Jacques Cousteau, the famous marine conservationist, once said, “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea.”
Flipper the dolphin, Shamu the killer whale, and Andre the sea lion have even become centerpieces of modern day culture. These exhibits have turned beautiful free-ranging animals into public spectacles, and placed them at the center of a never-ending circus arena. Forced to perform for crowds in enclosures that are too small, these animals often suffer severe behavioral and biological problems.
It is incredibly difficult to replicate the varying conditions of a natural underwater environment. In the wild, cetaceans travel great distances through the open ocean, free to porpoise through waves and roam at their will. Comparatively, in captivity, these animals swim in patterns within the confines of closed pools. Captive dolphins, including killer whales, spend most of their time swimming in tight circles or resting listlessly at the water’s surface. Their wild counterparts spend most of their time in deeper waters, with many species spending less than 20% of their time at the water’s surface.
Cetaceans are incredibly intelligent, social animals and it is impossible to replicate the dynamics of the social groups of wild animals. Lack of freedom in captivity and forced, unnatural social interaction can result in agitation and aggression.
Since 1968, four people have been killed by captive orcas, and over 50 people have been injured. For instance, Sea World’s orca Tilikum, is responsible for three deaths – two trainers and a civilian. The public may remember the media frenzy that arose after Tilikum pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, underwater and subsequently drowned her. Jonathan Smith, a trainer at Sea World, was almost drowned by two orcas, after they grasped him within their jaws and dragged him to the bottom of their tank.
While orcas may be large predatory animals, there have been no records of wild orcas attacking humans. People have fallen into wild orca pods without serious harm. No wild orca has ever been sighted pulling someone off of a beach and dragging them underwater, despite them using this adapted behavior to hunt. A wild orca named Luna, who lived in the Puget Sound, was known to playfully interact with humans, even seeming to crave human contact.
Confinement can lead dolphins to become distressed, with accounts of some even starving or abusing themselves by banging their heads on the walls, as Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer for the “Flipper” TV series, found when he studied a dolphin nicknamed “Big Boy” in Nassau, Bahamas. Big Boy was known to frequently bang his head on the wooden gate of his sea pen.
Dolphins have been observed acting out in an aggressive manner towards other dolphins, and have even caused injury to humans, likely due to the stress caused by the confinement in small enclosures. Earlier this year there were reports of two dolphins involved in a head on collsion, which resulted in their deaths, while in 2008, a dolphin at a swim-with-the-dolphins (SWTD) facility in Curacao breached out of the water to land directly on top of three tourists nearby, causing significant harm. Although cited as an accidental “bump,” the dolphin was perceived to have deliberately maneuvered itself.
Captivity is highly correlated with significant physical and mental stress in dolphins, which manifests in high infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, and aggression between themselves and humans. In the wild, dolphins can live to be 25 to 50 years old, while orcas can live to be 50 to 80 years old; however, most dolphins only survive up to six years in captivity, with more than half not surviving more than two years. Most orcas rarely survive more than ten years in captivity.
Some people theorize that dolphins can commit suicide. It is a tantalizing, if not
horrific idea. Ric O’Barry stated that Kathy, one of the dolphins that played Flipper, committed suicide while in his arms. He contends that due to the stress brought on by captivity, she intentionally stopped breathing. Research has been conducted on cetaceans to determine if they are capable of self-awareness and if they could indeed comprehend the idea of suicide.
Cetaceans are voluntary breathers, which means that they have conscious control over their blowholes. Thus, when they come to the surface of the water to breathe, they can choose whether or not to take a breath. It is for this reason that cetaceans require respirators in order to survive anesthesia. If you have ever seen a dolphin or orca sleep, you may have noticed that they rest in a semi-conscious state with their blowholes positioned above the water’s surface or in a position that allows them to easily rise to the water’s surface to breathe. Could Kathy have been so depressed in captivity that she ended her own life?
As we have begun to explore more and more of the oceans, more animals are discovered, thus adding to the ‘catalogue’ of organisms that aquariums attempt to keep in captivity. Large sharks have become the next in line to be subjected to aquarium life; however in comparison to cetaceans, there has been little success keeping them in captivity.
Despite the fact that large sharks are given huge areas of water to live in, it doesn’t quite make up for their usual swimming behaviors. Large sharks, especially pelagic species, cover massive distances and can have extensive migration patterns.
High stress levels cause sharks to stop eating and often engage in harmful behaviors such as rubbing along and bumping the walls of their enclosures. Researchers believe that because sharks are able to use vibrations and electrical currents to navigate through the water, they may be able to discriminate aquariums as not being a natural environment, making it even more difficult to replicate the varying factors of the open ocean. Most captive sharks seem to exhibit vastly different behaviors than those normally observed in the wild, as though the different electromagnetic currents confuse them and cause them to run into the walls of their enclosures. Equipment used to run the enclosure can further aggravate behavioral issues.
One of the first captive white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, seemingly settled into its enclosure well, then began to show stress from the overhead lights being switched on and off, bumping into the walls when the lighting changed. The people involved in the husbandry of this shark described how the health of the animal quickly deteriorated as it became more aware of its surroundings.
Monterey Bay Aquarium in California set new records when they held a white
shark in their Open Sea enclosure for 198 days in 2004. Following this event, Monterey had varied success in maintaining the health of captive white sharks, with individuals living in the Open Sea pen for 11-162 days. Each shark was released alive and tracked via the Tagging of Pacific Predator (TOPP) study.
The most recent attempt at housing a white shark was August 2011, also by Monterey Bay Aquarium. The four-foot shark was held at the aquarium for 55 days before being released, and then died a week later at sea. An official report by the aquarium stated:
“Based on the shark’s behavior and condition prior to release, the Aquarium’s white shark team had every confidence he would do well back in the wild, and that the release would be a success.”
Although the team involved with the husbandry of the shark believed release to be the best possible option for this particular individual, it is clear that something went wrong. It could be that the abrasions it suffered from hitting the glass wall of its tank induced infection, weakening it sufficiently to make survival in the wild unlikely. It may be that certain individuals are just not predisposed to captivity – some individuals do better than others.
There are many arguments to and for captivity of animals, both marine and terrestrial. On the one side, captivity allows the public to view animals that they otherwise would have no opportunity to interact with, potentially producing advocates for the species. It allows researchers to get close to these animals and potentially find out ground-breaking discoveries. However, on the other side of the coin, are we educating people that keeping endangered animals behind bars or glass walls is the only way we can conserve them? Aquariums suggest that a life in captivity for many animals is better, as it is sterile, protects animals from the “plight of the sea,” with plenty of good food, and quality medical care, but what is the cost of this? Perhaps a life spent within glass walls is more detrimental than it would seem. Ric O’ Barry said of his dolphin companions:
“I question the mental health of captive animals. After all, captivity changes them forever, and habitat dictates behavior.”
This article was published in the Beyond Blue Magazine, Issue 14 (pg. 24)