Opinion: Ethical Question Of Dolphins & Captivity

April 23, 2014

[Opinion column written by Jonathan Starling]

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion in Bermuda on the issue of keeping dolphins in captivity; this appears to have been the unintended result of Dolphin Quest announcing the births of two baby dolphins amongst their captive population.

A Role for Aquariums & Zoos

To be upfront, I was formerly an Aquarist at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.

As part of my responsibilities there I was involved in animal enrichment and animal training, primarily for the seals, but also other animals. I also participated in an exchange with Dolphin Quest where I was able to receive additional experience while working with their trainers and dolphins. Animal training and enrichment are key animal husbandry techniques for both veterinary care and ensuring the overall health of captive animals.

I do believe there is a key role for Aquaria and Zoos in our society, primarily as an educational and conservation institution. BAMZ, after all, has as its mission statement ‘to inspire appreciation and care of island environments’.

It is run by the Department of Conservation Services primarily in that capacity – to inspire and to help protect.
With the exception of the seals, all the marine exhibits feature our local marine life for the purpose of educating and encouraging the conservation of our marine environment. The zoo itself is perhaps unique in the world, focusing only on island ecologies, again for the sake of inspiring care for island environments.

That is why we don’t have ‘typical’ zoo animals and exhibits there.

The zoo also contributes greatly to global breeding programs for endangered animals, and helps raise awareness of the threats to their wild habitats.

In many ways, BAMZ is what aquaria and zoos can and should aspire to – providing enriching and natural environments and focused on education and conservation rather than ‘entertainment’.

That it serves as a tourism attraction is more a by-product of that, and not its reason for existence. The admission charges simply help to subsidise the cost of maintaining the exhibits; it’s not ‘for profit’.

I understand the argument for opposing any and all aquaria and zoos, but I do believe that they can, run and designed properly, pay a key role for inspiring appreciation and care for our world and the animals we share it with.

The Rights of Sapient & Sentient Beings

Having said that, I believe that there are some species which require special consideration and basic rights above and beyond general humane treatment.

To me, non-humans for which we can recognise as being intelligent, self-aware, socially complex and capable of communication, in short, sentient beings, should be recognised as such and be provided with basic rights.

From my experience with them, I have come to the belief that the Primates, but particularly the Great Apes [Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutans], Cetaceans [that is, Whales and Dolphins] and Elephants exhibit the characteristics of sentient beings.

I say this because these species display a level of intelligence, social complexity and social communication, in many ways functionally comparable to our own. They have their own societies, languages and learned behaviour at a qualitatively different level of complexity than other species.

The basic rights that I believe we should ensure for non-human, sapient and sentient beings would essentially be:

  • 1] The right to life;
  • 2] Freedom from captivity or servitude;
  • 3] Not subject to cruel treatment or to be removed from their natural environment;
  • 4] The right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment;
  • 5] Not to be property of any State, corporation, human group or individual;
  • 6] The right to protection of their natural environment;
  • 7] The right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures;
  • 8] These rights to be ensured by law, both domestic and international.

Dolphin Quest

This of course leads to the question of what should be done with the dolphins currently held in captivity at Dolphin Quest.

I do not think it would be ethical to release them into the wild – it’s not that simple.

These dolphins have largely grown up, or spent the bulk of their life, within an artificial ‘institutionalised’ environment, and their sudden release would be dropping them into an unfamiliar environment which, in many ways would be more cruel than their current situation.

While all animals have some instincts, including ourselves, highly complex and social sentient beings rely more on learned behaviour than instinct, and the behaviours learned within an institutionalised environment do not necessarily equip one for a ‘wild’ environment.

While the task of rehabilitating, or, rather ‘de-institutionalising’ the dolphins for their full release from captivity should be the end-goal, it is perhaps more realistic that we seek to improve their current situation, but not through a business model that profits from their captivity.

A first step towards this would be expanding their living space outside of the Dockyard Keep, as was previously proposed. They should continue to be provided with enrichment and veterinary care, but their exploitation as a source of profit should be ended immediately.

While this captive population may be continued to be used for the sake of educational purposes – to inspire appreciation and care for non-human sentient beings and whales and dolphins in particular – the focus should be on their right to leave captivity or human interaction as they see fit.

