After posting an article about My bucket list in Florida, Bertille, one of the readers of the blog, felt concerned when I chose to include in it a visit to the Theater of the Sea in the Keys. There, you can meet dolphins, in captivity. I loved that visit: I was very touched to be so close to dolphins, and I found fantastic the interaction between the dolphins and the trainers. But some time ago, I watched the documentary Blackfish, about orcas conditions in captivity in American seaquariums; I am a big fan of the Blue Planet series on BBC, about oceans. Can we love these documentaries and aquatic life and go to seaquariums where animals live in captivity? The park’s official speech is seducing: It is for the sake of science, animals are saved from bad conditions, they are well treated, etc. After reading Bertille’s comments, though, I asked her if she would agree to talk a bit more about her involvement in organizations working against mammals in captivity. Here is her answer:
Like many people I guess, the idea of swimming with dolphins, and having a special contact with these marine mammals, was, for me, the dream of a lifetime. It would be so easy for me to make it real as I live in Miami, Florida, and to be more precise, only 22 minutes by car from Miami Seaquarium, one of the most famous attractions in the city. But I never did it that way, with animals in captivity. Instead of that, I had recently one of the most fantastic experiences in my entire life by swimming with wild dolphins. It happened in the Bahamas, in an area accessible by ferry from Miami (I would be pleased to give more information to anyone interested).
I do not want to write a moralistic article, because I can imagine that those who already went to a seaquarium probably took the opportunity to swim with captive dolphins. My goal here is to raise awareness about the ethical problems which come out of that action, to encourage discussion, and, maybe, change your mind about going back there or not. And, if my comments encourage you to talk with your relatives about the problems of animals in captivity, well, I will have completely reached my goal!
Behind the beautiful shows of marine mammals there is tragic reality. I am not a specialist of captive dolphins or orcas, not at all. But, because I have become aware of their sad fate, I try to share information as much as I can with everyone who really is open to knowing the truth, even if it is disturbing.
You will find below a mix of things to know about mammals in captivity:
- Where do the mammals come from? Before living in seaquariums, marine mammals are captured in the ocean. Meaning that they are snatched to their natural and social environment (family). Nowadays, dolphins are those suffering most, because reproduction in delphinarium is very difficult (whereas, programs of reproduction for orcas are often successful).
- Why do they perform their tricks? Well, that one is easy: To eat! None of their actions are spontaneous. Marine mammals understand perfectly that if they do not obey orders, they will not eat. Trainers know very well how to efficiently train a marine mammal: They will give a few fishes to them, the sufficient amount for a trick. Knowing that a dolphin can eat almost 25 kilos of fish every day, his work day could potentially be quite long! I think that trainers do love these animals, but in a way that I personally do not understand.
- What do we really find behind the smile of a dolphin? Unfortunately, and I recently learned this, all marine mammals are drugged to support their conditions of life. All. But who would not be crazy by living in a cage, turning around every day, without games, and repeating the same tricks tirelessly for the same shows? So, marine mammals receive anxiolytic and antidepressant doses to overcome the stress of imprisonment and reduce the aggression that develops from this stress. Some dolphins prefer to choose another way: suicide. Yes, they have the ability to stop breathing, to kill themselves. One of the dolphins of the famous series “Flipper” seems to have chosen that way to end his boring life. The full interview of Rick O’Barry, previous trainer of the dolphins acting in that series, and who is now one of their most fervent defender, is especially eloquent. Other cetacean hit their head against walls, and break their teeth by gnawing everything that they can find (wall, bars, etc). Splash, the orca, was a very sad example of that.
- How do marine mammals express their suffering? One of the direct consequences of captivity is aggressiveness. Tilikum, the famous male orca from Seaworld in Orlando, has killed 3 people since his imprisonment… Three people, and he is still acting in the shows as if everything is normal! An excellent documentary, Blackfish, released in 2013 and produced by Gabriel Cowperthwait, asks questions regarding the consequences of captivity on marine mammals. By receiving many awards worldwide, his impact is simply extraordinary. It is changing people’s mentality. If you did not watch it already, I encourage you to do so; you can then form your own opinion.
- Are marine mammals intelligent? Trainers never will tell you the truth if you ask them, for example, how long a dolphin or an orca would need to learn a trick. Their official answer would be something like: “They will need weeks, even months, to understand and repeat the trick”. In reality: Hardly a few minutes. The truth would disturb anyone, and would beg the obvious question: How is it possible to keep captive these intelligent beings in a small tank, and force themhim to perform tricks for public shows?
Some common misconceptions concerning marine mammals in captivity :
- Marine mammals live longer in captivity. Seaquariums employees tell to the public that marine mammals live longer in captivity. In reality, captive dolphins live on average 20 years less than their wild fellow creatures.
- Marine mammals have a scientific value. Recently, one of Seaworld’s team went to the Antarctic, not for tourism, but to steal 10 Emperor penguin chicks from their parents. The official reason given was a scientific study of these animals. Science is a not perfect excuse. My husband, who is a wildlife scientist, assures me that you do not need to confine animals in captivity to study them (thanks to the GPS transmitters and Argos markers which transmit the necessary information to scientists, without interfering in animals’ natural activities).
- “We can not release marine mammals born in captivity into the ocean because they would not be able to survive”. This is a false common idea. It is obvious that you can not release an animal who knew only imprisonment without any preparation. This is why programs of rehabilitation had been managed successfully for decades. Such programs enable animals, for example, to learn how to hunt. There are nice examples of great rehabilitations such as the case of Tom and Misha, two dolphins who were captive for many years before their release. In the past, and thanks to a general mobilization, Keiko, the famous orca from Free Willy, was released.
March 2014: A California governor proposed a law against marine mammals in captivity. The immediate consequence would be the closure of of all delphinarium in California (including Seaworld in San Diego). It was great progress in the political arena which, unfortunately, has been slowed down, because the vote for this law was postponed to 2015.
2014, May 20th: Closure of Rimini Delphinarium, in Italy. The list of delphinarium closed is getting longer but it is still too short…
2014, May 24th: General mobilization for the international day against marine mammals in captivity. Explanations and pictures of the event are available on the Facebook page of the organization Empty the tanks.
2014, May 27th: Some travel agencies from the Mauritius Island help the dolphins.
Should I go there or not?
Seaquariums are commercial companies whose main interest is profit through entertainment. The scientific and /or rehabilitation activities are a facade, and, we have to be honest about it, they also give good excuses to visitors. Seaworld is a lucrative company which earned a world record profit of 380 millions of dollars (!) for 2011, and the company does not even pay income taxes.
All marine mammal shows work on the simple principle of supply and demand: If you never buy tickets to see the shows, seaquariums would have no choice but to close their doors and release their marine mammals.
Together, we can make the difference: Take the initiative and be a marine mammals spokesman!
For those who want to know more, the following links direct you toward very active and instructive blogs defending marine mammals (in English or in French). Neither this list nor the content in this article are exhaustive.
Thanks to Mathilde who invited me to write this guest post. Many thanks to all those who will take time to read it.
Picture credit: Mathieu Basille. Wild dolphins in Rangiroa, French Polynesia.