Marine Animal Exhibits: Chlorinated Prisons
At aquariums around the country, orcas leap through the air for a handful of fish and are ridden by human performers as if they were water skis. Tourists flock to facilities that offer them the opportunity to swim or have their pictures taken with dolphins. These parks and zoos are part of a billion-dollar business built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that is natural and important to them.(1) Ric O’Barry, who was a dolphin trainer for the Flipper television series in the 1960s, says that parks and zoos “want you to think that God put [dolphins] there or [that] they rescued them. … If people knew the truth, they wouldn’t buy a ticket.”(2)
Families Torn Apart
Killer whales, or orcas, are members of the dolphin family. They are also the largest animals held in captivity. In the wild, orcas stay with their mothers for life. Family groups, or “pods,” consist of a mother, her adult sons and daughters, and her daughters’ offspring. Members of the pod communicate in a “dialect” specific to that pod. Dolphins swim together in family pods or tribes of hundreds.
Capturing even one wild orca or dolphin disrupts the entire pod. To obtain a female dolphin of breeding age, for example, boats are used to chase the pod to shallow waters, where the animals are surrounded with nets that are gradually closed and lifted onto the boats. Unwanted dolphins are thrown back. Some die from shock or stress, and others slowly succumb to pneumonia when water enters their lungs through their blowholes. Pregnant females may spontaneously abort babies. In one instance, more than 200 panicked dolphins who had been corralled into a Japanese fishing port crashed into boat hulls and each other, becoming hopelessly entangled in nets during their attempt to find an escape route; many became exhausted and drowned.(3)
Orcas and dolphins who escape the ordeal of capture become frantic upon seeing their captured companions and may even try to save them. When Namu, a wild orca captured off the coast of Canada, was towed to the Seattle Public Aquarium, he was insured by Lloyd’s of London, according to the BBC, for “various contingencies including rescue attempts by other whales.”(4)
Adapting to an Alien World
In the wild, orcas and dolphins swim up to 100 miles per day.(5,6) But captured dolphins are confined to tanks that may be only 24 feet long, 24 feet wide, and 6 feet deep.(7) They navigate by echolocation—bouncing sonar waves off other objects to determine their shape, density, distance, and location—but in tanks, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, driving some dolphins insane. Jacques Cousteau said that life for a captive dolphin “leads to a confusion of the entire sensory apparatus, which in turn causes in such a sensitive creature a derangement of mental balance and behaviour.”(8)
Tanks are kept clean with chemicals that have unknown side effects. Because of high chlorine levels in their tanks, dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were unable to open their eyes, and their skin began to peel off.(9)
A tank at the North Carolina Zoological Park didn’t provide enough shade, causing a sea lion’s eyes to develop blisters and rupture. Oklahoma City Zoo closed its dolphin exhibit after four dolphins died within two years from bacterial infections.(10) Sea lions at Hershey Park won’t come out of their pen because they fear the noise made by the nearby rollercoasters.(11)
Newly captured dolphins and orcas are forced to learn tricks. Former trainers say that withholding food and isolating animals who refuse to perform are two common training methods. According to Ric O’Barry, “positive reward” training is a euphemism for “food deprivation.”(12) Former dolphin trainer Doug Cartlidge maintains that highly social dolphins are punished by being isolated from other animals: “You put them in a pen and ignore them. It’s like psychological torture.”(13)
Captivity’s Tragic Consequences
If life for captive orcas and dolphins were as tranquil as marine parks would have us believe, the animals would live longer than their wild counterparts. However, while captive marine mammals are not subject to predators or ocean pollution, their captivity is nevertheless a death sentence.
It has been documented that, in the wild, dolphins can live into their 40s and 50s.(14) But more than 80 percent of captive dolphins whose ages could be determined died before the age of 20.(15) Wild orcas can also live for decades—some have been documented to be more than 90 years old—but those at Sea World and other marine parks rarely survive for more than 10 years.(16)
Florida’s Sun-Sentinel examined 30 years of federal documents pertaining to marine animals and found that nearly 4,000 sea lions, seals, dolphins, and whales have died in captivity, and of the 2,400 cases in which a cause of death was listed, one in five animals died “of uniquely human hazards or seemingly avoidable causes.”(17) Captive marine mammals have died from swallowing coins, succumbing to heatstroke, and swimming in contaminated water.
A former trainer at Hershey Park quit because she saw “a lot of frustrated animals that would die from ulcers.”(18) A marine mammal behavioral biologist in Seattle says that “dolphins in captivity can exhibit self-inflicted trauma” and that some drift at the surface of the water and chew on concrete until they’ve destroyed their teeth.(19) Others have reportedly taken their own lives by hitting their heads against the sides of pools or by not coming up for air.(20)
The Problems With ‘Interactive’ Programs
Many aquariums are now offering touch tanks and “swim-with” programs, giving visitors carte blanche to invade these animals’ already diminished worlds.
