Expert users of echolocation, bottlenose dolphins navigate these murky Irish waters with ease.
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I have spent much time in the company of wild dolphins over the last twenty-something years. Spending thousands of hours at sea, I began to know some of them by sight and, like my human friends, they became an integral part of my life.
I have also witnessed first-hand the very different lives of these animals in aquaria and marine parks and I cannot help wondering about the reasons for keeping such magnificent creatures captive. Keeping cetaceans (and personally I would stretch this to include other animals as well), in a restricted environment may have been more acceptable years ago, when we really didn’t know any better; when we didn’t have enough information about who these animals really are in the wild and what they need to live. If we consider ourselves as being at the pinnacle of intelligence, dolphins would come just after us, scoring even better than their great ape cousins. The last two decades have seen the proliferation of anatomical and morphological investigations on cetaceans. There is no doubt that intelligence is difficult to define and when we look into the animal world, almost any animal may be considered “smart” depending on what definition of intelligence we decide to apply.
We have established that dolphins have large and complex brains, but what is all this brain capacity good for? Cetaceans such as the bottlenose dolphin (the most common species found in aquaria and marine parks today) have flexible and remarkable social and communication skills. In some dolphin populations, males form coalitions in order to sexually coerce females or defeat other male coalitions. This ability to transfer learned behaviors to their progeny makes them cultural animals like us. At sea, dolphins are always on the move, often traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles. We like to think of dolphins as happy animals with an omnipresent smile frolicking in the sea. Dolphins, like us, have a limbic system and are able to experience a broad spectrum of emotions including joy, grief, frustration, anger, and love.
But brains and neurons aside, it’s spending time in company of these animals in the wild that will really make a case for them as emotional beings with diverse personalities.
Like intelligence, conscious emotion in these ocean-dwellers is difficult to understand, define, and measure.
Marine parks and delphinaria tend to play the “research card” every time there is a question about why we keep dolphins in captivity.
Generally speaking, because of the artificial settings, research in captivity provides little knowledge that can be applied to the protection and management of these species at sea.
Further, only a small fraction of the money coming from tickets sold at facilities that keep dolphins in captivity is used for research (if at all) and less than ten percent of delphinaria or zoos are involved in research conservation programs, either in situ or in the wild. The most common claim of many delphinaria is that they provide great educational opportunities, which they contend may lead to public concern for dolphin conservation. Instead, think about taking your child out to sea on a reputable whale-watching trip (which, by the way, will likely cost less than a ticket to a marine park).
A second claim is that by keeping them in a tank we are saving them from pollution and overfishing, even extinction, and that captive breeding programs are for conservation motives.
There are many other reasons why keeping these animals in captivity is wrong, such as the poor, often terrible, conditions in which dolphins are still kept in many facilities worldwide, and the high illness and mortality rate of captive animals. It’s time we recognize that the only, true reason we still keep these magnificent, large brained and socially complex creatures captive is for our entertainment; entertainment for the motive of making money, and lots of it.
Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. AUSTRALIAN DOLPHIN PRISONERS – Many thousands are speaking up for the captive performing dolphins at Sea World Gold Coast Australia with the help of international and local celebrities but we also need your help, and voice.
AUSSIE DOLPHINS HAVE BEEN STOLEN FROM THE OCEAN AND SOME BRED IN CAPTIVITY BUT ALL ARE FORCED TO PERFORM DAILY AT SEA WORLD ON THE GOLD COAST, QUEENSLAND. Please help us to speak up for the captive performing dolphins at Sea World on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. We love them rescuing cetaceans but we loathe them keeping dolphins as captives in their aquaprison.
India, Croatia, Hungary New York, South Carolina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Slovenia, Switzerland, Brazil, Luxembourg, Norway and the U.K have already banned cetaceans in captivity and so far there are over 17,700 signatures on the petition and a Facebook page with over 10,000 followers.
I agree with what you are saying but then on the other hand i feel that when i was younger i used to love the zoo and i dont know what side to be on!
Not having to read all the comments and reasonings in favor of dolphins captivity, I just raise the question to RJ Rosendahl… would these cetaceans stay voluntarily and do the tricks they do if they weren’t captive in the pools?
Meh, call me heartless, but they are an animal and I am not opposed to putting a small number of the total population in captivity for people to observe.
