea. We tend to anthropomorphize them, projecting our own attributes on them. But what we think is the blissful face of a dolphin can obscure the animal’s true feeling, especially when we keep them confined. Let’s not forget that dolphins also die smiling!

Dolphins, like us, have a limbic system and are able to experience a broad spectrum of emotions including joy, grief, frustration, anger, and love. Put a dolphin in an MRI scanner and you will see a large brain structure that allows for complex emotions. Looking closer at a dolphin’s brain, once again, you will find those specialized von Economo neurons that in humans are linked to intuition and empathy.

But brains and neurons aside, it’s spending time in company of these animals in the wild that will really make a case for them as emotional beings with diverse personalities. Anyone who has witnessed the compassion of a dolphin mother in taking care of her calf, an individual helping a companion in distress, or a dolphin grieving for hours, even days for the death of a next of kin, can’t deny these animals have emotions.

Like intelligence, conscious emotion in these ocean-dwellers is difficult to understand, define, and measure. For comparison, just reflect upon how difficult it is to know what we ourselves are thinking or feeling at any given moment…

Now, let’s try something different. Let’s ignore all the scientific studies or what we currently know about dolphins. Let’s also disregard the three above-mentioned assertions why keeping these animals in captivity is fundamentally wrong, and let’s instead concentrate on debunking the favorite pro-captivity arguments: research, education, and conservation.

Research

Marine parks and delphinaria tend to play the “research card” every time there is a question about why we keep dolphins in captivity. It’s true that, in the past, some captivity studies on dolphins have helped fuel our basic understanding of these animals; an understanding that researchers of that era could not have obtained at sea because of technical and logistical obstacles. But the world and science have changed and we now have the technology and means to more effectively study dolphins in their own habitats.

Generally speaking, because of the artificial settings, research in captivity provides little knowledge that can be applied to the protection and management of these species at sea. In fact, this kind of research can even be misleading. Many published studies on captive animals focus on training techniques and improvement of husbandry practices, which have no relevance to dolphins living in the wild. For example: captive studies on dolphin diseases have failed to predict outbreaks of viruses in wild populations that may often cause mass mortality.

Further, only a small fraction of the money coming from tickets sold at facilities that keep dolphins in captivity is used for research (if at all) and less than ten percent of delphinaria or zoos are involved in research conservation programs, either in situ or in the wild. (See: “Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed its Trainer.”)

Education and Conservation

The most common claim of many delphinaria is that they provide great educational opportunities, which they contend may lead to public concern for dolphin conservation. But this just isn’t true.

The big difference in opinion here rests on one’s definition of educational value. Just think about taking a child to a marine park. This is not an educational experience because the child doesn’t see or understand what these animals are really about. Jumping and splashing on command or catching a fish from the hand of a trainer during a performance is just stereotyped, clown-esque behavior that shows little if anything of these animals’ everyday life. Deprived of their natural space and social structures, dolphins change. Captive dolphins have nothing in common with those I have come to know in the wild.

Instead, think about taking your child out to sea on a reputable whale-watching trip (which, by the way, will likely cost less than a ticket to a marine park). Even in a single trip out on the ocean, a child might have the chance to glimpse into the real life of wild dolphins. At sea, one can better understand who dolphins are and how they behave in company of their own “families.” At sea, one will see why we need to protect not just them, but also the environment in which they live. These are truly important lessons in conservation for a child!

A second claim is that by keeping them in a tank we are saving them from pollution and overfishing, even extinction, and that captive breeding programs are for conservation motives. Removing dolphins from their natural habitat to live in tanks will not address environmental issues. And the statement that these programs help endangered or threatened species is faulty, especially considering that the endangered species are generally not the ones being kept in captivity. Captive breeding programs do provide one thing: a constant supply of dolphins for display and human amusement.

There are many other reasons why keeping these animals in captivity is wrong, such as the poor, often terrible, conditions in which dolphins are still kept in many facilities worldwide, and the high illness and mortality rate of captive animals. No state of the art captive aquarium or marine park can ever meet the complex physiological and psychological needs of a dolphin, or most other animals, for that matter. And we have not yet mentioned the number of individuals killed in the process of being captured, and the stress these animals go through when separated from their companions and social networks.

It’s time we recognize that the only, true reason we still keep these magnificent, large brained and socially complex creatures captive is for our entertainment; entertainment for the motive of making money, and lots of it.

Dolphins are who, not what, and they deserve some rights. We humans should use our judgment and compassion toward these (and other) fellow animals and stop keeping them caged as our prisoners.

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008). She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Comments

  1. Brisa Reyes
    Cancún, México
    September 1, 10:52 pm

    Not having to read all the comments and reasonings in favor of dolphins captivity, I just raise the question to RJ Rosendahl… would these cetaceans stay voluntarily and do the tricks they do if they weren’t captive in the pools? why are you so supportive of the businesses using them? what’s the matter of letting animals be on the wild and experiencing them in the wild where they can commit their ecological role, instead of charging people to see them on a pool as toys? money is the only obstacle I see, money the dolphins are giving to many humans… because some others don’t know what’s behind the dolphin eternal smile and the use of any kind of animal for human entertainment (bulls, dogs, roosters, tigers, elephants)… let’s wake up and change the way humans interact with other species, we are not owners, we are paying everything we do to other species and is better to change now than keep enlarging the list of extinct species and dead landscapes in our grandgrandchildren books of the past we screwed for money, for selfishness.

  2. Jan Swinehart
    Baytown, Tx.
    April 26, 11:03 am

    It should hurt peoples heart to hear and see this being done.

  3. RJ Rosendahl
    April 22, 11:56 am

    Response to Lori Marino.
    First of all Lori I do want to say thank you for responding. I admire your ability to engage in rational debate. It’s an art form I fear we are loosing especially with such an emotion laden topic. I knew where you had done your research because I actually read the article. I probably do more research than the average person giving their two cents. I’d certainly be interested in reading more scientific journals. I have read several peer reviewed journals already but am always open to learning more. Who reviews the peer reviewed journals though? As you know, researchers, on either side of the debate, can skew numbers whether intentionally or not. As we learn more about dolphins and are better able to care for them do you not foresee us being able to do the same for killer whales? One thing you discussed was maximum life span for killer whales in human care. However, we don’t know what the maximum life span for a killer whale in human care is because there are a few older animals doing quite well. I am certainly curious to see how long they live in human care so we can get an accurate number there. Well as accurate as it can be. However, with the movements that are going on right now I fear we’ll never know. Research can take a long time and people who don’t know much about research are usually unwilling to wait and will take what they can get and run with it. One thing that has been hard to find is an average life span. Many reports I am finding are listing what age an animal can live to but not the average lifespan of the population.. I think that’s what I have been finding misleading. Some animals will live longer but some won’t. Where’s the middle ground and can we account for every single animal? Are the wild animals watched 24/7 as they are in human care? If an animal is still born at night in the wild, are we truly able to account for that? I fear there are several variables that we can’t account for. I understand averages can be be skewed with random deviations one way or the other but they can still be useful. Also, when we talk about killer whales, are we considering all populations including transient whales around the world or are we focusing mainly on the resident whales in the northwest? Regarding stress, you discuss them adapting to stresses in their natural environment. Are we to assume animals brought into human care or more realistically now born in human care can’t or won’t be able to adapt to their environment? In regards to feeding, how do we know they want to hunt versus they have to hunt? I don’t know either way but I am simply raising the question. Also, stating they want to be challenged could be questionable too. What do they consider challenging? How do we know? Is being challenged enriching? Again, I don’t know, I am just raising the question and I don”t mean to dismiss the statement. Knowing the natural history of the animal is very important in caring for them but I also think that these challenges can be represented in different ways to animals in human care. I would like to consult the MMIR from NOAA but am having a little difficulty acquiring it. There are some summations out there but because of the individual groups doing the summation I question them already. However, I’ll continue to research. Again, thank you for engaging in respectful debate. As I said I admire your conviction and your ability to knowledgeably discuss this topic. It’s more than I can say for most.

  4. Mark
    United States
    April 18, 3:54 pm

    Meh, call me heartless, but they are an animal and I am not opposed to putting a small number of the total population in captivity for people to observe.

  5. Diane Buccheri
    USA
    April 18, 3:41 pm

    Madalena, thank you for your discussion against keeping dolphins captive. Your experience with them has led to profound knowledge and understanding of their lives among one another, physically and emotionally reliant upon one another and their society in the waters. They are so different from humans, beyond our current perception of understanding. Each one of them is a who, not a what, and everyone should live among their kind in the environment that best suits their physical and psychological bodies. Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge.

  6. Jessica
    April 18, 3:32 pm

    While I can agree with both sides of this and I recognize that a lot of research on these animals is done in captivity, why is it that we can’t let that go and see that maybe what we are learning about them does nothing to change any issues they face? We are not doing anything to “save” cetaceans. We are doing these things for our own knowledge. When it comes to keeping animals in captivity otherwise they will die in the wild, why can we not give them sea pens to live in? Why does no money go into making their captive situation as natural and “wild” as possible? Why not have some respect for the fact that these are living things and not our toys to play with?Times have changed and we should change with them and maybe what we are doing to/with these animals needs to be traded in for more modern, respectful tactics.
    To those people making comments because this author studies animals in the wild and hasn’t had to deal with captive dolphins and saying that she shouldn’t be giving any opinion or comments, why is it that you can’t appreciate a different viewpoint? I was always a fan of cetaceans and pinnipeds in zoos and aquariums but after seeing them in the wild I am no longer a fan of these places. I feel like it doesn’t teach people to have respect for these animals as being wild animals.

