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Silent Suffering: Why Marine Mammals Can Not be Kept in Captivity

With the recent death of a Sea World trainer in Orlando, Florida the plight of marine mammals in captivity has been brought to light once again and it is important to remember that, while the death of the 40 year old trainer, was rather unfortunate, we must remember that it is the Orcas that are the true victims along with other marine mammals held in captivity.

Cetaceans, which include dolphins and porpoises as well as whales, do not fare well in captivity due to a variety of reasons including sensory overload, disease, social withdrawal, physical trauma, and other problems which lead to a dramatically reduced life span for these animals. According to research sited by the organization Born Free in their dolphin captivity fact sheet, “the stress of confinement often results in behavioral abnormalities, illness, lowered disease resistance and premature death.”

This should be no surprise; when you take a highly social, free ranging, and self aware animal and place them in the isolation and confinement of captivity, it is bound to work against the best welfare of the individual in question. Imagine for a moment, if someone were to come into your home in the middle of the night, kidnap you, then force you to live on a 6 foot leash in a 4 foot tall room for the rest of your life while you were forced to beg for food and perform for an audience while having loud speakers and strobe lights blaring at you non-stop. That is what it is like for the hundreds of whales and dolphins in marine parks around the country.

Whales and dolphins in the wild have a very wide range, swimming hundreds of miles a day and diving to depths much deeper than what they can ever see in the small shallow pool that they are held prisoner in. Cetaceans are also highly social animals living in often large and diverse pods with a very complex social structure that is essential to their well being, where as those in captivity are often isolated or only associate with one or two others also being held in captivity. The life expectancy of many species of cetaceans are comparable to that of humans ranging from 50-75 years yet in captivity the average life span is somewhere around 15 years and that is not including the deaths that occur within the first 90 days after capture for over half of the dolphins and whales taken out of the wild. And in order to “train them” they are often starved and forced to perform and beg before they are fed. The captive conditions also lead to great exposure to disease and physical traumas or deformities such as the well documented flopped dorsal fin that occurs to orcas in captivity.

And as bad as these conditions are, they are not the worst part of captivity for cetaceans. The whales and dolphins that you see in marine parks are highly dependent upon their use of echolocation which is the basis of their navigation and communication abilities. When trapped in a tank, the sound waves used by dolphins bounces off of the walls and bombards the dolphins much like someone being trapped in an echo chamber with a fog horn. The dolphins are often disoriented, confused, and suffer from physical ailments as a result.

For all of the dolphins and orcas that you see in shows around the world, marine parks do not tell you about the many others that have died and suffered a horrible fate. Any arguments that captivity serves an education or scientific purpose are not only woefully out dated but hold no validity whatsoever. Nothing can be gained from studying these animals in captivity when their behavior, diet, communication ability, and even physiology is altered by the very state of being in captivity. Further, in this day and age we have a plethora of alternatives for educating the public on the importance of these amazing animals and ocean conservation and the UK has made progress in educational endeavors to protect whales even though they have made dolphin captivity illegal for well over a decade now. Lastly, DHT, Dolphin Human Therapy, has been used as an excuse for captivity but the truth is that dolphins which are in a more natural cove setting has proved to be far more beneficial than captive dolphins.

So as we can see, there are no legitimate reasons for harassment, capture, torture, and imprisonment of these gentle intelligent animals. How can we call ourselves a civilized society if we support such barbaric practices? It is time that we regained our own humanity and start treating our fellow creatures humanely.