While aquariums and marine parks will have you believe there is much to be learned from captive dolphin shows, the real education doesn’t begin until after the show’s over. Forced to perform and interact with other mammals day after day, held in small, sterile enclosures and lacking the ability to escape from the public eye creates an escalating cycle of stress and exploitation for captive dolphins. Even so-called ‘state-of-the-art facilities’ cannot replicate a dolphin’s world of living wild and free in the open ocean.
Dolphins and other whales have large, complex brains, are self-aware and are highly intelligent. For these reasons alone, they are completely unsuited to “life” in captivity. Sadly, these are also the very reasons enormous profits are made from their confinement.
Captive dolphins do not represent dolphins in the ecosystem any more than Mickey Mouse represents a real mouse” ~ Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project
Kathy was one of five bottlenose dolphins used in the 1960’s hit television show, Flipper. When the show ended, Ric O’Barry, then head trainer for the mammals, was tasked with keeping the dolphins ready in case they were needed in another film. For the most part however, boredom had overtaken their day-to-day existence.
One day Ric received an urgent message from the supervisor at the Miami Seaquarium that Kathy was not doing well. The beloved dolphin was covered in black blisters, and she lay on the surface of the water, barely moving. Panicked, Ric jumped into her tank. She came over into his arms and moments later, while holding her, he felt her tail flukes stop moving. A foul, white foam had formed on her blowhole. She was dead.
~ Excerpt, Behind the Dolphin Smile, Richard O’Barry
“The suicide was what turned me around. The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath. It’s suicide.” ~ Time Magazine, 3/19/10
In July 2014, Chester, a young, male false killer whale stranded in Tofino, British Columbia. The youngster, deemed to be 4-6 weeks old was still nursing, and was alone, injured and emaciated. Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue team were all on scene, attending to the stranded mammal. After 10 months of rehabilitation, Chester was deemed non-releasable and would reside permanently at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Three years after he stranded, Chester, fully recovered from his traumatic ordeal, lived in a barren, concrete tank, devoid of anything that resembled his wild habitat. He shared his tank with Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin that the aquarium bought from Enoshima Aquarium in Japan – a facility known for sourcing its captive entertainment from the notorious drive hunts in Taiji. And while the two mammals shared their “living” space, their behavior towards one another was tolerant at best. Every day was groundhog day for Chester. Two times per day he participated in shows where he performed a few learned tricks for a reward of dead fish. For the remainder of the day he either swam in endless circles around the periphery of the tank or demonstrated repetitive behaviors, common amongst captive animals due to boredom and stress. Without his own kind to learn and to seek support from, Chester often clung to a buoy for hours.
In November 2017, the Vancouver Aquarium announced that Chester had died.
In February 1968 a young male orca, later named Hugo was caught in Vaughn Bay, near Puget Sound, Washington. A female whale was caught alongside him, and shipped to the New York Aquarium in Coney Island where she died a mere seven months later from a respiratory infection. Hugo, also destined for the east coast, was flown to the Miami Seaquarium, in Miami Florida. Here, he was held in a tiny pool, now utilized for manatee displays. Although plans were made for the construction of a larger tank, he remained in this enclosure for two, full years – an unforgivable period of time which must have felt entirely claustrophobic and alien to this mammal who had only ever known a life of freedom in the sea.
In August 1970 in Penn Cove, Whidbey Island, Washington, a particularly violent capture of orcas took place, where five whales drowned, including four babies. Lolita (first called Tokitae) was caught during this capture, and shipped to the Seaquarium, displayed in the newly-constructed “Whale Bowl.” Hugo was eventually moved into the tank alongside Lolita, where they performed their daily routines.
For 10 years, the two orcas shared the Seaquarium’s spotlight. But unlike Seaquarium’s glossy promotion of the happy duo, it was clear Hugo hadn’t adjusted well to life in captivity. It was commonly reported that Hugo would regularly and intentionally bash his head against the walls of the tank, specifically, against the viewing windows. Once, he broke a nine-inch hole in the plastic, nearly severing the tip of his rostrum. This flap of skin later had to be surgically re-attached.
In March 1980, after 12 years of performances and repeated brutal, self-inflicted damage to his head, Hugo died of a brain aneurysm.
FALSE: Captive dolphin displays have educational value
Dolphins in captivity are shadows of their wild counterparts. Forced into man-made pods, their natural societies collapse and their breeding is controlled by artificial insemination. Compare this to the wild, where dolphins are constantly on the move, exploring rich, dynamic environments via sonar and their other unique senses. Simply put, there is no educational or scientific value that can be placed on keeping dolphins in artificial and unnatural environments.
Aquariums and marine parks are well-aware of the inherent problems of keeping dolphins captive. Often, after the performance is done, audiences are quickly whisked out of the stadium, as to not break from the illusion that dolphins are happy and willing entertainers. The tragic reality is that the mammals were never given a choice, and keeping them in captivity is unethical and cruel. Whether wild-caught or bred into the business, dolphins in captivity perform until the day they die.
They deserve better.
And now that you know the truth, please help us be their voice.