When the Georgia Aquarium announced that it was going to start allowing a dozen swimmers in the tank with its whale sharks every day, George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told the Los Angeles Times that subjecting animals to these programs is like “being in a bedroom for the rest of your life after having the ability to walk around freely…. And then having 20 people come join you in your personal space every so often.”(21) Thirteen dolphins housed at The Mirage’s Dolphin Habitat in Las Vegas, where patrons can pay to be a “trainer” for a day, have died since the facility opened in 1990.(22) Thirty-year-old Sharky died of head injuries when she collided in mid-air with another dolphin while forced to perform tricks as part of Florida’s Discovery Cove, where tourists participate in the “Swim With Dolphins” program.(23)
Even dolphin-assisted therapy can be dangerous—not only for the animals but also for the mentally or physically disabled patients hoping to get some kind of “healing” experience. “Dolphin-assistance therapy is not a valid treatment for any disorder,” says Lori Marino, a dolphin and whale researcher from Emory University, who adds that “injury is a very real possibility when you place a child in a tank with a 400-pound wild animal that may be traumatized from being captured.”(24)
Touch tanks are also death traps for animals. Forty stingrays died from an unknown toxin at the Calgary Zoo’s touch tank within three months after the exhibit opened.(25) This mass death was not an isolated incident: 21 stingrays died in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s tank, and 16 died at Illinois’ Brookfield Zoo.(26,27)
Poor Government Regulations
Animals kept in aquariums have little federal protection, and the few laws that do exist are often ignored. The Sun-Sentinel reported that the federal government “has allowed violators to continue operating for years even after documenting contaminated water, starvation or deaths.”(28) The executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission told the paper that inspectors are too few and too overworked and that “[t]here are very few who are trained in marine mammal veterinary sciences.”(29) Even more alarming, although federal law requires that facilities keep records of mammals’ births, deaths, and transfers, many do not turn over reports of stillborns or newborn deaths. In one instance, a California sea lion named Nemo died in 2000 at the Seneca Park Zoo in New York, yet three years later, government records indicated that he was still alive.(30)
What You Can Do
Richard Donner, coproducer of the film Free Willy, said, “Removal of these majestic mammals from the wild for commercial purposes is obscene. … These horrendous captures absolutely must become a thing of the past.”(31)
People around the world are recognizing that dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans do not belong in captivity. Canada no longer allows beluga whales to be captured and exported.(32) Israel has prohibited the importation of dolphins for use as entertainment.(33) Australia also prohibits importation of dolphins.(34) Plans for the construction of a dolphin tank at a marine center in Virginia were abandoned following extensive public outcry.(35)
Don’t visit parks or zoos that have captive marine mammals unless you are doing so to monitor the animals as part of a campaign. Encourage your local aquarium to stop breeding animals in order to make space for rehabilitating (and releasing) injured wildlife. Report poor conditions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leaflet at the park, write letters to the editors of local publications, and pressure officials to avoid subsidizing these facilities with taxpayer money. Support legislation that prohibits the capture or restricts the display of marine mammals.
1) Sally Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture,” Sun-Sentinel 16 May 2004.
2) Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture.”
3) Public Broadcasting Service, “A Whale of a Business,” Frontline 1998.
4) “Lloyd’s: Insuring the Famous and the Bizarre,” BBC News, 29 Oct. 1999.
5) Orca Network, “Some Fascinating Facts About Orcas,” last accessed 17 Jul. 2008.
6) Ken LeVasseur, “Dolphins Head to New Prison Camp,” Hololulu Star-Bulletin 15 Sep. 2000.
7) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “3.104 Space Requirements.”
8) Virginia McKenna, Into the Blue (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992).
9) Sally Kestin, “Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks,” Sun-Sentinel 17 May 2004.
10) Kestin, “Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks.”
11) Christopher Schnaars, “Marine Parks: Below the Surface,” The Morning Call 16 May 2004.
14) Sally Kestin, “Experts, Parks Debate Animal’s Ages of Death,” Sun-Sentinel 16 May 2004.
15) Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture.”
16) Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture.”
17) Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture.”
19) Kestin, “Sickness and Death Can Plague Marine Mammals at Parks.”
20) Polly Buchanan, “Dolphins Terrified Into Mass Suicide,” The Express 12 Jun. 2008.
21) Richard Fausset, “Too Close for Their Comfort? Atlanta’s Aquarium Lets the Public Pay to Get in the Tank With Sharks,” Los Angeles Times 19 Jun. 2008.
22) “Las Vegas Attraction Investigates Dolphin’s Death,” Associated Press, 7 Jul. 2008
23) Jacqui Goddard, “Dolphin Dies as Aerial Stunt for Tourists Goes Wrong,” The Times (London), 29 Apr. 2008
24) Emory University, “Dolphin ‘Therapy’ a Dangerous Fad, Emory Researchers Warn,” EurekaAlert.org, 18 Dec. 2007
25) “5 More Stingrays Die as Calgary Zoo Asks Police for Help, CBC News, 14 May 2008.
26) Dawn Walton, “34 Stingrays Mysteriously Die in Matter of Hours: Zoo Officials, Not Ruling out the Possibility of Foul Play, Keep Watch on the Nine Surviving Rays and Await Toxicology Tests,” The Globe and Mail 13 May 2008.
27) Sophia Tareen, “16 Stingrays Found Dead at Illinois Zoo,” Associated Press, 16 Jul. 2008.
28) Sally Kestin, “Federal Government Often Slow to Enforce Laws Meant to Protect Marine Animals,” Sun-Sentinel 23 May 2004.
29) Kestin, “Federal Government Often Slow to Enforce Laws Meant to Protect Marine Animals.”
30) Kestin, “Not a Perfect Picture.”
31) “Sea World Tossed out as Sponsor for American Oceans Event,” Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, 20 Mar. 1995.
32) Brian McHattie, letter to Ann Terbush, U.S. Department of Commerce, “Comments on National Marine Fisheries Service Proposed Rule—Docket No. 001031304-0304-01,” 31 Oct. 2001
33) “Israel Agency Bans Import of Dolphins,” Reuters, 4 Feb. 1994.
34) Andrew Darby, “Born to Be Wild,” Sydney Morning Herald 23 Jul. 2003.
35) Jon Frank, “Beach to Turn Over Documents on Tank Expansion to PETA; Deal Is Second Challenge to City’s Compliance With Information Law in Less Than a Week,” The Virginian-Pilot 28 Mar. 2001.