Captive Dolphins: FAQ & How You Can Help

World Animal Protection works to protect sea life around the world and educate the public on the problem of keeping marine animals in captivity. Learn more about the living conditions of captive dolphins and what you can do to help World Animal Protection stop cruelty to animals in the entertainment industry.

Wild dolphins are intelligent and social creatures that interact with hundreds of pod-mates, hunt communally, and have entire coastlines as their playground. In captivity, all of this is lost.

Facts about captive dolphins

 

Where do captive dolphins come from?

Contrary to the popular belief that all captive dolphins are born in captivity, many dolphins currently in captivity were once wild and free. While some water parks obtain dolphins legally, others find that doing so takes more time and money than they are willing to invest. As a result, a thriving illegal trade in wild-caught dolphins has emerged to meet the demand.

The capture process is extremely violent, inherently cruel and detrimental to the overall population. Dolphins are chased to exhaustion by speedboats, which separate a few dolphins from the rest of the group and corral them with a net. Panicked dolphins often injure themselves trying to escape the net, and death (usually by drowning) is common. Studies suggest that mortality rates increase six-fold after capture. The dolphins may then be subjected to further trauma during travel in boats, shallow pens on trucks, or between countries on long-haul flights.

 

What is the difference between a captive dolphin’s environment and its natural environment?

Wild dolphins are intelligent and social creatures that interact with hundreds of pod-mates, hunt communally, and have entire coastlines as their playground. In captivity, all of this is lost. Social partners are restricted to a handful of tank-mates. Captive dolphins are fed dead fish (wild dolphins only catch and eat live fish) and they face a profound reduction in space and stimulation. 

Dolphins in the wild may swim up to 40 or 50 miles in a day and can dive to depths of hundreds of feet. Even in the largest captive facilities, dolphins have access to less than one millionth of the space available to them in their natural environment. Because of this, dolphins in captivity are often restricted to swimming in circles. This behavior can be a sign that the dolphin is suffering psychologically since it’s engaging in what is known as a stereotypical behavior. For an inquisitive creature, like the dolphin, a barren tank offers no exploratory stimuli compared to the vast, complex ocean.

 

Captive dolphin programs often train dolphins to perform tricks that people equate with human mannerisms such as “waving” and “speaking”. However, in reality, these are highly unnatural behaviors for dolphins.

Are there tanks that give dolphins in captivity enough space? 

Any tank or enclosure is too small for a dolphin. According to U.S. dolphin regulations, dolphin pens only need to be 24 x 24 feet and only six feet deep.  In warm weather, such shallow water heats quickly. This can be uncomfortable, and even deadly, for dolphins unable to escape to deeper, cooler waters. Not only is there no relief from the heat, but the dolphin's sensitive skin can be exposed to the sun's scorching rays, causing blisters and sores. Also, chlorine is often added to pools to keep bacteria levels safe for humans, wreaking havoc on a dolphin's skin and eyes and sometimes even blinding them. 

Just because standards exist doesn't mean that they're appropriate, well-enforced, or acceptable. No captive facility, no matter how much space it provides, how well intentioned it is, or how hard it tries, can adequately provide for a dolphin's complex needs.

 

How are dolphins trained? How often do they perform?

They are trained to perform through ‘operant conditioning'. For many animals this means that satisfaction of hunger is dependent on performing tricks; for others, hunger is deliberately induced so the training will be effective. Though a complete food portion is ultimately provided each day, the use of food as a training tool reduces some animals to little more than beggars. 

Captive dolphin programs often train dolphins to perform tricks that people equate with human mannerisms such as “waving” and “speaking”. However, in reality, these are highly unnatural behaviors for dolphins.

They often work 12-hour days without a break. During performances or petting sessions, their ears are assaulted by blaring music and the noise of people splashing water or slapping the sides of the tank to get their attention. In petting pools and feeding programs, the dolphins' health may be further compromised by people placing foreign items into their mouths. All of this takes a heavy toll on dolphins, often resulting in stress-related illnesses and even death.

 

Every time someone buys a ticket to a dolphin show or facility that holds captive dolphins, they contribute to the suffering of these remarkable creatures.

Is it ok to go to marine parks just to see the animals but not to watch them perform tricks?

Every time someone buys a ticket to a dolphin show or facility that holds captive dolphins, they contribute to the suffering of these remarkable creatures. Like any other business, the dolphin captivity industry is based on supply and demand. As long as people buy tickets to watch dolphins (whether to perform tricks or to just view them through glass), captive dolphins will be kept and trained to perform for audiences. Consumers have the power to stop this exploitation by simply not buying tickets. 

 

Dolphins are always smiling, doesn’t that mean they are happy?

The dolphin's toothy grin masks its suffering and contributes to the myth that dolphins in theme parks enjoy a happy life. In truth, dolphins cannot move their facial muscles to communicate feelings like humans can. Dolphins appear to smile even while injured or seriously ill. The smile is a feature of a dolphin's anatomy unrelated to its health or emotional state.

 

Do dolphins live longer in the wild or in captivity?

Nobody knows the exact average lifespan of captive dolphins, and records of births and deaths maintained by the industry are only made available to the public on a voluntary basis. In the case of wild-caught dolphins, there is no accurate method to tell the age of the animal and therefore the age at the time of death can only be estimated or remains unknown. 

However, it is a fact that seemingly healthy captive cetaceans die at relatively early ages on a regular basis, usually with little or no warning and due to causes very different from their wild counterparts. In short, very few captive dolphins live to an old age and, even if they do, they perform until they are unable to. 

 

The public often assumes that dolphins are gentle, willing playmates. But make no mistake – dolphins are wild animals.

Is petting dolphins or "swimming with the dolphins" safe for people?

The public often assumes that dolphins are gentle, willing playmates. But make no mistake – dolphins are wild animals.  People would not dream of putting their children or themselves in a cage with wolves, lions, or tigers. This natural caution is lost around dolphins. 

Sometimes dolphins express their frustration through aggression, either to people, other dolphins, or even by self-mutilation. Dolphins (including those born in captivity) are large, powerful predators, perfectly capable of harming humans. There have been instances where dolphin aggression has led to pushing people into deeper water, biting, and head-jerking. Injury reports document broken bones, skin abrasions and other injuries.

 

What about marine parks that participate in conservation and research, and release animals back into the wild?

As public perception changes, dolphin theme parks disguise their entertainment focus as being ‘educational' in an attempt to validate their existence.  In reality, viewing captive animals gives the public a false picture of the animals' lives and provides no educational value. Worse yet, it desensitizes people to captivity's inherent cruelties. 

Many captive facilities also claim to focus on conserving the species. In fact, less than 10% of captive facilities are involved in dolphin conservation programs to reintroduce captive-bred animals into the wild. The amount spent on these programs is a mere fraction of the income generated by these facilities, which promote themselves as stranding and research centers. In reality:

  • most stranded marine mammals die after they are rescued
  • few survive rehabilitation to be released in the wild
  • many releases are not monitored for success
  • some of those suitable for release are actually retained for public display 

 

What’s the best way to observe and learn about dolphins without supporting a captive dolphin park or a "swim with the dolphins" program?

The best way to commune with dolphins is from the deck of a dolphin watch operation that follows a responsible code of conduct or, better yet, from shore, where you can be sure that you're not harming them and they can't harm you.  

 

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