  7. Alena clatterbuck
    Holtwood PA
    April 17, 6:41 pm

    I agree with max. lock your self in a different environment and change all of your behaviors for the rest of your life. See how you like it. See what I mean.

  8. Alena clatterbuck
    Pennsylvainia Holtwood USA
    April 17, 6:38 pm

    I totally agree, dolphins should b treated as nearly humans equals. We think we rule the world, but termites out way us! If dolphins have feelings, and are really as smart as this article states, than I say humans shouldn’t control how and when another living thing eats, sleeps, where they live, what they do. Most animals kept in captivity are deprived of social life with others of it’s kind. I say it’s cruel to control an almost equal. Whether you agree or not, this is what I think.

  9. SimonSolar2C
    New Zealand
    April 17, 5:55 pm

    Thanks for the important and well documented points.
    How can we make the points simpler to educate the offenders – captivity / whaling otherwise it’s just “preaching to the converted”
    Eg. “We’re not fish – we breath air like you”
    Also
    I have a theory that expands on these points regarding cognitive empathy and communication. Consider that dolphins can “see” in 3D with their sonar system. Like a hospital ultrasound we can assume this sense is also transparent ( plenty of documentation of dolphins taking an interest in pregnant humans )
    This sense has evolved for millions of years – longer than us humans – so lets also assume its linked to their memory – The same way we see memories in our mind.
    But here’s my theory – they also communicate using the same iclicks and squeals of their sonar – therefore isn’t it possible they can transmit 3d images to each other. If they hand these down from generation to generation it’s possible they carry images of the whole history of the planet !
    I sure hope we can communicate with them one day – their language is probably way more advanced than we think.

  10. Edgar Lesmes
    Florida
    April 17, 2:32 pm

    I have long been against Dolphins or Whales in captivity other than to treat them for illness or injury. Is cruel at best.

  11. Antonio Mario Magalhaes
    Brazil
    April 17, 2:24 pm

    I think some people just missed the main point of the article, and possibly the big picture.

    The fact of the matter is, there currently are few, if any, reasons to keep animals in captivity, such as in marine displays or zoos. With the available technology, animals, marine or not and at the several levels of the chain, can be better studied/understood in their own environment.

    In addition to that, of course, we have to take a hard look on the absurd ways we humans are plundering the oceans.

  12. Moe
    April 16, 5:23 pm

    Comparing non-human animals to humans is a horrible application of logic. Using false analogies, anyone could make an equal case for not holding dogs on leashes. We also see people now comparing human slaves to captive animals, a feat that could only be done by a generation who can’t understand the actual horror of slavery and believes that the greatest evil in the world is human exploitation of animals. Their fanaticism shows in how they anthropomorphize animals, claiming to see the “sadness” in their eyes or how they’re “pining” for freedom.

  13. Dominic
    Indonesia
    April 16, 6:48 am

    Hi and good day, despite the pro and cons, this is a great reviews about dolphin and its behaviour. Captivity is definitely not an answer.

    If I may, on your permission, i would like to translate it in my language (Indonesia) so my fellow indonesian could also understand. This is important to us.

  14. Lori Marino
    Atlanta, GA
    April 15, 3:30 pm

    Response to RJ Rosendahl: Thank you for your comments and questions. In response to your first question, the dolphins we used in the mirror self-recognition study were held captive at the NY Aquarium. Shortly after completing that study and learning more about the welfare of dolphins in captivity I decided not to pursue any further research with captive animals. I would be happy to send you a bibliography of peer-reviewed science papers on the welfare of captive cetaceans and, in particular, orcas, who do live much shorter lives in captivity than in the wild. My email is lmarino@emory.edu. With that said, yes, of course animals in the wild experience stress. But the kinds of stresses they experience in the natural settings are ones they are adapted to over millions of years of evolution and selection. That is not the case in captivity. So, although proponents of captivity point to the “easy” lifestyle of being fed dead fish every day – they are missing the point. Cetaceans want to hunt. They want to expel energy to survive. And they want to be challenged. To disregard this is to dismiss their evolutionary history and their very nature. Now for life-expectancy. While it is true that only recently bottlenose dolphins have been able to achieve life expectancies not statistically significantly different from some wild populations, there is no doubt about the fact that orca maximum lifespans in captivity are not even equivalent to average lifespan in the natural setting. Again, email me and I’ll send you the papers. And, in terms of evidence for stress-related increased mortality I would suggest going to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report that NOAA publishes. There you will find the data on the “who, what and where” of mortality in captive cetaceans and you can read the long list of diseases and curtailed lifespans yourself. Thanks.

  15. RJ Rosendahl
    April 14, 8:20 pm

    There are actually several sources that indicate the hunting of whales and dolphins in Japan, including Taiji, has been in practice since the 17th century. With the advancement of technology it has certainly accelerated the process but it was still going on. Not that that’s a good thing but check out the literature. However, this drive still doesn’t exist solely to acquire animals for public display. Certainly not in North America at least. When a group slaughters over a thousand animals its not about the training industry it’s about food and resources. We humans are horrible when it comes to taking over other environments taking it’s resources for our own use. That’s a major issue facing us not this.

