The “captivity industry” has, for a long time, realized they can “sanitize” their activities and sell more tickets by applying a veneer of “conservation” and “education” to everything they do. And they’ve created a significant PR machine to make that happen.
An unfortunate trend in recent years has been the proliferation throughout the world of marine theme parks and other facilities holding captive whales and dolphins. Many of them do not even meet minimal animal welfare standards, while others, who may be established members of their respective industry associations, do only marginally better. None provide space, complexity or social environments that even remotely approximate those experienced by marine mammals in the wild. And almost every captive facility accepts the capture and removal of whales and dolphins from the wild as a routine and justifiable industry practice. But the industry PR machine claims captive dolphins and whales are fine right where they are and they downplay the concerns.
All captive wild animals, whether terrestrial or aquatic, face a broad range of issues and challenges that they would not experience in the wild. The most obvious is being severely confined and unable to move naturally. Another is being on display and having no choice about it. Historically, captive displays in zoos and aquariums were barren, in part to ensure that visitors could see the animals. The institutions wanted to make sure that when visitors came to their facility to see an elephant, sea lion or dolphin, they were 100% guaranteed of seeing one. And today for many animals things remain pretty much the same as they were in the past with visitor expectations taking precedence over animal welfare. Quality of life can be poor for many captive animals, especially far-ranging, intelligent, exceptionally social beings, like whales and dolphins, who require very high levels of physical and mental stimulation. If they are unable to engage in the kinds of movements and behaviours they’ve evolved to do, they’ll get bored, experience other negative emotional states and suffer.
Considering that life in a small, concrete tank provides few opportunities to do anything, it’s not at all surprising that so many marine mammals do little more than swim back and forth or in circles. And while some do tricks, such as jumping through hoops, and even look happy doing it, those actions provide only temporary relief from the monotony and boredom. Engaging with human keepers may be the only real stimulation they receive, so they’ll take advantage of it to alleviate the boredom, and often, to get a fish reward. But training and tricks are not a substitute for acceptable living conditons, nor are they a replacement for the complex social interactions that occur between animals in their natural environment.
Author. Executive Director, Zoocheck