While I can agree with both sides of this and I recognize that a lot of research on these animals is done in captivity, why is it that we can’t let that go and see that maybe what we are learning about them does nothing to change any issues they face?


I have a theory that expands on these points regarding cognitive empathy and communication. I sure hope we can communicate with them one day – their language is probably way more advanced than we think.
I have long been against Dolphins or Whales in captivity other than to treat them for illness or injury. I think some people just missed the main point of the article, and possibly the big picture.
The fact of the matter is, there currently are few, if any, reasons to keep animals in captivity, such as in marine displays or zoos. In addition to that, of course, we have to take a hard look on the absurd ways we humans are plundering the oceans. Hi and good day, despite the pro and cons, this is a great reviews about dolphin and its behaviour.
If I may, on your permission, i would like to translate it in my language (Indonesia) so my fellow indonesian could also understand. There are actually several sources that indicate the hunting of whales and dolphins in Japan, including Taiji, has been in practice since the 17th century. As humans, we often ascribe lack of emotion and care to our adversaries as a means of persuading others. I have been on many dolphin watching tours, and it is incredibly difficult to get a feel for anything about the animal in the wild, where cooperation is minimal. I was surprised to see my #1 reason cetaceans should not be held in captivity missing from Bearzi’s list, though I wholeheartedly agree with the ones she did include. If a man was taken from the general public, held against his will in a container, fed regularly, given health care, and taught to do tricks, he may well live longer than the man outside. I’ve built a career following their everyday movements and observing their behavior both from shore and from research boats.
I learned of their needs, not only for space but also for companionship, and I witnessed their fluid, complex societies, which in many ways are quite similar to our own. In my line of work, I’ve heard all kinds of justifications for keeping dolphins confined, the most frequent being education, conservation, and research.
And let’s do this keeping in mind that we are an allegedly intelligent and caring species with the ability to reflect and analyze what we currently know about dolphins and make sensible decisions based on these evaluations. Here, in a nutshell, are three important reasons why captivity and dolphins are incompatible.
Looking at the Encephalization Quotient, which represents a measure of relative brain size and a rough estimate of the intelligence of an animal, dolphins possess a high EQ due to their unusually large brain-to-body- size ratios. Neuroanatomical studies of their brains have shown that dolphins possess an intricate and developed neocortex as compared to other species, including humans, and a distinctive folding of the cerebral cortex, which in cetaceans is even more prominent than in primates.
Because, simply stated, these structures are both associated with complex information processing.  Dolphins also have spindle-shaped neurons, or von Economo neurons, which are key for social cognition and have been linked in humans to an ability to “sense” what others are thinking. This brain has allowed dolphins to develop complex and fluid societies in which they can flourish against the backdrop of a challenging, three-dimensional liquid environment. They live in social networks characterized by highly differentiated relationships that often rely on precise memory of who owes whom a favor and who is a true friend. And like us, they can recognize themselves as individuals and are self-aware, even if the extent of dolphin self-awareness still remains to be explored. Their large brains likely help them to succeed in foraging on widely scattered and temporarily available resources.
Put a dolphin in an MRI scanner and you will see a large brain structure that allows for complex emotions. Anyone who has witnessed the compassion of a dolphin mother in taking care of her calf, an individual helping a companion in distress, or a dolphin grieving for hours, even days for the death of a next of kin, can’t deny these animals have emotions.
It’s true that, in the past, some captivity studies on dolphins have helped fuel our basic understanding of these animals; an understanding that researchers of that era could not have obtained at sea because of technical and logistical obstacles. Even in a single trip out on the ocean, a child might have the chance to glimpse into the real life of wild dolphins. Removing dolphins from their natural habitat to live in tanks will not address environmental issues. No state of the art captive aquarium or marine park can ever meet the complex physiological and psychological needs of a dolphin, or most other animals, for that matter.
We humans should use our judgment and compassion toward these (and other) fellow animals and stop keeping them caged as our prisoners.
She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008). Your experience with them has led to profound knowledge and understanding of their lives among one another, physically and emotionally reliant upon one another and their society in the waters.