  16. max
    April 14, 2:08 am

    Lock yourself in a prison cell for one year and study changes in your behavior ! These creatures have no power to fight back so humans take advantage. Set them free !

  17. graciela
    Uruguay
    April 13, 9:46 pm

    el artículo en realidad me encanta personalmente nunca estuve en parecencia de 1 delfín pero de todas formas no iría a un acuario a ver a 1 ser vivo encerrado, sólo x el hecho de consumir algo exótico( realmente lo considero aberrante) es lamentable que la humanidad no haya avanzado en este sentido y siga privando de libertad a otros seres como antiguamente lo hacían con los indígenas, estoy muy de acuerdo con Maddalena, que en nombre de la ciencia siga la humanidad con éstas prácticas; ahora bien peor aún son los involucionados que acuden a éstos centros (cuando el fin que persiguen es sólo económico) si no tuvieran público los acuarios cerrarían o sea que debemos educar a nuestros niños de la conservación de las especies y la mejor manera es incentivando el material audiovisual que la internet nos proporciona o si se puede verlos en sus habitab como si fueraMOS A VER 1 AMIGO A SU CASA, no se puede comparar 1 perro (que es 1 especie consecuencia de la evolución humana; éstos sí son nuestra responsabilidad) con 1 delfín o 1 león que son seres que necesitan de su libertad igual que nosotros o acaso nadie ha visto la expresión de 1 oso en cautiverio??????????

  18. Tim W.
    Savannah, GA
    April 13, 3:24 pm

    First, It’s an improper analogy to compare human slavery with dolphin captivity. African slaves were human, not non-human.

    As humans, we often ascribe lack of emotion and care to our adversaries as a means of persuading others. I find the suggestion that water park personnel don’t care about conservation disingenuous, at best. It seems like the best answer to the scientific recriminations launched back and forth would be to have those scientists at parks spend time in the wild and those who study wild dolphins spend years at the parks. Park personel could receive invaluable knowledge and experience and vice versa. Frankly, I have a hard time believing in the objectivity of some of the non-park affiliated scientists, who as scientists I would expect to attempt to put bias aside. Personally, I would rather see objective consensus rather than emotionally charged subjectivity. The appeal in this artical is to the subjective evaluation of intelligence. I have little doubt as to the intelligence and emotional capacity of dolphins and whales. If these were humans, we could ask them what they wanted…. As they are not… what animal, domestic or otherwise likes captivity? We have cats and they prefer to be on the other side of the door. But this reason alone is not reason to ban or close parks and zoos.

    I have been on many dolphin watching tours, and it is incredibly difficult to get a feel for anything about the animal in the wild, where cooperation is minimal. If you have children, it is much more teachable to have the animal up close. It’s the message that is preached while viewing, just as in a zoo, that is important. We all experience life differently. One thing that inspires awe in one may create sadness in another. My children were bored to tears on the wild dolphin tour but wanted to learn more after a visit to Sea World. My unscientific anecdotal opinion, water parks serve a useful purpose but should be held accountable to conditions.

  19. Sandy
    April 13, 1:41 pm

    I was surprised to see my #1 reason cetaceans should not be held in captivity missing from Bearzi’s list, though I wholeheartedly agree with the ones she did include. My personal boycott of marine parks that keep cetaceans in captivity, though I spent my childhood happily and obliviously skipping through Sea World of Orlando, stems from the fact that, unlike humans, dogs, primates, and common zoo animals, cetaceans use echolocation to navigate and to “see” with. It is 24/7 torture for them when they remain in a confined space, despite the presence of “loving” trainers and other confined, miserable cetaceans to socialize with.

  20. Mandi Lowthin Smith
    Toronto
    April 13, 1:17 pm

    Let us consider an animal that we do understand.

    If a man was taken from the general public, held against his will in a container, fed regularly, given health care, and taught to do tricks, he may well live longer than the man outside.

    We would be protecting him against war, family violence, disease, injury, and so forth. This is one very fortunate man!

    But he would not be free.

    We cannot measure a dolphin’s sadness due to loss of freedom, but then, we shouldn’t have to.

  21. Monica
    Seattle
    April 13, 12:33 pm

    Regardless of what you think about the article, the bottom line is you either agree or disagree with keeping dolphins in captivity.

    I totally disagree with keeping ANY creature in captivity. Trying to justify the continuation of zoos and aquariums by criticizing articles is meaningless.

    We KNOW that dolphins, whales, apes and birds etc, possess higher degrees of intelligence than previously thought. For us to continue the barbaric practices of imprisoning other creatures is not acceptable and should be stopped.

    Furthermore, continuing to breed captives should be stopped as well so the facilities that imprison them can be closed forever.

