Do dolphin commit suicide in captivity?

One of the perpetuating myths that surround dolphins in captive care is the accusation that animals have committed suicide. A review of the published evidence reveals various possible sources for this myth. 

Perhaps the most populist source for this myth comes from the animal-rights activist and one of the former trainers of dolphins for the 60's TV series Flipper is Ric O'Barry (formerly O''Feldman). He claims that Kathy one of the number of animals that played Flipper committed suicide in his 1989 book "Behind the Dolphin Smile". He maintains that this animal committed suicide in my arms and as dolphins "are not automatic air breathers" she decided to stop breathing. A position that has actually now been scientifically disproved. See veterinarian Michael T. Walsh comments below.

John Cunningham Lilly, M.D
John Cunningham Lilly, M.D (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Prior to this the scientist Dr. John Lilly, a neurologist who began work with dolphins in the period between 1955 and 1968, also made this claim. Although Lilly original research led to some interesting discoveries about dolphins, he has been a very controversial figure due, among other things, to his claims regarding dolphin intelligence and his habit of mixing empirical research with imaginative speculation. He also left dolphin research for some period of time and researched in the human mind using isolation flotation tanks; this work also involved him in the use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD.

It was during his initial research that he discovered that general anesthesia could be lethal to dolphins unless their breathing was supported by artificial means. He, therefore, considered that dolphins were voluntary breathers.
From this, he speculated that if dolphins have to 'think to breathe' dolphins could commit suicide by stopping breathing. In his 1979 book Communications between Man and Dolphin he states:
"If, in a oceanarium, any dolphin/porpoise/whale is kept in isolation in deprivation may be so severe that the cetacean commits suicide by voluntarily ceasing either breathing and/or eating."
He claimed that at a research facility he set up on the Virgin Islands (The Communication Research Institute) that several of his research animals died in this way.

However, contemporary records of that time in his book Man and Dolphin, note that his first two resident animals at the St. Thomas facility called Lizzie and Baby did not die from suicide. Lizzie died three weeks after arriving on the island from a brain hemorrhage due to an accident when she was dropped prior to transport and also had evidence of a lung infection. When Baby died it was found that he also had a chronic lung infection. Interestingly, Lilly noted that both animals had 'bad-breath' and a nasal discharge when transported from Florida. 

Further to this, other animals he used in more contemporary research he undertook in the 1980's did not die by committing suicide. In fact, two, called Rosie and Jim, were the subject of a 'release project' and returned to the wild.

In fact, published research on this subject has cast some doubt on Lilly's original belief of voluntary breathing in cetaceans. At the 1991, Conference of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine, veterinarian, Michael T. Walsh, presented a paper aptly entitled "Cetacean Facts and Fallacies". As regards cetaceans being voluntary breathers he states:
"There is no physical or scientific evidence to verify this supposition. It appears to be based partially on early investigations with anaesthetic agents and popular myths. Current clinical investigations into the use of sedatives and anaesthetics have shown that these individuals are involuntary breathers."
Interestingly, Dr. Lilly's opinions on the broader issue of oceanaria and dolphins in captivity are not as damning as may be thought and have seemly (and with good reason) been overlooked by many of the animal-rights groups who are willing to quote him in other areas regarding dolphins.

In his book Communications between Man and Dolphin, he makes his feelings on this issue quite clear, he states at the beginning of chapter twelve in this book:
"Eventually the Oceanaria may be closed by conservation groups...: I hope not."
He then goes on the outlay his own particular feeling on the future development of such facilities.

In an Appendix in the same book, outlining his plans in 1979 to return to work with dolphins, he states why he has not attacked publicly the oceanaria for keeping dolphins:
"The oceanaria have done a very great services for the dolphins and killer whales in acquainting literally hundreds and thousands of humans with their existence and with their capabilities in a circus way. The dolphins and whale are indebted to the oceanaria for educating the human species."

The other source for this accusation of captive suicide may have come from the early research work of diver and broadcaster Jacques Cousteau's experience with captive dolphin whilst making one of the episodes of his television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau; later to be published as the book The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques Cousteau: Dolphins published in 1975.

The animals Cousteau used for his early captive research were common dolphins a species known to be a nervous and which remain difficult to maintain in captivity even to this day. In fact, only one institution, the now-closed Marineland in Napier, New Zealand, has been successful in maintaining these animals in a captive environment for an acceptable period of time with their last dolphin caught in 1974 dying in September 2008.

Cousteau admits that their attempts to keep dolphins, at that time, were 'clumsy' and the failure was due to knowing so little about marine mammals. He states in the book, Dolphins published in 1975:
"The species of dolphin that is usually seen giving performance in American marinelands is a species common in Florida's waters, the Tursiops truncatus or bottlenose dolphin. This species adapts fairly well to captivity and has a robust constitution. It is also found in the Mediterranean: but there, the most numerous species is the Delphinus delphis or common dolphin, which is smaller and lighter than the bottlenose dolphin. It is also considered more delicate then the latter, as we were soon to discover."

Photos of Cousteau's dolphin capture and experiments can be found HERE

In October 1957 Cousteau's staff caught a female common dolphin, Kiki, for research at his Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. The animal was at first housed in a 'tank' of undisclosed size at the museum. However, in early November it was moved and housed in a hotel swimming pool and joined by a male Delphinus, Dufduf. Unfortunately, he subsequently died March 1958; his post-mortem revealing he had swallowed pieces of wood and cloth.

Kiki, the original female, was returned to the tank at the Oceanographic museum two weeks after Dufduf death. Here a newly caught pregnant female joined her. However, this new animal died of head injuries due to crashing into the tank wall after it panicked on introduction to the water and escaped from the arms of a handler guiding it around the tank. 

The importance of careful handling of newly caught or transferred animals is highlighted in the 1972 book Mammals of the Sea; Biology and Medicine. The book editor, Professor Sam Ridgway - research veterinarian of the US Navy, stated on the issue of newly introduced captured dolphins:
"Occasionally, a new cetacean will have difficulty orienting itself and swimming when place in the water...Sometimes human assistance is needed to keep the porpoise (common term in the US for dolphin) from running in the walls of the tank and to start swimming on its own...Attendants should position themselves around the edge of the tank. if it appears that animal is going to strike the wall the attendant should turn it..."
Aside from deciding to catch an open ocean dolphin species with a highly nervous disposition, Cousteau's animals were caught at sea and removed to the tank at the museum within hours. As mentioned by Ridgway above - in these situations it is common practice to ensure that persons a placed in the water to guide the animal whilst it adjusts to its new surroundings. Clearly, due to his clear lack of knowledge in this area, Cousteau allowed a disorientated animal to run into the tank wall.

It is not by chance that the bottlenose remains the dolphin of choice for captive management, because it adapts to the captive environment well, unlike some other species, such as Cousteau's ill-fated common dolphins.
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