Commercial shows with dolphins and orcas may seem funny but the reality is very harsh. Scientific evidence shows that marine mammals suffer greatly in captivity where their behavioral and physiological needs cannot be met. Live in small pools, with no environmental enrichment, can lead to stress and aggression, reduce life expectancy and cause numerous health problems.
Proof of this is that most dolphinaria give their animals Valiums and other drugs to prevent them from showing abnormal behaviors. Others give steroids to males to stop them from being aggressive and so they can perform in the "shows".
A life in a concrete tank, constantly circling will never be an acceptable substitute to the vast ocean. The complex needs of cetaceans make them inadaptable to captivity, however much they try to "enrich" their environment with multiple balls and games. The circus-like shows are also anti-educational and no viable research or conservation program has been carried out ex situ for the species.
It is estimated that there are currently about 1,000 dolphins kept in captivity worldwide. While most live in zoos, dolphinaria and water parks, they can also be found in malls, clubs, hotels and even some armies use them in warfare experiments.
Although, due to their high mortality, figures fluctuate, there are about 90 dolphins, 2 beluga whales and 6 orcas held in captivity in Spain
Images in movies and television of wild dolphins sympathizing and helping people have created a distorted image of them. Unfortunately for them, the shape of their jaws can resemble what humans may associate with a smile, giving the false impression that they are happy and well, but many are depressed and stressed, and may even become aggressive.
Living conditions of these animals in captivity may seriously affect their physical and psychological wellbeing.
The artificial conditions of captivity include small pools and excessive and artificial light and sounds. The water in which they live is different to seawater; it consists of freshwater with added salt and chemical additives and in certain centers the presence of microbes, algae, other particles and chemical imbalances is common and may affect animals. The diet provided to them is different from their natural one and as frozen fish looses its nutritional value, the animals need to be given vitamin supplements. Dehydration of animals is common as frozen fish loses water, so animals need to be artificially provided with water through injecting it into the fish or in gelatin blocks.
In captivity, cetaceans rarely use their natural sonar - a highly sophisticated sense that allows them to recognize their environment, to fish and to communicate. Not having anything to discover in the empty pools, they usually stop emitting underwater sounds (and only perform those nasal sounds induced by humans for the show) and rely more on visual stimuli. In some tanks, sonar waves can bounce off the cold walls and noise (like that from the circulation pumps) can affect the auditory perception thresholds of animals. This explains why some cetaceans have bumped into the walls of the tanks at times injuring themselves of even dying from the blow.
Being deprived of variety in a completely barren environment which lacks of things to do, bores them and does not provide them with incentives or enough exercise. The social as well as physical stress makes them more prone to disease and they must be routinely supplied with drugs.
In the wild these animals live in groups of between 15 and 60 individuals with very cohesive and durable social bonds, especially among mothers and their calves, some of which last for a lifetime. Dolphins cooperate to fish and even help each other when in need. In captivity, dolphins from different ponds are put together creating totally artificial social groups that do not allow them to establish a hierarchy. This can lead to problems of socialization, the development of domain wars, and aggressive behaviors among them due to stress. To keep them calm, they are sometimes given tranquilizers or hormones.
In the wild, cetaceans are active animals, swim 95 to 160 kilometers a day at speeds up to 45 km/hr (dolphins) and 56 km/hr (orcas), plunging several meters deep and spending only 15% of their time on the surface. They swim even when sleeping, and are always alert and moving. So it is not hard to imagine the suffering that their confinement in small, shallow pools and with no environmental enrichment, implies for them.
Some cetaceans in captivity show stereotyped behaviors, which are those observed in animals in captivity which are performed repeatedly and without an apparent purpose. In dolphins and orcas, the most common stereotypes are swimming in circles repeatedly, or floating motionless on the surface for long periods of time. Also, and especially in large cetaceans such as killer whales or false orcas, they can also bite the metal bars and walls of their tanks or rub their chins on the cement walls. This can break their teeth or cause serious injury.
The physiological stress and distress suffered by these animals in captivity can cause them ulcers and neurosis, although we can also see vomiting, increased susceptibility to disease and even death.