  22. Teresa Wagner
    Carmel, CA
    April 13, 12:28 pm

    Along with every argument this author makes, here is another one: it is simply immoral to keep cetaceans in captivity in order to make money and for humans to be *entertained.* There is no useful education, no conservation and no research from captivity that helps WILD dolphins. Beyond the author’s reasonable and logical arguments, there is another: the human conscience knows when something is morally wrong. . . any human with an open heart knows the difference between using and abusing animals for profit and allowing them to live their normal, wild lives. If captive dolphin facilities *really* cared about dolphin conservation, they would be working hard to shut down Taiji drive hunts, not continuing their profitable swim with captive dolphins programs, or the hideous forced performances for food. In the end this is a moral issue. We stopped slavery of humans in the US South, and we will stop the slavery of cetaceans all over the world. When the small children of today are adults, and they come across written arguments from people who are FOR captivity, they will likely think, “What was WRONG with these people?”

    Thank you for this article.

  23. Leslie
    Ca
    April 13, 11:35 am

    I’ve been to Sea world in Orlando and saw the dolphins swimming in a small round pool. I was standing there talking to them telling them how sorry I was that they weren’t free. One of them slowed down and looked in my eyes and I could sense the sadness. I’ve also seen them in the wild and it was much more enjoyable to see them frolicking in their own environment. I think some of the researcher criticizing this article must work for the water parks that exploit these beautiful beings. Oh and I never visited Sea World again because I think it’s wrong to make money on captive animals.

  24. Sally Hopkins
    Oregon
    April 13, 11:06 am

    This is so poorly written it’s a joke to read. She tries to tell us about how complex dolphin society is by saying over and over that it IS complex then states that it is difficult to quantify this by watching them in the ocean. All of this is just her unsubstantiated opinion. Whether I would agree with her or not, this lousy article could certainly not help me decide.

  25. karl probst
    Canada
    April 13, 10:58 am

    I’ve been to an aquarium in the carribean with a large dolphin complex right beside the ocean. The dolphins are always gathering to the wall against the ocean pinning for the freedom of the seas. It’s not just about swimming freely in the oceans, it’s all about the life in the ocean and absence of it in an aquarium. I saw for the first time the sadness these poor creatures feel in captivity and promise to never go again to see wildlife in captivity. The article written here is above many ppl’s intelligence unfortunately but the point is understood.

  26. Jo
    Australia
    April 13, 7:08 am

    RJ rosendahl – you lost any credibility you might have had when you compared a domestic animal ( dog) to a wild dolphin. Moving on. And for your information, the dolphin drives at Taiji are not ‘ centuries old’ . They began in the 1960s . And as for the amount of space you need? You need a very wide berth.

  27. Ana Coutinho
    Portugal
    April 13, 5:46 am

    For the first time I read about dolphins as personalities in news,that India stopped keeping these fellow animals in captivity.And I was really impressed! In your article I found much more arguments and explanation.Thank you! I totally agree with you! I believe we will be able to transmit this message to future generations and change the situation!

  28. Jayna Hamel
    Florida
    April 13, 2:50 am

    The current hunt in Taiji is not a centuries old practice. It is performed with motorboats and GPS and involves trucking and flying captive cetaceans thousands of miles. It is in no way a cultural tradition in its current form.

  29. A Vallejo
    La Habra, CA
    April 13, 2:38 am

    As seen by the title, this is an opinion piece from a guest blogger so it’s meant to show her view. I’ve been fascinated by marine mammals since I was a wee lad and have come to read and learn about them as much as I can. By no means am I an expert on the subject, but I do have the right to an opinion and I just think that we need to re-asses the methods and motives for keeping these amazing and fascinating animals in captivity. Is this article biased? Of course! The person who wrote this was invited provide her opinion. At the same time let’s not overlook the fact that SeaWorld does contribute research and conservation in some capacity. For instance, their organization does assist with the rehabilitation and rescue of marine life to a large extent. But the argument isn’t that SeaWorld doesn’t do anything useful. The argument here is whether the captivity of marine mammals is detrimental to the animals being held captive and if so; do the benefits outweigh the stress that these animals experience? So far I haven’t seen a compelling argument from SeaWorld to prove that they are in fact serving the sole purpose of benefiting the captive animals.
    Their response–in a nutshell– has been that they throw millions of dollars into research, as well as training and maintaining their animals while they are “lodging” at their facilities. But that’s almost the equivalent of a child molester saying “yea, I molested a few children, but I donate money to children’s charities every year. So leave me alone.” Also, the argument that SeaWorld no longer captures wild whales seems faulty. At one point, a lot of these whales were wild. The fact that their offspring were born in captivity doesn’t quite sit right to justify captivity. Imagine if the slave trade “industry” was still around in the US (I know it’s still around in some parts of the world). Would the defense that they no longer remove people from their indigenous land and that they all breed in slavery hold any sway? Not in my view. Again, an independent assessment of conditions in the marine parks is crucial to determining whether or not using these animals for shows is something that needs to be banned, changed or allowed to continue as it is. Please, let’s not insult one another and share our ideas and opposing points of view in a respectful manner. I know some of my comparisons are a little over the top, but I did not direct them at a specific person(s). Thank you and good night. :)

