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Captive-Bred Dolphins in Interactive Programs

Captive Dolphin Performing

Captive dolphin interactive facilities often try to assert that their dolphins are captive-bred and, thus, exempt from any scientific or animal welfare concerns.

While the capture of wild dolphins does, indeed, remain a central concern in the increase of swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) and other captive dolphin interactive programs, the experience of a dolphin in captivity - whether captive-bred or wild-caught - is similarly poor. The claim that captive dolphins are semi-domesticated or that a captive-bred dolphin is less of a predatory wild animal due to its birth in captivity has no scientific basis. Captive dolphin breeding programs are opportunistic – no artificial selection for desirable traits has occurred, a requirement for domestication.

Even more unsubstantiated is the assertion, which can be found in the marketing materials of many captive facilities, that the dolphins actually enjoy life in confinement - as if, somehow, millions of years of evolution and specific adaptation to life in the seas can be overcome after a single or even several generations. 

Therefore, the platform that the experience of a captive-bred dolphin is somehow preferable to, more acceptable - or safer than that of a wild-caught animal lacks scientific substance and cannot be used to justify plans for any kind of captive facility or interactive program.

Captive Breeding and Conservation

Captive breeding programs tout themselves as "conservation" programs when, in reality, they serve merely to replenish the supply of dolphins for captive exhibits, including interactive programs. If these programs were serious about adding to the gene pool of threatened species, they would be focusing research or breeding efforts on species such as the vaquita porpoise or the baiji river dolphin. However, the vast majority of captive-bred dolphins are bottlenose dolphins, a species generally not under threat. Further, almost all reintroductions of long-term captive and captive-born dolphins to the wild have been conducted by animal welfare organizations and stranding networks, with few, if any, of the for-profit enterprises contributing to the conservation of wild species in this way.

Mortality and Welfare of Captive-Bred Dolphins

As noted above, captive-bred dolphins are not domesticated and have the same inherent needs as wild-born animals. Mortality rates bear out the fact that life in captivity cannot be assumed to be preferable or better for those born into it. Research shows that dolphins in captivity, both wild-caught as well as captive-bred, at best tend to live only about as long as their wild counterparts.

All dolphins in captivity are prevented or impeded from learning and expressing natural behaviors. It is becoming increasingly clear that “culture” is exceedingly important to dolphins - mothers teach specific skills to offspring and juveniles are able to learn other behaviors via imitation of other pod mates. Culture is lost in captivity or at best is replaced by an artificial culture with no evolutionary or ecological basis.

Further, captive facilities routinely remove calves from mothers at an early age, before many essential life lessons can be taught. For instance, many calves are removed from their mothers before they learn how to properly nurse and thus are less able (or in some cases completely unable) to nurse their own offspring, leading to an increase in infant mortality. By breaking natural bonds prematurely, captive facilities deprive these dolphins of essential life skills.

Dolphins are extremely social, travel great distances and dive deeply. Even in the largest captive facilities, a dolphin is restricted to less than one-ten thousandth of its natural range, yet another condition that compromises welfare and may result in a shorter life span than is natural.

Captive-Bred Animals as Research Subjects

Another claim used by captive facilities to distract the public from the realities of life in confinement is that captive animals serve as a window into the lives of their wild counterparts. The truth is that constraints placed on the animals, artificially-created environments and unnatural social groupings all skew the behaviors of captive dolphins. In addition, much of the research on captive cetaceans only addresses husbandry needs of captive animals. Thus captive research is generally of little conservation value, undermining the idea that these few “ambassador species” will tell scientists what they need to know to protect wild populations.

Captive-Bred Dolphins and Public Safety

A dolphin born in captivity is still a wild animal and it would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.  A reasonable person would never dream of placing his or her child in a pen with a captive-born bear or wolf, because it is understood that these animals are wild, predatory and potentially dangerous, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. This same caution should be practiced with dolphins, which are highly-skilled predators that have existed for millions of years longer than humans have walked the earth. Injuries - many inflicted by captive-bred dolphins occur more commonly in interactive programs than is reported or widely known. Furthermore, the possibility of disease transmission (from dolphin to human as well as from human to dolphin) is the same regardless of an animal's origin. In short, the suggestion that captive-bred dolphins are somehow safer for people to interact with is inaccurate – nothing in the scientific literature supports that the dangers inherent in interacting with these species are lessened by the animals being captive-bred.

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