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Dolphins in Captivity: A Good Idea?

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In episode 3 of the ‘Adventures in Biology’ series, Dr. Carin Bondar travels to the Moorea Dolphin Center located at the Intercontinental Moorea Resort and Spa (French Polynesia). As both a scientist and a tourist, she was skeptical about the dolphin programs. Keeping cetaceans in captivity is an extremely divisive topic, and points are raised both for and against the practice.

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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. zeplinair 7:38 pm 11/4/2013

    I’m sorry, but you cannot whitewash, distract or brush off the issue of captivity ethics by pointing out the hypocrisy of it being acceptable to eat pigs, but not dolphins; an argument also used by cetacean hunting Japanese trying to use the post-modernistic moral equivalence to the differences between cultures (and our 400 yr tradition)excuse.

    Also, apart from dolphins experimentally acknowledged as part of the MSR (mirror self-recognition test currently used to infer “self-awareness”, cognizant of self as apart from others and the environment) club with us humans and chimps, and of which I am not aware of pigs “passing” as of this date, not all of us can be accused of a pig-eaters hypocrisy. You could also replace ‘dolphin’ in his argument with any other creature, including chimps and other humans-which would be just as emotionally rejected as he accuses us of being unduly preferential to dolphins. We cite special exemption from consumption for our own species, or our close cousins-but neither of these exemptions are universal among human cultures (though cannibalism is today rare and usually restricted to certain ritual circumstances), nor is it rationally supported (why don’t we process our dead into further resources as we process other meat or meat by-products). We react that it is ‘wrong’ because it feels wrong, regardless of the math.

    Ultimately, the argument is an unintelligible red herring that is irrelevant to the ethics question. It is a finger-waving distraction; a diversion tactic.

    The issue is more complex than ‘no ethical problem’ or ‘always wrong’. A dolphin’s captivity may be a life saver and suffering reliever for some animals, especially for those physically incapable(Winter who lost her tail, or a beluga whale who sought out humans as he was starving because he was unable to hunt due to hearing impairment and could not echo-locate), or whose life circumstances make them psychologically incapable or too naive for release to be anything but cruel abandonment to torturous death. Dolphins have been known to sometimes on their own willingly work with people, where captivity may not be an issue. I recall a culture, rather two, the culture of that group of dolphins passing it through their generations, and village net fishing folk passing this way of fishing through theirs, working together-a situation somehow negotiated to the benefit of both that arose spontaneously between wild dolphins and ‘wild’ humans.

    What is not likely to be ethical, with what we know today, is the hunting of dolphins, and similarly, the planned capture of dolphins for anything but rescue or the most extremely justified scientific reasons that also take into account the experiences of dolphins as the socially complex and intense creatures that the evidence shows them to be with attached family members and familiars Dolphins also each identify themselves, and each other with ‘names’, unique auditory identifiers, that remain in decades long-term memory.

    The fact that this fellow used such a disingenuous bankrupt argument, rather than defensible reasons leads me to believe he is inappropriately motivated to justify blanket permissibility for the captivity of dolphins. Too often this motivation is economic gain or some other desired component they believe can only be had through the 24/7 possession and control of the creature.

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  2. 2. zeplinair 8:23 pm 11/4/2013

    Also with the ‘wolf’ that was domesticated by intentional human action was probably NOT a the straight out of the box wolf with intact wolf behavior as we know it today (even raised as puppies, they are not that cooperative with humans, and not that useful as guards-they don’t bark.), but a proto wolf-dog that had already started down that road through some self-domestication when wolves around human camps reduced their flight away from humans distance, with the beneficial gain of snatching edibles from human discards. But we shouldn’t be comparing the captivity issue with the “ethics” of our paleolithic ancestors, who, like most hand to mouth cultures, very utilitarian and not particularly empathetic with animals.

    I am not against captivity of animals and in fact think both humans and animals often benefit (though the only broad answer to that claim should be “…it depends.”. But I am against arguments and historical examples entirely irrelevant to how we should make such decisions today.

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