  30. RJ Rosendahl
    April 13, 12:47 am

    Dr. Lori your school’s website says “In 2001 she [being you] and her colleague Diana Reiss published the first evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” I was just wondering if the dolphins used in this research were wild dolphins or dolphins in human care? For those that care to know here’s the link http://www.pnas.org/content/98/10/5937.long

    Also, you say that “all of the scientific data converge on one inescapable conclusion – dolphins and whales cannot thrive in captivity. They lead shorter and more stressful lives in captivity than in the wild.” I am not as familiar with the findings that you’re citing and would like to access the scientific literature supporting your claims. Specifically, what are the stressors you’ve researched? How were you able to quantify these stressors with scientific validity? Cortisol (stress hormone) levels have recently been looked into but results have not been entirely conclusive because chasing wild animals and capturing them to take samples and releasing them has shown higher cortisol levels but because of the stress of this type of interaction how valid are those findings. Trainers have learned that training husbandry behaviors aides in the reduction of stress in animals in human care that’s why we put so much emphasis on training these very important medical behaviors. To think animals in the wild don’t experience stress would be naive even if not being chased by a boat so what other stressors are you able to control for in the wild and human care to accurately compare the two?

    Also, in regards to life expectancy, the scientific literature is littered with different numbers regarding average life span. The oldest dolphin in human care right now is 61 and there are several other animals in their 40’s and 50’s. Could it be reasoned that as we’ve learned more about the needs of these animals in human care we’ve been able to provide them with better care? Genetics is a factor in all life so some animals won’t live as long as others. Many articles say animals CAN live to a certain age. Well humans CAN live to be 116 but that doesn’t mean we’re all gonna make it there. Data can be manipulated to confirm a bias either way. The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies had this to say “Life expectancy for dolphins differs per geographic region and species. Bottlenose dolphins can live into their 40’s. However, this appears to be a maximum age comparable to a human living to be about 100 years old. Dr. Randy Wells’ studies of the Sarasota Bay, Florida dolphins, have found that only one to two percent will reach that age at sea. The average age that these animals live until is between 15-16 years old. The oldest, scientifically aged dolphin in the wild was 48 years old. The oldest in an aquarium is over 50, and that dolphin is captive-born.” I believe this is the dolphin I mention earlier. Whatever one believes, it’s important that people here should do their own research and clearly not take our word for it.

  31. Matthew Jenkins
    April 12, 11:00 pm

    I thought this article was well written and informative. I liked the fact that it covered the three usual excuses for why we should keep dolphins in captivity. Dolphins are socially oriented and there intellegence is possibly equal to ours. If you limit there ability to socially interact with other dolphins you limit there intellegence. I would be interested in further research on this subject.

  32. Dave
    Toronto
    April 11, 6:44 pm

    Andy, there’s a clear difference between stating facts and making an argument. If I told you hunter-gatherers have more leisure time than modern workers would that be an argument for you to go off-grid? Similarly, just because dolphins have large brains, have some societies, and have emotions doesn’t mean captivity is wrong.

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever written a formal essay, but the essential point of introducing facts is to support an argument.

  33. Dr. Lori Marino
    Atlanta, GA
    April 11, 12:24 pm

    Dr. Jena Questen – I have studied marine mammals in the wild and in captivity for over twenty years. Your criticisms of Dr. Bearzi’s article have little merit and here is why. First, although there is much research done on captive marine mammals, the overwhelming majority of it has to do with husbandry and reproduction in captivity – in other words – keeping the captive population going. Very little of it is applied to wild populations. Despite your assertion that you’ve “seen it with your own eyes” little of this research makes its way into the mainstream peer-reviewed scientific literature. Second, I’ve done research and published on the education claims of the marine mammal captivity industry and can tell you, unequivocally, that there are no data to back up the claim that seeing dolphin and whale shows and displays are educational or lead to positive conservation attitudes. The findings are just not there. And, third, I can only say that I wish you were correct about the good welfare of dolphins and whales in captivity. But, unfortunately, all of the scientific data converge on one inescapable conclusion – dolphins and whales cannot thrive in captivity. They lead shorter and more stressful lives in captivity than in the wild. So, in summary, I’m not sure which findings you are referring to in support of your arguments. None of the scientific data I or my colleagues are aware of support your statements. Thank you.