More Questions & International Developments

While this naturally raises other philosophical and ethical questions [where do we draw the line on sentient and non-sentient? What about sentient but domesticated animals? After all, many would argue that dogs and horses might qualify as sentient. What about aliens and artificial intelligence, etc?], I think for the species I’ve noted there is little question today that they are sentient beings.

Recently we’ve seen basic rights granted to Great Apes in New Zealand [1999] and the Spanish Balearic Islands [2007]. And just last year [2013] India declared Cetaceans [dolphins and whales] to be ‘non-human persons’ – that is, sentient beings with rights similar to those outlined above.

It’s important to stress that we shouldn’t ignore the other pressing problems our society faces, of great racial and economic inequalities, of drug abuse, or sexual violence, for example.

These are all very real human problems that we must deal with.

However, we should recognise that these dolphins are sentient beings. And if we accept that – if we recognise their intelligence and social complexity – what right do we have to keep them in de facto bondage?

We should not have allowed Dolphin Quest to open in Bermuda in the first place, but now that they’re here, we have a responsibility to ensure the basic rights of these dolphins. And going forward we should take greater care about what we choose to be acceptable for tourism.

- Jonathan Starling

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Category: All, Environment, News

Comments (28)

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  1. Just Plain Tired says:

    Modern time slaves. Poor dolphins

    • Steve Biko says:

      Only difference is they are not getting Whipped, Hung, Raped, torchered, and Murdered !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Tough Love says:

    Great article. Just a question, if we do stop allowing people to see the dolphins for money, how will that affect our tourism numbers?

    They are an attraction, especially for cruise visitors. In other destinations around the Caribbean, these attractions sell out. Whether environmentalist want to agree with it or not, it IS a tourist attraction. Shutting it down, would make Bermuda a less competitive destination.

    Please look at ALL factors before pressuring Dolphin Quest to stop it’s shows for profit, etc.

    • Onlooker says:

      The tourists can support local tour companies and take a boat ride to see dolphins and whales in their natural environment. WIN WIN.

      • lucky 7 says:

        Do we have local wild dolphins around Bermuda?

    • seriously says:

      I really don’t believe that people come here specifically to visit Dolphin Quest. And anyway, that is no argument to keep intelligent animals caged up and forced to perform tricks and be manhandled by tourists. People visit Bermuda and then choose which attractions to visit. If Dolphin Quest didn’t exist, it would not matter at all. Actually, it would probably improve business for all the tourist attractions who don’t need to abuse intelligent animals to make a living.

      Bermuda has a lot of other issues regarding becoming a viable and competitive tourist destination. We do not need to keep dolphins in captivity to compete with Caribbean destinations.

  3. Truth is killin' me... says:

    The dollar wins out EVERYTIME!

  4. seaweed says:

    i must say I agree with everything Mr Starling says. I would love to take my niece to see the dolphins but cannot in good conscience take her to see them in such a small, unnatural, confined area.

    If Dolphin Quest is to exist then perhaps a solution could be to treat the current enclosure as simply a place of work? Could we not utilise the area where the Cable and Wireless ship docks as an off shift home for the dolphins? Put some nets across the entrances to stop them escaping and transfer them there for their down time. They could spend a week on the job and a week in the much larger enclosure on a shift pattern. Certainly new borns and their moms should spend an extended time in this area learning to be dolphins.

    Its just an idea over a cup of coffee and I am sure there are many logistical issues to think through but surely it is not beyond our wit to find a more humane solution like this. Also it is not a complete solution but perhaps more a workable compromise. In an ideal world all dolphins would be free but if these dolphins are institutionalised and contribute to educational awareness and understanding then the very least we can do is pull out all the stops to ensure their lives are as rich as possible.

    • Onlooker says:

      Thank you for not taking your niece to see these dolphins in captivity. How about supporting local Bermudian businesses and take a tour with your niece to see them in the wild? If you niece really wants to see them, it will be worth the extra money and she can be educated first hand at how dolphins live in the wild and contribute to the oceans ecosystem.

      • seaweed says:

        On it…Found a local Dive Operator who has found dolphins in the past. When she gets a little older we will go!

      • Sooooo says:

        Just a question, how many times during a year do you see dolphins off of Bermuda? Would a tour operator be able to give a 50/50 chance of seeing them?

        The only place I know of that you can see (and swim with) dolphins in the wild with any regularity is on White Sand Ridge off of Grand Bahama.

