Aquariums and Marine Parks
Marine-mammal facilities are part of a billion-dollar industry built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that is natural and important to them.
In the wild, orcas and members of other dolphin species live in large, intricate social groups and swim up to 100 miles a day in the open ocean. In aquariums and marine parks, these animals can only swim endless circles in enclosures that to them are like bathtubs and are unable to engage in most natural behaviors. They are forced to perform silly tricks for food and are frequently torn away from family members as they’re shuffled between parks. The chronic and debilitating stress of captivity weakens their immune systems, causing them to die earlier than their wild counterparts—even though they are safe from predators and receive regular meals and veterinary care.
Families Torn Apart
Hundreds of marine mammals, including the original Shamu, have been taken from U.S. waters and placed in aquariums and theme parks. Although American parks and zoos have not captured dolphins from the wild since 1993, it is still legal for them to do so. Other countries continue to take dolphins and whales from the wild, particularly in the Caribbean, where swim-with-dolphins attractions have become increasingly popular.
Capturing even one wild dolphin disrupts the entire pod. In the wild, female dolphins spend their entire lives with their mothers and sisters within the family pod. They communicate with each other through whistles and body language. Dolphins swim together in family pods or tribes of hundreds.
To obtain a female dolphin of breeding age, animal traffickers chase the pod to shallow waters, where the animals are surrounded with nets that are gradually closed and lifted onto 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 sometimes spontaneously abort babies. Dolphins who escape capture become frantic upon seeing their captured companions and may even try to save them.
Captivity’s Tragic Consequences
In addition to the indisputable cruelty and inappropriateness of removing wild animals from their natural habitat and communities, keeping dolphins in captivity dooms them to living their lives as mere attractions at theme parks and resort hotels, where they are forced to perform silly tricks for food in front of huge crowds of screaming people. They are also forced to swim with tourists and are often hand-fed and petted by curiosity seekers. However, most of the time they are forced to swim endless circles in tiny, barren concrete tanks.
Orcas and other dolphins navigate by echolocation, but in tanks, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, driving some of them insane. World-renowned oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau compared the keeping of orcas in tanks to “a person being blindfolded in a jail cell.”
Trainers force marine mammals to learn tricks, often by withholding food and isolating animals who refuse to perform. One trainer at Hersheypark quit because she saw “a lot of frustrated animals that would die from ulcers.” A marine-mammal behavioral biologist in Seattle says that captive dolphins demonstrate a variety of stress-related behavior such as self-inflicted trauma, induced vomiting, and aggressiveness. Some captive dolphins have reportedly taken their own lives by hitting their heads against the sides of pools or by refusing to come up for air.
Research shows that captive dolphins suffer from higher mortality rates than wild dolphins, even though they have regular medical care and an environment free of predators. Wild orcas can live for decades (it has been documented that some have lived to be more than 90 years old), but at SeaWorld, 22 orcas died between 1986 and 2010—an average of nearly one each year—and not one died of old age. Their deaths were caused by severe trauma, intestinal gangrene, acute hemorrhagic pneumonia, pulmonary abscesses, chronic kidney disease, chronic cardiovascular failure, septicemia, and influenza.
The Trouble With ‘Interactive’ Programs
Touch tanks and “swim-with” programs allow the public to pet, kiss, or even “ride” dolphins. Such programs invade the animals’ already diminished worlds and are intrusive, dangerous, and stressful for the animals as well as for human participants.
Animals in “petting pools” can become injured and anxious as a result of constant poking and prodding, and exposure to bacteria that they are not immune to can make them ill. The dolphins also often express their frustration through aggression. SeaWorld has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several instances in which members of the public were injured at the facility’s dolphin-petting pools.
Even programs that enable people to swim with wild dolphins are often so invasive that they become detrimental to the animals. Boats and swimmers often chase, block, crowd, injure, and scare animals, upsetting their natural feeding, resting, traveling, and playing behavior.
Poor Government Regulations
Marine mammals kept in aquariums have little federal protection, and the few laws that do exist are often ignored. Florida’s Sun-Sentinel reported that the federal government “has allowed violators to continue operating for years even after documenting contaminated water, starvation or deaths” and “does little to enforce rules and rarely levies fines or closes facilities.” As a result, aquariums and theme parks have little incentive to fix problems, improve conditions, or comply with reporting requirements.
Keeping Dolphins Free
A 2010 study carried out by professor Lori Marino at Emory University in Atlanta used MRI scans to map the brains of dolphins and compare them to those of primates and concluded that dolphins are second only to humans in intelligence. At least two scientists recommend that dolphins be given the same status as humans. Other studies have revealed that dolphins have distinct personalities, can think about the future, and have a strong sense of self and that new behaviors are passed from one dolphin to another.
People around the world are recognizing that dolphins, orcas, and other cetaceans do not belong in captivity. Consumer boycotts have forced all of England’s marine-mammal exhibits to close. Israel and Australia prohibit the importation of dolphins for use in entertainment. Plans for the construction of a dolphin tank at a marine center in Virginia were abandoned following an extensive public outcry.
What You Can Do
Please don’t visit parks or zoos that keep marine mammals in captivity. Encourage your local aquarium to create more space for rehabilitating (and releasing) injured wildlife by refusing to breed any more animals. If you encounter poor conditions, please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
You can also leaflet at the park, write letters to the editors of local publications, pressure officials to avoid subsidizing these facilities with taxpayer money, and support legislation that prohibits the capture or restricts the display of marine mammals.