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Dolphins Are Not “Too Smart for Captivity”
Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) compared to other animal species overall do not appear to thrive in aquariums. The captivity of cetaceans is one of the few cases of wild animal captivity that has justified criticism, however I feel that all too often, many of the claims are overblown to the extent that they attack all forms of zoos, pet keeping, and any case of animals being cared for by humans in an 'unnatural' setting.
A common claim made by animal rights groups and their supporters is that "dolphins are too smart for captivity", which casts an illusion that the poor cetacean survival rates in captivity are due to mental agony inflicted on the animals, in part due to the 'undignified' existence offered by captivity or its lack of similarities to a dolphin's natural home (the ocean).
Can dolphins thrive in captivity?
I don't rule out the possibility of successfully caring for these animals (or that it hasn't occurred), which includes promoting psychological well-being and adequate longevity rates. It is true that not every species will be suitable to ethically maintain in captivity, but animal rights groups will suggest that keeping dolphins is akin to human slavery due to their mental capacities.
I believe that meeting the needs of cetaceans is not so vastly different from that of other animals. In fact, there are many ‘less complex’ animals that have specific social requirements that if not met can result in shortened lifespan. Schooling fish for example do not fare well in aquariums without being housed in groups so they can carry out their natural behaviors. Some fish thrive in the right settings in captivity and others do not, while others require more complex accommodations to meet their needs despite no advanced ‘intelligence’.
Bottle-nose dolphins are not 'less complex' than other dolphin species (for example orca whales, porpoises, and many other dolphin species) that have higher mortality rates in captivity. Size may be a factor with orca whales, but other smaller cetacean species like porpoises and pilot whales do even worse than orcas in captivity for different reasons.
I often emphasize that giving animals the 5 freedoms justifies keeping animals as pets and in zoos. The simple issue with all cetaceans is that we are currently limited in meeting these requirements because these animals live in an aquatic environment.
In the psychological condition of all cetaceans, their social relations are of extreme importance. Their brains have evolved a certain type of complexity to process the activities of their acquaintances in the constantly changing oceanic environment.
I do believe that social issues are the main reasons why orca whales often have poor health in captivity. Not many orcas reach their normal lifespan as of current, and infection is often the culprit. Orca whales have a bad habit of 'jaw popping' their teeth on the metal gates of their pools, which is a dominant display toward other orcas that they aren't getting along with. Such behavior leads to severe dental health problems such as holes in their teeth (their teeth are also drilled by the keepers to deal with the resulting wearing down of the enamel). This can become a source for bacteria to cause infections, aiding by stress-induced compromised immune systems, that can quickly become life-threatening.
Unfortunately, the orca whale groupings in captivity are artificial, and this is likely leading to the animals being incompatible. It is generally believed that keeping orcas alone would be a welfare violation, but I hypothesize that bad groupings are worse and are responsible for the majority of premature death. If by chance of luck a grouping of animals is successful, I speculate that their health will be more robust.
Bottle-nose dolphin societies in the wild are complex and of great importance to how they function. Appropriate groupings are a must. Bottle-nose dolphins (and some other species) do not have social relations that are as exclusive as the stable matriarchal groups that orcas form (sometimes they are even observed playing with other dolphin species and whales), and bottle-nose dolphins fare better in captivity with their expected lifespan being closer to that which exists in some wild populations. I think that human interaction is also a suitable form of social enrichment for cetaceans. Specific dolphin species are known as the only animals that seek out human companionship in the wild. Perhaps bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) do best in captivity because they enjoy human presence.
I don't think that orcas and other dolphins need to migrate thousands of miles as they do in the wild in order to maintain good health, but their current pools are somewhat small in terms of allowing enough room for a sufficient exercise session. This is especially apparent with the situation of Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. She is amazingly also one of the longest lived captive orcas (47 years old), and as I suspected, she has better dentition given lack of social strife with tank mates (although recently she has succumbed to a tooth abscess).
Lack of space is also an unfortunate problem because animals cannot resolve conflict when they are too close together, unable to separate as necessary to reduce tension.
Problem animals (such as Tillikum, who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) that need to be isolated are also confined to small areas. Recently it has been discovered that captive elephants that are being kept in traditional zoo enclosures should have more space (at least a few acres) to offer enough travel room to prevent debilitating foot diseases that are responsible for a majority of their premature deaths.
I suspect that orca whales require this change too, although obviously, this would be hard or impossible for current parks to carry out with concrete tanks. Smaller dolphins may also benefit from more enriching tank designs (tunnels, non-circular pools with unpredictable shape and rock features) just as land mammals are provided for in zoos. The ever increasing critical public might perceive this as better if anything.
Dolphins are a species that stress easily, sometimes to the extent that they die before they make it to their captive destination during transport. This is an issue with many animals, and improvements with capture techniques have led to more success with keeping sensitive species of fish, birds and mammals alike.
Dolphins for some reason also have privacy overlooked in the captive environment while it is acknowledged for land animals. Their pools are not designed to allow the animals to exit the view of humans when they prefer. It's possible that this leads to stress, and stress hampers the immune system. I feel this can be easily resolved. Loosely related to this issue is that the pools are too turquoise. The paint jobs that exist in most captive situations may bother the skin of cetaceans and contribute to lack of feeling secure.
Free-Ranging Captive Dolphins
Self-awareness and suffering
The video above is about dolphins in a facility that actually allows them to go for swims in the ocean once a week. These animals are exposed to the complexities of the ocean, including meeting wild dolphins, that animal rights activists often complain is essential for their well-being and fundamentally cruel to deny. Yet, the dolphins in this facility are actually reluctant to go out on these swims, and prefer to stay within the territories that are their aquatic enclosures.
Activists like Lori Marino often state that dolphins are especially prone to suffering the stresses of captivity because of their self-awareness. I don't think there's enough evidence to suggest that these animals are more prone to lack of well-being any more than more 'simplistic' animals that are being deprived of basic needs. Therefore, I hold the position that captivity should be improved, not eliminated. Efforts need to be put forth to explore options in achieving the '5 freedoms' for captive cetaceans as much as possible and then we can examine if such animals are not suited for any form of captivity.