  34. Dr. Jena Questen
    United States
    April 10, 10:03 pm

    Interesting, and reassuring, that most of the comments to these article are to the negative. The article is anthropomorphising the animals, and yes, written by someone with seemingly little experience with marine mammals in captivity. As someone who has personally attended the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums several years in a row, the statements about the science gathered studying these animals in captivity is misleading. I have seem the studies with my own eyes, as well as the reports of the literally hundreds of stranded marine mammals that are rescued, rehabilitated, and re-released, all through funding provided by visitors to marine mammal parks. The science learned from the animals who are not releasable, has helped us to have the knowledge needed to help and release many others.
    No one likes to think of these magnificent animals being cooped up in small pools, but the care, medical attention, and feeding they receive is better than what many people get, and all of them were either born in captivity (and would not likely survive in the wild without hand prepared fish, etc.), or are non releasable and only live because of human intervention.
    Dolphins create very strong emotions in humans, but as a third party scientist from the outside looking in, I can personally say these facilities do more every single day for the wild and the captive marine mammals on our planet than any other person or organization with the best of intentions. The amount of knowledge we have about them from studying and interacting with them, checking their blood work, studying their dentition, ultrasounding their reproductive tracts, to name a few, has furthered our knowledge of how them by leaps and bounds that would have taken centuries to try to learn through random observations in the wild. Marine mammal parks have there place, and do their due diligence for the honor of caring for these magnificent creatures, every single day.

  35. roland
    United States
    April 10, 7:44 pm

    I spent three years in central america and some dolphins seemed to befriend me. every time I went to town and back by water on the sea they would come and swim along side the boat. some time they would be several miles out to sea and I would see them jump high in the air to see if it was me taking the boat out. in a few mins they would show up. one day a mother dolphin came up very close to the boat and with in reach of my hand in the stern with the tiller steer. the mother had a very small baby riding the wake of her fin and she pushed it up almost out of the water, almost touching the boat. I think she was showing me her new baby. as the mother broke water she would cackle at me. I felt honored.

  36. RJ Rosendahl
    April 10, 12:29 pm

    To say my comment is a fob off is rather dismissive. There were many points which were covered which you opted not to respond to. You are trying to make a correlation that doesn’t necessarily exist. Also, the feelings you discuss are what add value to your life. That’s true of most individuals. The problem here is how do you know what a dolphin is feeling? Engaging with animals closely in human care allows individuals to witness several “feelings” or “emotions” human care doesn’t suppress these behavioral expressions. I am not sure that civilization is based solely on one’s ability to produce fire. Dolphins are social animals and express social behavior in human care much like they would in the wild. I don’t think either argument is proving anything one way or another. I am simply providing another side that most people don’t consider. Some individuals feel bad about animals in human care and assume that those animals “feel” the same way. The problem is making a blanket statement for an entire species leads to misleading generalizations. The feelings you enjoy in life can’t be said for all people. We have to consider the animals in human care not just their wild counter parts. If the lives of animals in human care shouldn’t be considered true representatives of their wild counterparts, then why should their wild counterparts be representatives of animals in human care? We all adapt to our unique environments. Again this is just one part of my discussion but I appreciate the opportunity to elaborate.

  37. Gavin
    April 10, 10:17 am

    @RJ
    “Talking about the dolphin brain is rather mute considering we don’t even know what the entire human brain is meant to do.”

    Well its funny how the superiority complex of humans all revolves around the vastly superior brain…until the argument falls flat on its face.

    There are really two arguments here.
    1. Are dolphins intelligent.
    2. Do they have emotions.

    I think the second argument is by far the most important. If I was to sum up the value of my life, the fact that I feel all the good feelings in my life is all that counts. Even if it is intelligence that you value, the major component of that is the word value. In other words you have a satisfaction or some kind of emotion about it.

    On the subject of a Dolphin being intelligent It would be very difficult to measure, but you only have to look at a dolphin brain to understand that the whole thing is way more convoluted than our own therefore a reasonable assumption is that it is extremely intelligent. Of course dolphins have never achieved a civilization, because the first step – the discovery of fire is impossible under water. so lets be fair and not compare acoumplishments – they dont even have hands.

    But getting back to emotion, the most reasonable assessment is that we quite likely fall way short of a dolphin. The temporal lobes are much bigger in proportion – this area is said to have something to do with emotion. And even if you argue that this is all about sensory perception, imagine how wonderfull that would be to experience. The limbic system is smaller but enhanced by a possibly higher level paralimbic system that we haven’t got to, just like a reptillian brain lacks our outer layer.

    It is grossly unfair to just fob this all off with an attitude of – Oh well we cant prove anything, i’ll just take that to be in our favour. It is a cop out when proof is unavailable but you fob off the most reasonable guess as “not true” and run off with a victory that was never proven either.

  38. Gavin
    April 10, 9:42 am

    @William

    ” Isn’t this like a person having an opinion on what it’s like watching planes fly, but never having been a pilot?”

    Actually I think a more correct interpretation would be that it is like having an opinion on slave keepers, but never having been one. There is a moral reason, why a person would not wish to have such an experience.