Due to the high mortality of cetaceans in these conditions, the captive population is unsustainable to maintain this growing industry. It is for this reason that they are increasing catches of wild dolphins to supply these centers. Often, to avoid legislation limiting these practices, sites resort to intermediate centers to claim that their animals are not wild-caught.
Captures are carried out brutally and without adequate studies to determine if populations can withstand these pressures. Being highly social animals, the capture of a single individual can profoundly affect the social structures of the pod and therefore the entire population. Dolphins that are not caught can die of shock and stress caused by the harassment, victims of myopathies that cause heart failure for instance. Afterwards pregnant females may abort their fetuses or mothers may wean their calves. The stress of the capture, the separation from their groups and the fact of being placed in small tanks where they can only swim in circles depresses and weakens the animals, leading to the death of many individuals during the first days of their capture. Others die from injuries and infections caused during the siege.
Even when animals are born in captivity, these retain their wild instincts and suffer equally in dolphinaria than those taken from the wild. Furthermore, the fact that they are born in captivity is no reason to deprive them of their rights as living beings with great cognitive abilities.
Studies show that dolphins have a lower life expectancy in captivity than in the wild. In nature, the life expectancy of a dolphin is about 50 years, while in captivity their mortality is of 60%.
Although dolphins in captivity rarely live more than 20 years, those who have lived longer in captivity have lived as much as their counterparts in the wild. These cases only serve to prove that stress caused by captivity is equally deadly that the dangers these animals face in nature: predators, food shortages, parasites or manmade threats, such as pollution - and we should note that in these centers they receive veterinary care which they would not receive in the wild.
Orcas in captivity die at a rate 2.5 times higher than in nature. While in the wild they can live up to 70 years in the case of males and 90, in the case of females, in dolphinaria they never live past their adolescence. Orcas can not adapt to the social and physical conditions of artificial aquariums.
The main causes of death of these animals in captivity are bacterial infections (such as pneumonia -a respiratory failure). Other causes can be death by asphyxiation as they ingest foreign objects, from attacks by other animals, and even from self-destructive behaviors (suicidal tendencies) or other diseases such as sepsis, tuberculosis and West Nile virus. The frequent chronic or acute stress predisposes animals to suffer problems as it can, for example, cause them immunosuppression (increasing their susceptibility to disease).
The number of dolphins held in captivity is fluctuating because the death and replacement of individuals is common. As the death of calves less than one year old are not counted and there is a high postnatal mortality, the total number of animals that die in these centers is kept hidden from the public eye.
Most centers that keep captive cetaceans claim they play a role in the conservation of these species. However, little viable research has been carried out on captive dolphins that could contribute to conservation efforts. What do circus-like shows contribute to conservation? Why does the captivity industry pressure the International Whaling Commission not to approve legislation to protect small cetaceans?
The captures of cetaceans from the wild incurred to provide the industry, affect wild populations and threaten the conservation of the species. In 2004, Spain allowed the first import of orcas to the EU in 10 years. Although imported with a permit for captive breeding for conservation, these animals are taking part of the shows performing to disco music.
Inbreeding is also very common in these centers. In addition to artificially inseminating females that are too young to breed, they often cross animals with family relationships which can lead to health problems and reduces the genetic pool’s variation necessary for conservation projects.
Dolphins and whales are dangerous animals and the constant conflict between their instincts and the harsh living conditions imposed by captivity, can result in aggressive attacks towards people.
Attacks of these animals to people in nature are rare and generally have not resulted in injuries to people since the animals dropped them when he realized they were not prey. On the few occasions when serious attacks have been committed is has been due to humans harassing, molesting or attempting to interact with the animals.
However, there have been numerous cases of attacks in captivity. In 2010, a killer whale killed its trainer in Orlando, USA. In Spain, an orca at Loroparque (Tenerife) also killed one of its trainers. Also, a dolphin attacked his caregiver in the face in the Oceanographic in Valencia proving that these are stressed animals which can therefore be aggressive, contrary to what their misleading facial grin may indicate.
It is interesting to note that some of the main critics of the keeping of cetaceans in captivity are people who have, in the past, worked for the captivity industry.