I was always a fan of cetaceans and pinnipeds in zoos and aquariums but after seeing them in the wild I am no longer a fan of these places. If they hand these down from generation to generation it’s possible they carry images of the whole history of the planet ! With the advancement of technology it has certainly accelerated the process but it was still going on.
When I began my studies, I knew these creatures primarily as the objects of my research but, as the years passed, I came to recognize them as single individuals, not solely for their unique dorsal fin notches, but also for their cognitive abilities, personalities, and emotions.


They engage in cooperative hunting and they partition resources such that prey is shared throughout the social group. Dolphins play, bond, imitate, learn from each other and transfer information from generation to generation.
Dolphins, like some other animals, are essentially complex social mammals that need expansive space to live in.
But what we think is the blissful face of a dolphin can obscure the animal’s true feeling, especially when we keep them confined.
Looking closer at a dolphin’s brain, once again, you will find those specialized von Economo neurons that in humans are linked to intuition and empathy. Let’s also disregard the three above-mentioned assertions why keeping these animals in captivity is fundamentally wrong, and let’s instead concentrate on debunking the favorite pro-captivity arguments: research, education, and conservation.
But the world and science have changed and we now have the technology and means to more effectively study dolphins in their own habitats.
Many published studies on captive animals focus on training techniques and improvement of husbandry practices, which have no relevance to dolphins living in the wild. This is not an educational experience because the child doesn’t see or understand what these animals are really about. At sea, one can better understand who dolphins are and how they behave in company of their own “families.” At sea, one will see why we need to protect not just them, but also the environment in which they live. And the statement that these programs help endangered or threatened species is faulty, especially considering that the endangered species are generally not the ones being kept in captivity. And we have not yet mentioned the number of individuals killed in the process of being captured, and the stress these animals go through when separated from their companions and social networks. I feel like it doesn’t teach people to have respect for these animals as being wild animals. If dolphins have feelings, and are really as smart as this article states, than I say humans shouldn’t control how and when another living thing eats, sleeps, where they live, what they do. We also see people now comparing human slaves to captive animals, a feat that could only be done by a generation who can’t understand the actual horror of slavery and believes that the greatest evil in the world is human exploitation of animals.
For example: captive studies on dolphin diseases have failed to predict outbreaks of viruses in wild populations that may often cause mass mortality. Jumping and splashing on command or catching a fish from the hand of a trainer during a performance is just stereotyped, clown-esque behavior that shows little if anything of these animals’ everyday life.
Captive breeding programs do provide one thing: a constant supply of dolphins for display and human amusement.
Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012). It is depressing wTching whales dolphins and other sentient beings held captive in in stimulating poor conditions. Each one of them is a who, not a what, and everyone should live among their kind in the environment that best suits their physical and psychological bodies. When it comes to keeping animals in captivity otherwise they will die in the wild, why can we not give them sea pens to live in?
I have a question…I am quite disturbed by the mass dolphin and small whale slaughters in Taiji. Why does no money go into making their captive situation as natural and “wild” as possible?
I would be happy to send you a bibliography of peer-reviewed science papers on the welfare of captive cetaceans and, in particular, orcas, who do live much shorter lives in captivity than in the wild. Why when they are being netted and brutally murdered do they not try to fight their killers? As you know, researchers, on either side of the debate, can skew numbers whether intentionally or not. Up until their deaths in Taiji’s killing cove the dolphins have been observed not only crying in pain but also communicating with clicks and whistles to each other up until they are speared to death in the cove. As we learn more about dolphins and are better able to care for them do you not foresee us being able to do the same for killer whales? This is a disgusting practice and I pray that the Japanese government stops the kidnapping and murder of the most beatiful animals on earth.
However, we don’t know what the maximum life span for a killer whale in human care is because there are a few older animals doing quite well. I am certainly curious to see how long they live in human care so we can get an accurate number there.
And, in terms of evidence for stress-related increased mortality I would suggest going to the Marine Mammal Inventory Report that NOAA publishes. Also, when we talk about killer whales, are we considering all populations including transient whales around the world or are we focusing mainly on the resident whales in the northwest?
Are we to assume animals brought into human care or more realistically now born in human care can’t or won’t be able to adapt to their environment?
Knowing the natural history of the animal is very important in caring for them but I also think that these challenges can be represented in different ways to animals in human care.



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