  39. Andy
    Philadelphia
    April 10, 8:00 am

    William, surely you must be Dave’s kid brother or something- your analogy is beyond words.

  40. Andy
    Philadelphia
    April 10, 7:57 am

    Dave, the “is-ought” hangup you mention is truly your own, i.e. it doesn’t really make any sense. What kind of ‘arguments’ would have appeased you? Do you just mean to make a semantic quibble based around that word? The author provides obvious, clear, and direct evidence along with personal reasoning as to why captivity should be discontinued. Was the author not “argumentative” enough in doing this? Your comment is truly mind numbing…

    As for captive dolphins sexually coercing one another / forming alliances, bonds / and so on (all within absurdly limited environments under constant human monitoring/manipulation)……..frankly this is so off-base it belies a lack of research on your part into this general subject. Which is further mind-numbing considering you took the time to post a comment on a message board.

  41. RJ Rosendahl
    Las Vegas
    April 9, 11:55 pm

    This is a very poorly written article. Certainly biased and contradicting in many ways. First of all much of what we have learned has come from the study of animals in human care. So we can thank the animal care and training industry for that. Watching dolphins in the wild may be an integral part of her life but other individuals have made it their life to care for animals in human care. Of course dolphins have complex brain capabilities they’d need it for echolocation among other things. Talking about the dolphin brain is rather mute considering we don’t even know what the entire human brain is meant to do. Dolphins are certainly social animals. I am sure they can sense what others are feeling by social cues i.e. body posture and or displacement. Dolphins do have social groups and hierarchies, however saying that dolphins know who owes who id ludicrous. Whether in human care or the wild dolphins form social groups. Males housed together will often form “pair bonds” and display quite natural behavior amongst each other as well as with females. Dolphins in human care also play, bond, imitate, and teach their young. Not sure how that’s a point? This writer somewhat contradicts herself by saying that dolphins swim so much in order to find food. They have to. If dolphins are being provided with food they still swim but don’t have to swim the great distances to find it and can conserve energy. Tell me how you know exactly how much space a dolphin needs? Can you tell me how much space I need? Whether a dolphin is confined as this writer says or not their “perpetual smile” is ever present. So what is the perpetual smile telling you in the wild that it’s not telling you in human care? How do you know? Dolphin die smiling in the wild too. Recently in Sarasota Bay FL a dolphin was found dead when they did a necropsy they found hot dogs in his stomach. Also another dolphin was found shot to death and another was found stabbed to death from screwdriver. I bet they had smiles on their faces too. Let’s move on. I have witnessed a loving mother caring for it’s calf, and I have witnessed another animals caring about another animal in human care. Also, what does grief look like? Does it look different in human care versus the wild? Some research done with animals in human care will translate more directly to animals in the wild. I have learned quite a lot about dolphins in general from doing research. Much of what we know about dolphins is learned through research provided by their counterparts in human care. For instance knowing what a dolphin’s hearing range is allows us to consider noise pollution and what might be affecting animals in the wild. Granted all animals are different but to be ignorant enough to think that nothing applies is ridiculous. Moving on. Experiential learning is awesome. There’s nothing that compares. Getting up close and personal to animals is an incredible way to make and impression and inspire. You could go on a whale watching trip. I hope you see whales. Several trips can take hours and some trips won’t even see any whales or dolphins. The industry doesn’t just take animals from the wild like this article might lead you to believe. There are hunts in Taiji that are indeed awful. However, this is a centuries old practice. Only recently has animal training grown in popularity. The Japanese government mandates that animals used for public display be taken from these drives which would be happening whether or not the industry existed. Using an extremely small portion of animals to hopefully educate this country just might help. Is it the best thing no, but at least you know more. The majority of animals in human care were born in human care. The only way wild animals MIGHT come into human care from the wild is if they are deemed non releasable by fish and wildlife. It is this governmental organization that will seek a facility to house the individual animal and continue to care for them. This takes time and resources. Sure we could let them die, but that doesn’t seem compassionate. We could also let the lost dog run around on the highway or we could intervene and help. Endangered species cannot be bred by law. This seems backwards to me. If there was a chance or prolonging a species wouldn’t we want to do that? Anyway, rant over. This was a horribly written article. Whether you agree with me or not you should do your own research. I am very disappointed in National Geographic for posting such a deplorable article.

  42. William
    April 9, 8:14 pm

    I noticed the author has never worked with marine mammals in human care. I understand her experience is with animals that are free ranging. Isn’t this like a person having an opinion on what it’s like watching planes fly, but never having been a pilot?

  43. Dave
    Toronto
    April 8, 3:07 pm

    Still haven’t gotten over the is-ought argument here. All 3 things you listed are facts, but are not arguments against captivity. Worse, you don’t claim that dolphins are deprived of these social interactions in captivity, i.e., they can still sexually coerce other females and form alliances, bonds, and so on.