Knowing what we do about the detrimental effects of captivity on the well-being of dolphins and small whales, captive breeding can no longer be justified in the name of science, conservation, or human education and entertainment.
According to World Animal Protection, captive dolphins in artificial habitats are forced to swim in endless circles, interact with unfamiliar dolphins and other species, and perform behaviors that are unnatural and in some cases painful. They are also exposed to human infection, bacteria and chemicals, and suffer from a greater level of stress-related illnesses than their wild counterparts. Evidence of this stress can be found in the pilot whale that developed symptoms of psychoneurosis and deliberately head-butted the walls of its glass enclosure. Or in the multiple captive dolphins who suffer from stress-related ulcers, or have become mute.
Renowned conservationist Jane Goodall has publicly stated that on-site cetacean breeding is ‘no longer defensible by science’. In a letter to the Vancouver Aquarium asking them to discontinue the practice, Jane argued that such programs were plagued by high mortality rates and did not take into account the complex social and sensory lives of dolphins. She writes, ‘in captivity, these highly vocal and complex communicators are forced to live in a low-sensory environment, which is unable to fully meet the needs of their physical and emotional worlds’.
Professor Giorgio Pilleri, a Swiss cetacean biologist with the Institute of Brain Anatomy, argues cetacean behaviour in captivity mimics typical symptoms of prison neurosis in humans. It is ‘equivalent to the increasingly deprecated solitary confinement of man’. In addition, Pilleri contends that captive cetaceans display neurological signs of degeneration as a result of their limited environment, including a reduction in the size of their brain and atrophy in the specific areas responsible for controlling communication.
Studies such as those conducted by Dave Duffus, a professor at the Whale Research Lab at the University of Victoria, suggest cetaceans kept in captivity are also more likely to have problems with their digestion, teeth, and behaviour.
Considering the multitude of evidence presented by numerous similar studies, it is difficult to understand how humans can justify breeding such an intelligent and sentient species into an artificial world not capable of meeting its natural needs. It is certainly not done in the name of conservation, as most dolphins bred in captivity are from well-established species like bottlenose dolphins, which are not endangered.
The purpose of breeding programs is simply to maintain stock levels to ensure that sea-parks can continue to provide human entertainment.
The Australian Government has recognised the adverse effect captivity has on the mental and physical well-being of cetaceans for nearly thirty years. In 1985 the Commonwealth Government released a report titled ‘Dolphins and whales in captivity’. After considering arguments both for and against captivity, it comes to the conclusion that ‘cetacea in captivity have suffered stress, behavioural abnormalities, high mortalities, decreased longevity and breeding problems’.
The parliamentary report concludes ‘the committee is of the opinion that cetacea generally have paid a high price for the dubious advantages of captivity’, and recommends ‘the keeping of cetacea should eventually be phased out’.
Unfortunately, this recommendation has been largely ignored. Australian marine parks continue to breed whole new generations of captive dolphins knowing full well they will never have the opportunity to exercise their natural instincts within their rightful home – the ocean.