I am the senior scientist for Humane Society International and a marine mammal biologist with a Ph.D. from the University of California.
While the recent article about tourism pioneers supporting the dolphinariums focuses on the views of Mr. and Mrs. Soto, it repeats a number of commonly held – and mythical – beliefs to which I would like to offer the following rebuttals.
Mr. and Mrs. Soto compare captive dolphins to dogs. This is inappropriate from a biological viewpoint.
Domesticated dogs like their Max have been bred for generations to be human companions; to view people as members of their pack. Behavioral traits that were dangerous, such as the tendency in wolves and wolf-hybrids to challenge their human caretakers for dominance if they perceive any physical weaknesses in them, were specifically bred out of these descendants of wild animals.
Dolphins are still wild animals, even if they’ve been in captivity for some time – and even if they were born there. No selection for specific behavioural or physical traits has occurred. Dolphinariums are lucky if their dolphins breed at all, let alone if breeding occurs between individuals with the most docile personalities or smallest number or size of teeth.
Dolphins are tamed, they are not domesticated. These are very different things and if ever one of the Sotos’ grandchildren is injured by one of the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery – injuries occur at these attractions far more often than is reported – they will understand this at first hand.
Mr. and Mrs. Soto are not getting a correct or accurate picture about wild dolphins at all.
Even worse, however, is the myth that life for dolphins in the wild is so harsh that life in captivity is better. The idea that dolphins, or any wildlife, must be saved from the threats and challenges they face in the wild by being placed in artificial settings is a terrible conservation message. It’s especially difficult to understand how it can come from two people who have made protecting the marine environment their life’s work.
The fact is that while life is tough for these animals in the open ocean, it is also complex, challenging, engrossing, and beautiful. It is never going to be a solution to the growing number of threats dolphins face to try to preserve them in the ark of dolphinariums. No legitimate zoological facilities promote the ark theory for zoos and aquariums anymore either.
I think that if two dedicated people like the Sotos actually believe that it’s better for dolphins to be in a cage rather than in the wide blue ocean, this again only emphasizes how dolphinariums miseducate the public.
The only effective way to protect dolphins from the threats facing them is to clean up and protect their natural habitat. To claim that putting some or all of them in captivity is any kind of solution is an over-simplified distraction that hinders rather than helps long-term conservation efforts.
Even if you don’t accept that dolphins are being treated cruelly in captivity, they are not like Max the dog – or cows, for that matter. If a dog had only a single big room to live in, never going outside for a walk and being left alone for 10 hours a night, he’d be very bored at least and considered neglected at worst.
Captive dolphins do not live any longer and often live far shorter lives than wild dolphins. Scientists have not been allowed by dolphinariums to investigate why this is so, but one possibility is that stress shortens their lives – as it does with all mammalian lives, including humans, which is an established scientific fact. If being confined in a small space with little variety to life and few choices to make is even mildly stressful, this could in fact shorten a captive dolphin’s life.