Dolphins in Captivity

For those very few animals spared for captivity — a life sentence without the option of parole — their fate is uncertain. For every one dolphin alive in captivity, there are 10 dead dolphins that were unable to acclimate to a life of imprisonment.

The documentary Blackfish shined a light on the cruelty of orca captivity, and has resulted in an ongoing backlash against Sea World and similar marine parks. While Blackfish focused on orcas and has become a rallying cry for ending cetacean captivity, dolphins in captivity have suffered far more than orcas for the sake of entertainment.

There is no debating dolphin intelligence. Studies show that dolphins’ Encephalization Quotient (EQ) — the ratio of brain size to body size — is 5.3. The higher the EQ, the more intelligent an animal is thought to be. Dolphins far surpass all other animals in brain-to-body ratio, with the exception of humans, who have a 7.4 ratio. MRIs show that dolphins have a large neocortex, which plays an important role in complex thought and emotional processing.

Outside of a large brain-to-body ratio, dolphins have demonstrated their intelligence in a number of other ways, including self-awareness, object manipulation, tool use, mimicry, teaching advanced skills to their young, interspecies communication and taking commands from trainers using sign language. Animals in captivity have also been known to manipulate their trainers. At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, dolphins were trained to remove trash from their enclosures. For each piece of trash they provided their handler, the dolphins were rewarded with a fish. One dolphin, named Kelly, found a way to manipulate the system by collecting trash from her tank and storing it under a rock in her enclosure. She’d then tear off little pieces of the trash to exchange with her handler, turning what would have been one fish upfront into several fish at a later date. Delayed gratification and future planning are traits of intelligent animals.

In addition to intelligence, dolphins have shown an ability to be altruistic. An Internet search for ‘altruistic dolphins’ yields over 50,000 hits. Stories abound of dolphins rescuing other animals, including leading a seal pup out of a strong current and back out to sea, preventing shark attacks on humans, rescuing stranded whales and rescuing humans from drowning. Many critics debate whether animals have souls, but when an animal, such as a dolphin, puts itself in a situation antithetical to self-preservation in order to save another life, I believe that’s indicative of significant awareness and compassion, of a soul, so to speak.

Dolphins in Captivity

Unfortunately, dolphins, used for entertainment and scientific research, are big business. Whether in a captive dolphin experience, at a marine park jumping through hoops, or at a research institute performing monotonous tasks, the sale of dolphins for these purposes has proven to be very lucrative. And just as that steak dinner sitting so beautifully on your plate is born of the horrors of factory farming, so to is the capture of dolphins borne of horrors such as the one at Taiji.

The Japanese government claims cultural tradition as justification for the dolphin hunt in Taiji. The fishermen say it is for sustenance. In reality, most Japanese do not eat dolphin meat; the slaughter here serves one main purpose and that is captive selection. After capturing large pods of dolphins from the sea, the fishermen will trap them in the killing cove. Trainers will pick through the pods, selecting the best looking animals to sell into captivity, some for well over $100,000. The rest of the animals are slaughtered, up to 20,000 a year.

The terror begins at sea, when several fishing boats surround a pod and bang on the sides of the ships creating loud noises that terrify the animals and force them together. In this manner, the fishermen drive the pod into the cove and string a net across the opening, creating a makeshift pen. The animals are highly stressed while trapped in the cove; some will throw themselves onto the rocks lining the cove in an attempt to escape.

After the trainers have completed the selection process, which can take several days, the slaughter begins. Fishermen impale the dolphins with sharpened poles, their bodies lacerated by large knives. Once the dolphins are weakened, they are hauled from the bloody water and transported for processing. Most of the animals will have their throats cut at this point; others will have their spinal cords severed resulting in their paralysis. The remaining animals will drown.

For those very few animals spared for captivity — a life sentence without the option of parole — their fate is uncertain. For every one dolphin alive in captivity, there are 10 dead dolphins that were unable to acclimate to a life of imprisonment. Lori Marion, senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University in Atlanta and one of the leading dolphin experts in the world, stated that dolphins held in captivity are at a high risk of psychological trauma.

When a dolphin is held in captivity, its natural range of 50 miles a day is reduced to the size of a swimming pool. The pool is treated with chlorine, a caustic chemical, and devoid of other animals, coral reefs, sand and waves, which dolphins love. Trainers withhold food as punishment until animals perform particular tricks, some of which are dangerous for the animals, such as beaching themselves on swim platforms. So stressed are these animals that 53% of them will die during their first three months of captivity.

The Japanese government defends its dolphin slaughter by hiding behind culture and tradition, but the fishermen responsible have observed the panic and fear these animals demonstrate while they are in the cove, demonstrating their self-awareness and investment in their continued existence. On captivity, I imagine living my life locked in a basement with a toilet and a hot plate only. Sure, I can live like that, but I cannot live.

By guest author Christina Albright-Mundy