  5. All profits??? says:

    Has the author looked at the financial records of Dolphin Quest? Is the business being run to generate profits for shareholders, or are the profits being used to fund research and awareness programs?
    Sometimes all the relevant information is not included in ‘opinion columns’ so be sure to do your own research and form YOUR OWN opinion about the things you read in the media!

    • Evie says:

      Close it down its cruel find other source of entertainment

      • lucky 7 says:

        Yeah, like a casino! LOTS more money than $12 a head to see dolphins

    • seriously says:

      I believe that the law that governs and regulates dolphin and marine animal parks (which is highly inadequate), they have to give money to and participate in research and awareness programmes. If they weren’t regulated as such, I’d be interested to know if they would actually spend the time and money participating in such ‘research’ – most of which is not needed or can be done observing wild dolphins in their natural habitat – the ocean. Anyway, it’s still no justification for keeping these highly intelligent and emotional mammals in captivity. If profits weren’t an issue, then why charge tourists to come and interact with them in such an unnatural environment. Unless Dolphin Quest is a registered charity or not-for-profit, I would surmise that the interest here is in making money for investors – just like any other business.

  6. Wally Sittur says:

    How about just opening the gate and giving the dolphins the option to stay or leave. If they leave and don’t come back… Well then there’s your answer. Maybe they will be like cats and just exploring for the day then come home for dinner.

    • Sooooo says:

      These animals have never lived outside of the enclosures, releasing them into the wild is paramount to a death sentence. They have no idea how to hunt, or protect them selves.. they have been hand feed from birth

      • Wally Sittur says:

        Think outside the box Soooo. What if they get a bunch of ipads in water proof ipad cases let the dolphins watch a few seasons of Survior Man, Iron Chef and some Chuck Norris movies. Also Dolphins for Dummies 2014. Im pretty sure that will cover hunting, eating and self defense.

        • Wally Sittur says:

          iPads and Apple products in general are designed to be used by the simplest of creatures. If the dolphins can’t figure it out then they aren’t really that smart after all. They should be bred like chickens. Did you know that there are OVER 9000 ways to cook dolphin.

  7. thief says:

    Releasing into a wild ecosystem that is at full capacity will lead to increased competition for existing populations. Die off will occur to reestablish full capacity population levels as before. In the meantime the overall health of the entire population is compromised by stress and introduced competition.
    That said, lets free horses too! Aren’t they sentient beings?

    • PBanks says:

      Freeing horses on the island would be interesting… catastrophic (and smelly), but interesting

      • Onlooker says:

        Big difference between freeing all the horses on a 21 mile long island and freeing a dozen dolphins into the Atlantic Ocean.

    • seriously says:

      This is ridiculous. You are saying the ocean cannot handle a few more dolphins? Increased competition? That argument makes absolutely no sense. As captive dolphins, the dolphins at dolphin quest would have to be rehabilitated back into their NATURAL environment, but it can be done. Or they can live out their days in an ocean sanctuary where they aren’t forced to be manhandled by tourists all day and do tricks for food. Dolphins experience stress by keeping kept in a sea pen, which is NOT their natural environment. Dolphins have adapted over thousands of years to live happily and efficiently in the ocean. Who are we to play God and change their course of evolution? Anyway, we should let nature do what it needs to do in terms of survival of the fittest, etc. and stop interfering.

  8. Dolphin quest is exploiting a mammal with a larger brain than theirs!…….They are run like a fast food outlet …told what to say…what not to say appropriate and inappropriate conjecture….pretty much giving the adverage staff member a cheerleaders persona…and forced sunny disposition……I would be suprised if they didn’t have canned laughter prerecorded to over lay audience participation.In a nut shell it is forced reinforced behaviour from sentient and self thinking mammals……set them free …and go get yourself a real job carney!

  9. sage says:

    “wild eco-system at full capacity”, dumbest thief yet. Close Dolphin Stress.

  10. Bermuda123 says:

    I think this article is measured and offers a very sensible next step for the dolphins and Dolphin Quest. Bermuda is better than this. Our tourism product needs to be our natural assets and our people, not animals in unnatural surroundings. Times have changed. The right thing to do is to take (and follow) the advice of informed experts on the right way to manage the dolphins we have whilst at the same time moving away from this sort of attraction.