The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity: The Fourth Revised Edition

Humane Society International

The captive display industry is not static, and neither is our report, The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity—a forceful, evidence-driven argument against the public display of dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals, which The Humane Society of the United States first published in 1995.

The fourth edition, released in May 2009, reflects the ever-changing nature of the captive display industry. The industry has evolved over the years; while some display facilities have closed in the United States and Europe, more have opened in the Caribbean and Asia, where there are few or no regulatory restrictions on operators. What’s more, Japan’s brutal dolphin drive hunts have continued to set aside bottlenose dolphins and other species for sale to display facilities, and promotion by cruise lines is contributing to the expansion of “swim with” activities. These trends, combined with increasing concerns about hurricanes that have damaged display facilities and killed dolphins, as well as a growing body of research on dolphin intelligence, have required us to broaden the focus of the original report.

Co-produced by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), the fourth edition features recent capture information (for bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, and orcas), new text addressing results from a web-based WSPA survey fielded by Harris Interactive, an entirely updated Solomon Islands appendix, an expanded discussion and new references on the inaccuracy or insufficiency of educational material provided by dolphinaria, and an expanded discussion of human-dolphin interactions.

For the reader’s reference, there are numerous additions to the report’s Endnotes, where expanded technical discussions and references on points made in the main text are found—among them, many new publications, including studies on stress; expanded discussions of disease transmission risk and trainer injuries; mention of new laws and practices; additional information on dolphin drive fisheries, including an increasing awareness of mercury contamination; and the latest information on the capture, import, rehabilitation and release of various species.

Among the report’s main findings:

  • Fewer than five percent to ten percent of zoos and aquaria are involved in substantial conservation programs. The amount spent on these programs is a mere fraction of the income generated by the facilities. Simply exhibiting wildlife is not considered conservation.
  • Whale and dolphin captures still occur routinely around the globe, particularly in the Caribbean, Asia, Russia, and the South Pacific. Most of these captures are inhumane and result in numerous deaths.
  • Dolphin sea pen enclosures in Asia and the Caribbean are considered to be at extreme risk from hurricanes and tsunamis. Their construction also degrades coastal habitat, destroying mangroves and damaging coral reefs.
  • Swim-with-the-dolphins encounters are proliferating throughout the Caribbean and Asia. These facilities are largely unregulated—even in the United States, the swim-with regulations have been suspended since 1999—and most of the newest ones are being stocked with wild-caught dolphins from unstudied populations.
  • Bottlenose dolphins face a six-fold increase in risk of mortality immediately after capture from the wild and immediately after every transfer between facilities. They never become accustomed to transport, and the stress they experience can be fatal.

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity is the only publication available that discusses virtually all the aspects of this controversy from the viewpoint of those who oppose the practice. If anyone wants to know how or why a reasonable person could disagree with conventional wisdom—that the public display of marine mammals is valuable, and even necessary, because it is educational and supports conservation efforts—they should read this document. While ethical and logical arguments and opinions are offered here, the publication relies substantially on peer-reviewed sources and literature from credible sources (e.g., government technical reports, professional conference proceedings) to make its points.

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity should provide readers with all the arguments they need to oppose the public display of these animals. Once armed with this information, activists, students, legislators, and others can start to shift the conventional wisdom from one that supports the display of marine mammals for our entertainment to one that recognizes that these unique species can only be sustained by their natural habitat. See the “What You Can Do” section below for specific things you can do to help.

More highlights from the 76-page report:

  • Marine mammals in captivity have a history of premature deaths from a variety of causes, including drowning, ingesting foreign objects, and attacks from other animals, according to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report, which is maintained by the U.S. government as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • The primary justification for the public display of marine mammals is the educational benefit of these exhibits. However, no one has ever published an objective, detailed evaluation of the educational programs offered by a representative selection of marine theme parks and aquaria.
  • Scientific assessments of marine mammal populations should be conducted before live capture operations are allowed. But few governments have such legal requirements, and those that do rarely enforce the law. In effect, the live trade in marine mammals is unregulated.
  • Dolphinaria and aquaria often present their marine mammal breeding programs as conservation projects, but few endangered or threatened species are being bred in captivity and no reintroduction-to-the-wild research is being conducted, at least for whales and dolphins.
  • Husbandry practices in most zoos, dolphinaria, and aquaria frequently separate offspring from their mothers long before they would separate from each other in the wild. This has resulted in many captive-bred animals’ lacking essential survival and reproductive skills.
  • Public display is often justified with the argument that essential scientific research is conducted on captive animals. However, a majority of this research relates to improving husbandry practices, not to solving conservation problems. In addition, captive animals are rarely considered ideal research subjects when attempting to answer questions related to conservation issues.
  • Marine mammals are unique when it comes to captive wildlife because of their oceanic habitat. Captive enclosures cannot simulate the complexity of the ocean and coasts. “Semi-natural” conditions are only possible with sea pens and even then, enclosure size is less than one percent of the natural habitat range of most cetaceans.
  • Cetacean veterinary care is still limited in its effectiveness. It is not unusual for cetaceans to stop eating, become lethargic, and then die 36-48 hours later, long before a veterinarian can diagnose the problem.
  • Injuries in interactive encounters (whether swim-with programs, petting pools or the like) occur far more frequently than officially reported.
  • The risk to the public or to caretakers from marine mammals is significant, whether injury or contracting infections or diseases. On the flip side, infection through close contact with people threatens captive marine mammals.
  • Annual mortality rates for captive orcas are three times as high as for their wild counterparts.
  • Annual mortality rates for captive dolphins (in state-of-the-art facilities) are about the same as for wild dolphins. However, marine theme parks and aquaria argue that captivity keeps marine mammals safe from predators, pollution, parasites, and food shortages, and offers veterinary care. Public display proponents cannot have it both ways—either captivity is safer and cetacean life spans should increase, or something in captivity kills cetaceans with an efficiency at least equal to that of wild hazards. One obvious culprit in captivity is persistent stress from confinement.

What you can do

Look for stories about captive marine mammals in the media and be prepared to respond with letters to the editor. Let marine parks and aquaria know your position on captive marine mammals. Ask these facilities to make a pledge never again to acquire marine mammals—particularly cetaceans such as dolphins—from the wild. Consider a grassroots effort to enact local legislation that prohibits the public display of marine mammals. Take part each year in Japan Dolphin Day events. You can also take action online through HSI.

Hard copies of The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity are available. Or, you can read the complete report by downloading the PDF.

Return to the wild: The case of Keiko

Keiko, the orca who starred in the 1993 movie Free Willy, was returned to his native waters in Iceland in September 1998 after many years in a facility in Mexico City when movie viewers called for his freedom, responding passionately to his real-life situation in captivity.

The paper, “From Captivity to the Wild and Back,” [PDF] published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, clarifies that while Keiko never became fully independent, he did in fact live for five healthy years in Iceland and Norway. He was never truly released to freedom, but he was given the opportunity to go free – when he chose to stay close to people, the Keiko Project continued to care for him in his natural habitat.

The paper focuses primarily on his epic journey from Iceland to Norway in 2002, during which he was tracked by satellite, successfully navigating over 1000km of open ocean. He arrived in Norway after five weeks, with no signs of having lost weight, suggesting he may have successfully caught fish on his own.

For his final year in Norway, before succumbing to illness in December 2003, he was not abandoned (as some in the media and the public display industry have implied), but in fact lived without barriers in a fjord, cared for to the end by his multi-national team of Canadian, Icelandic, and Norwegian caretakers.