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Dolphins in Captivity: A Good Idea?

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In episode 3 of my ‘Adventures in Biology’ series, I travel to the Moorea Dolphin Center located at the Intercontinental Moorea Resort and Spa. Now, I’ve always been fairly skeptical about keeping large cetaceans in captivity – but I wanted to keep and open mind and hear what director Yann Martel had to say. I was very impressed. The outreach work and research being done at the facility is impressive. I left the center as a true fan of the program.

What do you think?

Carin Bondar About the Author: Carin Bondar is a biologist, writer and film-maker with a PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia. Find Dr. Bondar online at, on twitter @drbondar or on her facebook page: Dr. Carin Bondar – Biologist With a Twist. Follow on Twitter @drbondar.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 7:17 pm 10/28/2013

    Not all forms of cetacean captivity are created equal, nor are the circumstances of captivity.

    First off I’d like to address the question, why we feel the need to be so “ethical” when keeping dolphins but not when keeping pigs. I am sure many people do not agree with keeping pigs, and many of those that do, would argue that they should be kept in humane conditions. I highly doubt that anyone who believes it is OK to mistreat pigs believes it is wrong to keep dolphins. Domesticated animals no more belong in the wild than we do. If a cow or pig has a place in this world, it is on a farm, being treated as humanely as possible.

    There are no truly domesticated cetaceans. There are certainly tame ones but that isn’t the same thing. But why not domesticate cetaceans? Domestication is a long process and involves the culling of individuals with undesirable traits. I am not sure what the purpose of such a program would be but I am not comfortable with the cost. Killing thousands of baby dolphins to find a few that enjoy our company seems perverse at best. We can’t undo what happened to the ancestors of modern domesticated animals but that doesn’t mean it is ethical to repeat it.

    That being said, is there any argument for keeping cetaceans, pinnipeds and sirenia in captivity? I believe there is but both the conditions and circumstances are rare. The conditions in your video look the most favorable, natural water and open space. Keeping aquatic mammals in chlorinated pools is simply unacceptable. We know a great deal more now about the affects of stress and chlorine on dolphins and it simply is not a healthy environment.

    Wild animals belong in the wild. I think that is a reasonable axiom so there needs to be a reason to remove them. I think it is wrong to capture healthy individuals for zoos or aquariums. On the other hand capturing individuals that are injured and then rehabilitating them might be mutually beneficial, as long as we release when we can and only retain when we can’t (as long as the animal is not suffering). I don’t believe in training wild animals to do tricks. It does not help the animal or educated the public other than to teach people that wild animals are ours to do with as we please.

    I could also make a case for keeping threatened or endangered animals as part of a captive breeding program but in those cases the animals would not be exposed to the public at all (other than web cams).

    So in short, if we can provide conditions that are healthy, natural and enriching and we have animals that require rehabilitation, I believe we can make a good case for captivity. If not, we are harming the individual and their social group and teaching the public a lack of respect for non-human animals.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 7:27 pm 10/28/2013

    As Mr Martel pointed out, this is just another aspect of man’s long history of using animals for work and food and research and entertainment. I guess dolphins are not too tasty or the Japanese would have been eating them by now instead of systematically murdering them. We do use dolphins for work; see the Navy Marine Mammal Program. I guess Mr Martel is doing some sort of research in dolphin communication right? So, I guess that is important. They are fun to watch. I loved to go to Marineland when I was younger. When it comes to cetaceans I would personally draw the line at Orcas. Until the researcher can convince me those drooping dorsal fins indicate a happy well adjusted Orca, I say no.

    I don’t think you cannot stop people from using and interfering with animals but I think Mr Martel needs to do more thinking about it if all he can come up with in his own defense is dogs, cattle, and pigs. To really discuss the whole large cetaceans in captivity issue I think it is necessary to involve representatives from The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums.

    In the long run we will soon see the end of truly wild animals. Their new homes will be park, zoos, and the formerly wild fish will be in fish farms.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:55 am 10/29/2013

    Scientists are putting neck into a noose here. Today you stop keeping dolphins in oceanaria, tomorrow somebody puts you to jail for experimenting on mice.

    Animal rights groups make no secret that they see dolphinaria, animal experiments, eating meat and keeping animals as pets as examples of one phenomenon of abusing rights of animals. Once they get one success, they will move to next topic.

    The original question is wrong. It should be: can some people be allowed to force other people to stop keeping dolphins in captivity?

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 11:28 am 10/29/2013

    @Jerry, please look up the fallacy of the Slippery Slope.

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:32 am 10/30/2013

    @RSchidt, please look up: overreaching regulation, red tape, nanny state

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  6. 6. marclevesque 5:44 pm 10/31/2013

    “The original question is wrong. It should be: can some people be allowed to force other people to stop keeping dolphins in captivity?”

    Why yes, but it all depends. Kind of like can some people be forced, by other people, into jail. But to stick with non-human animals…

    “Scientists are putting neck into a noose here. Today you stop keeping dolphins in oceanaria, tomorrow somebody puts you to jail for experimenting on mice”

    … scientist submit their research to ethical commitees already, so they don’t have to fear what you propose could happen. Sure states may sometimes go overboard on individual or communal rights but that doesn’t negate the value of either kind of rights or of keeping them balanced.

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