Take a Look Inside the Lives of Captive Dolphins

Activists say the performing animals experience health problems and a high mortality rate.
(Photo: 'The Operatives')
Nov 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Imagine living alone in a tiny cement room where noise and light constantly bombard your senses, you’re starved until you perform unnatural acts, and everything you touch burns your skin.

That’s not all that far off from the lives of hundreds of captive dolphins around the world, which live in tiny, dirty, over-chlorinated pools and are forced to perform for tourists several times a day, according to animal rights activists.

They say that much like the killer whales portrayed in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, these dolphins—many of which have been caught from the wild—experience a lifetime of physical injuries, sensory overstimulation, disease, and psychological damage.

“It’s just a completely unnatural environment that’s not suited for dolphins’ natural behaviors,” said Elizabeth Hogan, oceans and wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection, an organization that advocates for ending captive dolphin performances.

(See Pete Bethune and his team investigate the plight of captive dolphins in this week’s episode of The Operatives, which airs on Sunday, Nov. 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. Join the Operatives on their missions, and take action to protect all wildlife by clicking here.)

The scale of dolphin captivity is much worse than that of killer whales. According to Ceta-Base, a website that tracks the world’s captive whales and dolphins, at least 2,800 bottlenose dolphins live in captive tanks around the world.

That number may not tell the whole story. “We are ultimately reliant on the reporting of the industry, and this can be sketchy or incomplete,” said Courtney Vail, campaigns and program manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

The bottlenose species is the most heavily targeted for these activities because of its classic, cute features, Hogan said: “They have a certain physical appeal that site operators know are going to attract customers.” Other species commonly found in captivity include Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoises, beluga whales, and short-finned pilot whales.

Many captive animals have been caught in the wild at places like the cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphins are captured for sale during the annual slaughter. Activists such as Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project have campaigned for years against the roundup, in part by pressuring zoos and aquariums to stop purchasing dolphins taken at Taiji.

Hogan said transporting captured dolphins around the world results in a high mortality rate. “Transport is insanely cruel and stressful to the animals,” she said.

The health problems experienced by these animals vary, depending on the conditions in which they are kept and how long they have been in captivity, but they include damaged noses or fins, skin problems, infections, pneumonia, and even blindness from chlorinated water.

“I see a lot of skin lesions and illnesses associated with sun and heat exposure,” said Hogan. “You’ll find that even in Las Vegas, in the hotel pools that dolphins are displayed in. Dolphins aren’t meant to live in the desert.”

RELATED: Dolphins Go Wild in Project to Free Captive Marine Mammal

The animals also show signs of extreme psychological stress and can often be seen exhibiting unnatural behaviors such as bobbing at the surface of their tank, swimming in repeated patterns, gnawing on the sides of their pool, or becoming aggressive with their tank-mates or nearby humans.

“Orcas and dolphins are top predators in the marine environment and roam vast distances on a daily basis,” Vail said. “These natural behaviors are severely curtailed in a captive environment. Reduced life spans and heightened aggression are by-products of this behavioral deprivation.”

Training dolphins to swim with or perform for humans also causes trauma. “You have to ask what has been done to this animal to make it willing to let a human ride on its back or hold on to its dorsal fin,” Hogan said. “Often food is withheld, forcing them to shift from their natural instinct of being hunters in the wild to being scavengers and eating dead fish that are thrown to them. It’s completely contrary to their genetic makeup and to the instincts that the animal had from birth.”

Hogan noted that the practice of displaying captive dolphins has waned slightly in the U.S. “However, demand is growing in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and China,” she said.

Slowing this growth remains a focus of conservation and animal welfare groups. “I think that educating the consumer tourist public will have to play the biggest role,” Hogan said. “Supply will always meet demand. Educating the traveling public will continue to be a huge, huge step.”