Born Free is convinced that the complex needs of whales, dolphins and porpoises (known collectively as cetaceans) simply cannot be met in captivity.
Thousands of cetaceans are held in hundreds of zoos, aquaria and dolphinaria across the world. These animals are still being caught from the wild to stock a growing number of captive facilities. Captive cetaceans are usually trained to perform unnatural behaviours or made to interact with people in swim-with or petting activities.
“The public is often told that the animals don’t 'have to' perform – that they do it because they want to perform and you can’t make a dolphin or a killer whale do something that it doesn’t want to do. I disagree with this statement. I think the animals learn the routines and adapt (some better than others) but I doubt they would 'choose' to do these things in the wild other than in specific situations, like dolphins riding bow waves next to boats. The mimic behaviours are especially disturbing to me (head shakes yes and no, simulated kisses, hulas, dance behaviours) because they anthropomorphise the animals and turn them into circus clowns and they further convince the public that the animals are enjoying the performance when this is not the case.” – Samantha Berg, former SeaWorld trainer
Cetaceans live in a variety of habitats, from estuaries, coastal environments and deep water habitats, from the tropics to the poles and are known to travel vast distances. Bottlenose dolphins have home ranges as large as 300km and have been recorded travelling up to 1,076km in 20 days. Orcas can dive as deep as 60m and travel as far as 160km in a day, spending less than 20% of their time at the water’s surface. Living in groups (called pods), these animals are highly sociable and intelligent, displaying self-awareness and differing cultures.
Cetaceans are generally kept for display and performance in unnatural, relatively small tanks that offer little by way of comparison to the environments in which they have evolved to live. Abnormal ‘stereotypic’ behaviour is common and it is reported that drugs are sometimes administered to reduce stress.
Presentations or shows may be once or several times a day, and are often accompanied by loud music, to which the animals perform a repertoire of tricks. Some facilities offer opportunities for the public to ‘swim-with’ dolphins, or pose for souvenir photographs; activities designed to generate money.
There are no universally-accepted welfare standards for the management of cetaceans in captivity – in fact, most experts agree that cetaceans fare badly in captivity. Standards and regulations governing captive cetaceans differ widely around the world, depending on national legislation and its enforcement, and are rarely based on science.
While some species of cetacean have bred in captivity, the population of captive cetaceans is not thought to be sustainable. As a result, cetaceans are captured from the wild in order to maintain the industry. For example, every year thousands of dolphins and small whales are hunted in the ‘oikomi-ryo’ (dolphin drive) in Japan, where the strongest animals are usually selected for export to international captive facilities. Russia is also believed to be one of the main sources of wild-caught cetaceans, such as orca, bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales. Methods of capture and transport of cetaceans can be extremely stressful and cruel, and some die of shock and injury in the process.
Cetaceans in captivity are normally trained to perform ‘circus-style’ tricks, whereby the animals receive a reward for performing the desired task, usually food.
Tricks may include jumps, back-flips and summersaults, tail walks, balancing and playing with objects, and various interactions with the animal trainers, such as dorsal pulls (trainer is pulled whist holding the animal’s dorsal fin) and rostrum pushes (trainer is lifted out of water, standing on the animal’s ‘nose’). Other shows may involve cetaceans ‘singing’ tunes or even painting pictures.
Tricks performed in shows are not always extensions of natural behaviour, as often claimed by their trainers.
For many people it is a lifelong dream to swim with dolphins, yet Born Free is convinced that few people would partake in the practice if they knew that such interactions could be highly stressful and damaging for the animals.
Cetaceans are often used in swim-with programmes throughout the day, as well as performing in shows. They may also be used for visitor souvenir photographs, during which the animals may be trained to jump out and ‘beach’ themselves on the edge of the concrete pool.
‘Swim-withs’ and other public interactions are associated with the potential for injury to both humans and dolphins. Dolphins have delicate eyes and skin, which are at risk from human fingernails, jewellery, make-up and suntan lotion. There are numerous accounts of people incurring bites, bruises, abrasions and even broken bones during close-contact with captive cetaceans. These animals can also harbour numerous bacterial and fungal diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
Images: © Loren Javier (Flickr cc), © WDC