Richard O'Barry, former dolphin trainer of the dolphins that performed in the popular TV series Flipper, now devotes his life to fighting dolphinaria through The Dolphin Project. Albert Lopez, former head of marine mammal trainers in Barcelona Zoo, former head of the Oltremare Dolphinaria and former consultant to the Aquarium of Genova, both in Italy, states that dolphins in water parks are "really bad" and that "if they act during shows it’s because they are hungry". Likewise, Lopez also belies the supposed conservation and educational aims alleged by the companies that own these parks.
Although a dolphin in the wild would rarely approach a human being, hundreds of them are forced to swim with tens of thousands people every year. These programmes imply an additional stress factor for the animals which are already affected by their captive condition.
Dolphins are strong, temperamental and –because they are wild- unpredictable. They are big and heavy and their strength can be up to 7 times that of a human athlete’s. Young females are normally used in these programmes since their behaviour is easier to manipulate and males are more prone to aggressiveness and sexual behaviour under certain circumstances and depending on the time of the year. As dolphins tend to be more submissive towards adult men, children and women are more threatened by their behaviour. Young women are in a higher risk of suffering aggressive sexual behaviour.
Dolphins are wild marine mammals with their own patterns of behaviour and social conduct. They play and mate in a different way to human beings and in many occasions, these activities, which are normal for them, can be potentially dangerous for human beings.
Dolphins are extremely agile animals, so accurate in their perceptions and exact and synchronised in their movements under water that they would be able to evade the movements of people. Therefore, any bump or scratch to swimmers would not be accidental. These behaviours can result on severe physical damage to swimmers which may need hospitalisation: strained muscles, damaged organs, internal wounds, open wounds, broken bones and shock.
When swimmers become nervous, dolphins can sense their nervousness, become agitated and react to them with aggressiveness.
There is also a potential risk of zoonotic agents´ transmission between humans and dolphins. It is believed that they can transmit bacteriological and viral diseases, like respiratory infections. Many diseases can penetrate through cuts, rashes, and especially bites.
Visitors are not informed of the risks that may occur during interactions. In fact, participants must often sign a document exempting the centre and the authorities of any responsibility from any accident that may happen during the encounter.
Animals can also be affected by a variety of reasons; from swallowing objects that fall into their enclosures (keys, swimming caps, etc.), from the stress of not being able to withdraw from the activity, from deliberate or accidental annoyances by people – pulling on their fins, chasing them, touching their eyes or blowholes, blows, etc.
Some studies show that the level of sounds made by dolphins increase before and during the swimming-with-dolphins sessions as an indication of stress in anticipation to the sessions and during the course of them.
The centres making a profit from these interactions exaggerate the benefits from interacting with dolphins. People in search for help are unfairly drawn towards dolphin therapy as a kind of “miraculous healing” that more often than not results in a profound disappointment and a considerable waste of money.
Not only associations in the defence of animals but also widely recognised scientists, biologists, dolphin trainers, doctors, physiotherapists and psychotherapists have expressed their concern about the risks involved in such an unconventional method.
It seems that dolphins have the capacity of differentiating and treating handicapped people more carefully. However, the movements and reactions of people with mental disorders can be unpredictable and if an animal is hit, even if involuntarily, their reaction can be aggressive or they can rough and dangerously evade the person.
According to the personnel responsible for these centres, these therapies achieve greater concentration span, a complete relaxation which eases physiotherapy treatment, increase the production of endorphins and improve sleep. However, there are no valid scientific studies proving that therapy with dolphins brings a higher therapeutic success in humans than therapy with domestic animals (such as dogs, cats and horses) or farm animals. Domestic animals have also been used as part of supervised therapeutic programmes with equal, or better, results in order to offer positive reinforcements and increase self-esteem in handicapped children.
Betsy Smith, one of the pioneers in dolphin assisted therapy, reached the conclusion that the physical and mental well-being of dolphins was severely affected in captivity and that the centres offering this service were focused in making business through their exploitation. She concluded that a child “having a good time” was not the equivalent of a therapy.