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Studies Show Captive Dolphin Programs Shorten Lives

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Cetaceans (whales, porpoises and dolphins) are some of the oldest mammals on earth.  Fossil evidence indicates they have been traveling our seas for some 33 million years or more and yet many cetacean species are now threatened or endangered due to human activities during the past 300-400 years.

It is well documented that cetaceans living in captivity generally have much shorter life spans and suffer from health problems until dying, often from causes not found in wild populations.  No matter how great the funding of a facility may be, captive conditions and feeding cannot replicate that found in the wild.  Creating a captive environment for an animal that may migrate, following food sources and changing environment conditions for thousands of miles, is impossible.

Creating a captive environment with the same depths (990 feet) to which some wild dolphins dive also is impossible.

And, creating a captive environment for animals whose very existence depends upon their echolocation abilities is beyond impossible.  With gates clanging, people yelling, vehicles passing, water outlets and filters roaring 24 hours a day, the cacophony of sound to a captive whale or dolphin is confusing and maddening.  This assault of sound is thought to be a contributing factor to the stress related diseases found in captive dolphins.

The average lifespan of a wild bottlenose dolphin is approximately 40 years; however, statistics show the average life span of a captive bottle nose dolphin, the most popular species for captive facilities, is a mere 5 years.

Imagine yourself captured and torn away from your family—some left behind, some taken with you in a separate place where you cannot see one other but can hear each other’s cries…and there is nothing you can do to help.

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I was an eyewitness to such an event at an Anheuser-Busch captive dolphin facility considered to be state of the art, one that voluntarily reported 93 dolphin deaths between 1971 and 2002.  A dolphin named Yoko was separated from her long-time companion who cried relentlessly to be reunited. Yoko repeatedly left her ‘training’ session and attempted, in vain, to find a way through the barrier that separated them.  When she was unsuccessful, she turned on her tormentor and rammed her with her beak.  Yoko was deemed to be a “bad” dolphin.

The exact number of captive dolphin facilities is unknown and there is no over-sight agency keeping track of them.

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture, generally overseeing the commercial keeping of animals, has no authority to regulate the captive dolphin business so there are no requirements to report all dolphin deaths.  According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, extrapolating all captive dolphin deaths around the world by the 93 deaths reported at the ‘state of the art’ Anheuser-Busch facility would make the total captive dolphin deaths per year astronomical.

Where do these captive dolphins come from?  Perhaps you have seen them…riding your bow, cavorting in the surf, gently nudging a newborn to the surface for his first breath as you relax on your boat or dock.  Next month we will further explain the capturing and where these dolphin serve out their much shorten lives.

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  1. I was wondering what kind of references the author was using to discuss longevity in the wild vs in captivity. The peer reviewed documents I found are very different from what is described in the above document and giving a maximum life expectancy of 20 years for the most worldwide studied population in Sarasota bay (http://www.sarasotadolphin.org/) and even less in other places (Hersh, S.L., D.K. Odell, E.D. Asper. 1990. Bottlenose Dolphin Mortality Patterns in the Indian/Banana River System of Florida. Pp. 155-64. In: Leatherwood, S. and Reeves, R.R., (eds.), The Bottlenose Dolphin. New York: Academic Press or Neuenhoff, 2009; Mattson et al., 2006; Stolen and Barlow, 2003; Hohn, 1980).
    On the other hand I found that the oldest dolphin in captivity died 61 (https://www.thedodo.com/worlds-oldest-captive-dolphin–533839857.html) and that they live in parks an average of 30 years (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25835174).
    Can you help me to sort it out with clear cut data?

    • The Sarasota study is very skewed in captive facilities favor as many of the owners of these facilities are the ones running the study. If they don’t see a dolphin for a while they mark them as deceased, making the average lifespan appear A LOT lower than what it is.

  2. I think the clue to the quality of the data is in the article: ‘the average lifespan is *approximately* 40 years’ (i.e. the figure is made up). The ‘five year’ life expectancy in captivity is *either* made up *or* (like PETA’s figures) a misleading average that includes the early years of cetaceans in captivity when survival rates were very low. As so often, the author provides no confidence intervals, no citations, and gives no indication what type of ‘average’ is under discussion.

    In fact, almost all the articles on this subject online misrepresent the data. I’m opposed to keeping cetaceans in captivity, but I also respect science, and I’m afraid that SeaWorld’s discussion of this topic is most reasonable, accurate and well-supported I’ve found.


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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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