GUEST AUTHOR: Nina Leipold
Dolphins are wild animals. Any animal, when put into a captive situation, will experience stress due to confinement. It is sometimes difficult to imagine that a dolphin might be anything but happy because of the adorable smile it sports at all times, but we now know that this isn’t the case. Dolphins show stress in a variety of different ways, and captive facilities actively take measures to hide their stress, as well as the effects it has on them from day to day.
One physical indicator of stress is elevated cortisol levels in blood work, which is commonly seen in lab results for captive dolphins. Much like in humans, dolphins release this hormone when under stressful conditions. During my time as a dolphin trainer, I would see the lab results in passing, and cortisol levels were routinely printed in red on the results for captive dolphins because they exceeded the normal range. In one case, a wild-captured dolphin had consistently higher levels of cortisol than the captive-born ones. I can’t draw any scientific conclusions from those results, but it is something that stands out in my memory.
Another indicator of stress is the physical activity of captive dolphins. We often see dolphins in captivity swim in circles or float at the water’s surface in a zombie-like state, an activity known as “logging”; this behavior is not seen in the wild where dolphins are constantly interacting with their pod or their surroundings. In captive conditions, there simply isn’t the space or stimulation.
Vancouver Aquarium, Chester, false killer whale, captivity, #DontBuyATicket
Mental stress can also result from captivity. Dolphins are highly intelligent and have complex social units. When removed from their families, they can become aggressive towards “stranger” dolphins as expressions of frustration. In some situations, captive facilities will isolate the misbehaving dolphin, essentially putting them on “time out” for a period of an hour or longer, where they do not have any interaction with humans or other dolphins.
The mental effects this can have on an animal of such high intelligence can be intense, and because of this, captive dolphins are often administered anti-depressant medications. I regularly see wild resident dolphins on my swims, and observing both their physical strength and need for intellectual stimulation, I would be afraid to get in a tank with them if they were captive. Their pent-up frustration and physical size would be a recipe for harm.
Relatedly, this mental stress can lead to other issues, such as physical injuries from other dolphins. One captive dolphin in the Caribbean suffered a fractured jaw from a collision with another dolphin, which left his bottom jaw puckered. As a result his teeth were constantly exposed to the tank water; although his teeth were brushed by trainers twice a day to help the situation, they still showed signs of decay and permanent damage. In the wild, the injured dolphin likely would have been able to avoid a confrontation by swimming away.
Another dolphin at a zoo in Chicago was killed in a collision with another dolphin before a show. The collision was head-on and resulted in a skull fracture. The facility continued with their dolphin shows the next day.
Beyond stress, captive dolphins are also subjected to medical procedures that extend from conditions in captive environments, one of which is hydration treatments. Wild dolphins become hydrated from the fish that they eat. The saltwater enters the gills of the fish, and the fish’s body converts the saltwater into freshwater. When the dolphins eat them, they are eating a small bundle of freshwater. Captive dolphins, however, are given frozen fish, which means the fish have less freshwater available in their bodies to hydrate their predators.
Therefore, we often see hydration treatments administered to captive dolphins. This is usually done using a gastric tube to funnel water directly into the dolphin’s stomach, but it can also be done by injecting fish with freshwater prior to a training session. Gastric tubing is not uncomfortable for dolphins, but it adds yet another procedure that captive dolphins need to undergo solely because of their confinement.
A captive bottlenose dolphin endures a tube being passed into its stomach as part of a “routine” medical behavior.
The health issues and stress these dolphins go through to entertain us is simply not worth keeping them in a captive environment. When captive dolphins seem happy, we are simply seeing their anatomical smile, combined with medication. When captive dolphins seem eager to perform, it is because they are hungry.
Nothing about a dolphin’s behavior is natural when they are trapped in a tank. They are living among strangers, deprived of their natural curiosity, and confined in an artificial environment. Much like you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a small room with a group of strangers who speak different languages for your entire life, neither do they. We learn very little about dolphins when we view them in this unnatural state. Captivity is an indulgence on our part as humans, and one that we recognize is no longer justifiable once we know that the smile isn’t real. You can help stop the unnecessary suffering by pledging not to buy a ticket to any captive dolphin facility.
Thank you to Nina for continuing to share her unique perspective as a former dolphin trainer in our guest blog series. To learn more, be sure to catch up on her prior posts: