The article below was originally written and published over 20 years ago in 1991.  And yet, despite this not much has changed as regards the rhetoric and propaganda of the animal-rights groups opposed to dolphins in zoos and aquariums.

US Navy 050411-N-3419D-056 A female bottlenose...
US Navy 050411-N-3419D-056 A female bottlenose dolphin BJ performs her daily exercises while her trainer, Dera Look (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

                              DOLPHINARIA DILEMMA - HARD FACT OR HYPE?

Originally pubished in Ratel: Journal of the Association of British Wild Animal Keepers
Volume 18, Number 2. 1991 © The Association of British Wild Animal Keepers    

Public interest in dolphins and whales has increased in recent times. However, some concerns relating to the welfare of captive dolphins have been very much over-stated, and some otherwise well-meaning animal and environment lobby groups have presented a very unfair picture of the captive environment in which these animals live.

It has even been suggested that the small cetacea cannot be held in the captive environment successfully at all. This was in fact stated by Sean Whyte, leader of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, on the BBC radio programme The Natural World in July 1990. Whyte had just returned from co-hosting the Bellevire Foundation Symposium on captive whales and dolphins chaired by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. The meeting was billed as the first of its kind by the September edition of BBC Wildlife magazine, despite the fact that that year the European Association for Aquatic Mammals (EAAM) held its 18th annual symposium and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) held its 18th annual conference, both dealing in issues relating to the care of captive marine mammals. It is also of interest that neither the EAAM or IMATA were asked to attend this 'invitation only' meeting, although 'animal rights' factions such as the UK 'Zoo Check' did attend.

Arguments against dolphin keeping at such meetings as the Bellevire are based in part on aesthetic considerations and expression of personal taste, and these cannot be considered valid when making objective judgements on animal welfare issues. Other views are developed by the presentation of false, misleading, out-of-date and/or incomplete information. Unfortunately, the correcting of such claims and/or placing such information into its true context is often ignored or not given adequate coverage by the media.

One example of how information on dolphins can be mis-represented can be found on the front page of the December edition of the Zoo Check news magazine promoting the charity's 'In To The Blue' dolphin project. It pictures a dolphin jumping clear of the water in the open sea, an insert shows a photo of a dolphin's head above the water taken at an unnamed dolphinarium. The captive dolphin had some scarring to its beak, and this had been circled along with the animal's eye and a small scar above its eye. The caption reads 'Dolphins - From one extreme .. to another'.'. Clearly, the suggestion is that the captive dolphin has suffered itsscars and marks from its captive situation and they are abnormal.

However, it does not state the captive dolphin's age or sex, if it is in a breeding group and so forth. The reason these points are important is that more or less identical skin conditions can be seen on most old male wild dolphins. The wild dolphin "Freddy", living in the Amble Harbour area off the east coast of England, is a prime example of such markings.

Although dolphin keeping has only been undertaken in the UK since the mid-sixties, we enter a new decade with the art and science of successful dolphin husbandry a reality. But the sins of the substandard operators, in the past, still haunt those who keep dolphins today, even though modern-day dolphinaria are maintaining their animals to the highest standards. Put into historical context, it is true that dolphin keeping by some operators during the late sixties and early seventies left much to be desired. No effective legal framework for the keeping of dolphins existed. Some animals were mis-handled and poorly accommodated and it is no surprise that under these circumstances animals died. However, the acts of these and any prospective unscrupulous entrepreneurs are now controlled by new and strict UK dolphinaria welfare regulations, incorporated into the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act. Dolphins and whales housed in British zoos and aquaria now have some of the best animal welfare protection in the world.

As stated, much of the evidence presented against modern dolphinaria is based on myths or particular incidents and accidents in the past, that not only legislation, but today's well-run dolphinaria, would not allow. This does not, unfortunately, stop the flow of negative propaganda by some groups to an ever eager media, hungry for the latest environment concern news story. Many of these negative claims against dolphinaria can be answered and placed in their true perspective.

One very common assertion is that dolphins only live a fraction of their normal life-span in captivity. However, the Government's new regulations for dolphinaria that were formulated from an independent (Government-sponsored) report by Dr Margaret Klinowska and Dr Susan Brown do not agree.The report's brief was to consider if dolphins and small whales should continue to be kept in the UK and, if so, suggest standards for the operation of dolphinaria. In that report, A Review of Doiphinaria (M. Klinowska and S. Brown, Department of the Environment, London, 1986), the authors concluded that survivorship in well-kept captive animals could not be shown to be very different from the wild.

Also, research by DeMaster and Dervenak (Marine Mammal Science4(4): 279-31, 1988) and Wells and Scott (Reports of the InternationalWhaling Commission Special Issue 12: 407-415, 1990) provided a compavtive study of both wild and captive dolphin populations. The research found that there was very little difference in captive or wild dolphin life-spans for animals of comparable age ranges.

However, one interesting finding was that there were differences in life-spans of animals which related directly to their treatment by some aquaria and zoos. Thus supporting once again that it is the management and husbandry that are the critical factors for the welfare of captive dolphins, not that the animals are impossible candidates for captive management.

Some concern was expressed at the pools these animals are kept in, statements such as "a dolphin living in the wild swims freely in about 40 square miles of seawater and that to these active creatures any pool is like a featureless concrete cage". Although these comments sound appealing to the lay person, the statement is basically emotive and scientifically inept. It is very important to remember that in animal welfare issues recommendations for particular features are not made on the basis of what people think may be best for that animal, without evidence to support that belief. To use the ranges of wild dolphins as a base for calculating the space needs of captives is not appropriate, because the situations are quite different. Wild animals need to forage over a certain area in order to obtain sufficient food, something they need not undertake in captivity. The example of, say, 40 square miles is not specific to all dolphins, not even those of the same species. There may also be different requirements of areas travelled relating to age and sex of the individual. In captivity, where food is provided, the space requirements are related to social and exercise needs. In the Dolphinaria Review no evidence was found that captive dolphins experienced undue or unnecessary stress in pools which were built to accommodate these needs.

One major concern expressed from some lobby groups relate to the use of chemicals such as chlorine in the water system of some dolphinaria to break down wastes and control micro-organisms. There is no contemporary evidence that properly maintained and treated water in a dolphinarium is damaging to a dolphin's health. Chlorine itself is very safe and has been tried and tested in public drinking and swimming water for over a century, but of course, like all chemicals, if mis-used it can be harmful; it should be remembered that even life-saving drugs such as the antibiotics can be harmful if not appropriately administered. The chlorination of water is a complex affair; eye and skin irritation can sometimes occur in situations of high levels of pollution. However, the concern over using chlorine in dolphinaria because of experience with eye and skin irritation in public swimming pools is not valid. The management of chlorine in public swimming pools is very different from the dolphinarium. Unlike swimming pool staff, dolphinarium staff have an exact idea of the day-to-day pollution load placed in the pool and how much chlorine should be added to maintain the water in a balanced and pure state, free from irritation. Further, all authenticated cases of damage to dolphins from chemicals have resulted from gross misuse or accidents many years in the past, mainly from chlorine dosed in a gaseous form, which is no longer used in the UK.

Perhaps it should be remembered that seawater itself is full of chemicals, some of which are toxic and have found their way into the sea via rivers or dumped at sea by man. It is somewhat ironic that in a well-run dolphinarium, dolphins can be swimming in water of a better standard than many of the world's coastal areas.

One charge also made regarding the training methods employed to train dolphins is that animals are often starved until they learn. One source for this belief was a story reported in the national press sometime ago that the trainer of one of the dolphins used 20 years ago in the television series Flipper starved the animal into submission to get it to perform. However, if this was so, it only proved that the trainer in question was incompetent.

Modern animal training is based on reward for co-operation between man and animal, and starvation has no place in this. The 1989 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare symposium was a review and commentary on current practice of both wild and domestic animal training. Many speakers at the symposium - Kiley-Worthington, de Groot and Kastelain - presented evidence that wild animals, including dolphins, can be trained to co-operate with humans in a humane and positive way. Also, research by Kastelain demonstrated that training animals enriched their environment and stopped stereotyped behaviour. Many of the behaviours demonstrated by dolphins in public displays are taken from the animals' own natural swimming and jumping repertoire.

One outcome of all the current propaganda is that many begin to think that because dolphins are said to be highly intelligent mammals with complex social lives, they deserve special status. But why should dolphins deserve any more or less special welfare treatment than other captive mammals and birds, and just how 'intelligent' is the dolphin?

The animals have the ability to learn and retain behaviours, but most higher mammals can do this at the same rate as a dolphin. The dolphin may have a large complex brain, but brain size is an unsatisfactory indicator of 'intelligence'. The spiny anteater has a brain with more neocortex, weight for weight, than humans, but no-one is suggesting they have superior intelligence. It should be remembered that the brain size 'intelligence' argument was widely used by anatomists to oppose civil rights for women at the turn of this century.

In Macphail's review (Brain and Intelligence in Vertebrates, Clarenden Press, Oxford, 1981), it concluded that brain size and characteristics are unsatisfactory indicators of 'intelligence'. Even if dolphins are 'higher' mammals, why should they be more worthy of better conservation and welfare standards than any other animal?

Dolphins may live in complex societies, but so, indisputably, do ants and bees. Do we ban the keeping of bees to make honey, due to their complex social life?

Finally, we have the latest ploy by some animal pressure groups that all dolphins should be released back into the freedom of the open sea and to this end they are trying to set up 'retirement, rehabilitation and release' centres for the 'captives'.

Of course, freedom is an abstract human concept: nothing in the biological world, including humans, is free. Was perhaps the young sealion, shown on the excellent BBC Trials of Life programme being tossed around the ocean on the tail of an orca, before being torn to bits and eaten, celebrating its freedom?

It should also be remembered that disease and death are not the exclusive domain of the captive environment.

Returning animals to the wild may sound a good idea, but it is also fraught with practical problems. Research on the wild bottle-nosed dolphin shows that dolphins tend to be in groups that stay in one specific range or area and that animals returned to the wild should be introduced back to the original location.

Not all dolphins are eligible for re-release. It has been found that the most likely successful candidates would be related juvenile males as these tend to form bonds with others of their age and do leave the main dolphin group's normal range.

Despite claims, there has not been any scientifically-controlled re release of captive dolphins. At the moment a project involving dolphin experts Dr Ken Norris and Dr Randy Wells plans to place two young males back to their capture location after spending two years in captivity, trained for re-release, so that the animals' movements and behaviour can be systematically studied.

Dolphins placed back in the wild will be tame and habituated to humans, which could put them in grave danger from humans not well-disposed to the animals. Also, animals not placed back to their place of capture can bring disease, such as viruses (which can be carried for many years without ill health to their host), into dolphin groups with no immunities to such disease. It is known that some populations of bottle-nosed dolphin off Florida do carry the morbillvirus, a similar virus to the one which caused the recent European seal epidemic.

Any retirement centre should also be located in areas which have national and international protection in law for the animals in case of mis-management or break-down of funding of the projects and so forth. For example, the Caribbean dolphin retirement project "Into the Blue" is based in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Although these islands are a UK Dependent Territory, they are not protected by any CITES regulations or UK dolphin welfare laws.

On balance, dolphin 'retirement, re-release' projects may be well-meaning, they also may be good public relations for animal welfare groups, but they have at this time little or no conservation value to the wild dolphin populations. Perhaps the money spent on such projects would in fact be better spent on wild dolphin research and habitat protection.

I wish to thank Dr Margaret Klinowska, Research Group in Mammalian Ecology and Reproduction at the University of Cambridge, for help with much of the information contained in this article.

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