Vegan Uncensored: Why it’s time to let captive animals go free – part I

Orcas and other marine animals all deserve a life in the wild. Photo by Emma Levez Larocque

Orcas and other marine animals all deserve a life in the wild. Photo by Emma Levez Larocque

I write this article in the backdrop of a quite significant legislative development; India’s ban on dolphinariums.  What is most notable about this news is the recognition of dolphins and other cetacean species as non-human persons. Our society seldom credits other animals with having complex emotions and self-agency, so this recognition came as a pleasant surprise.

However, most countries around the world continue to host marine mammal parks. They attract countless visitors, especially children, and these institutions have become a common setting for family outings, school excursions, etc. This is probably not surprising as dolphins and other cetaceans are incredibly inquisitive animals and are a joy to be around. Their intelligence makes them apt at doing tricks that leave visitors in a state of wonder. General acceptance of marine mammal parks might also have to do with claims that they help educate people about animals and therefore help to conserve them in the wild.

So, why are dolphinariums morally questionable? And are zoos that exhibit land animals any different?

Marine mammal parks are a more recent invention than zoos. Unlike zoos, marine parks rely heavily on animal performances to get customers. Dolphins, orcas, beluga whales and other marine animals commonly showcased are highly social animals conditioned to live in tight-knit groups in the endless expanse of an ocean. Some also live in rivers, like the Ganges river dolphin in India. Dolphins travel more than 40 miles (64 kms) a day and are in motion while sleeping as well. They partake in hunting and other activities socially with other dolphins and love to dive to great depths.

[1] None of these conditions can be met in a marine park, no matter how modern or “animal friendly” they claim to be. Dolphins have are heavily reliant on their incredible sense of hearing and echolocation, a specialized technique where they emit focused sound waves and interpret the size, shape and type of material around them from the returning echo, to get their bearings in their vast ocean home. When trapped in a concrete pool, dolphins have no need to use echolocation. The lack of variety, texture, depth or substance in the sterile environment makes it extremely limited. Dolphins become extremely bored and suffer from acute stress. Intensive confinement also causes animals to exhibit stereotypical behavior. Captive dolphins are often seen swimming silently in repetitive circular patterns, with their eyes closed, the equivalent of the swaying and pacing exhibited by land animals. Some are so bored they bang their heads against walls, trying to create stimuli in their stale environment.

Because these animals live in the water the entire time, the water needs to be regularly cleaned.  This is mostly done using chlorine, a chemical that is very harsh on the animals’ skin and eyes. Living in chemically treated and often contaminated water means the health of these animals suffers, too. “They can suffer and die from being exposed to chemicals such as chlorine in the water, poor water quality, bacterial infections, pneumonia, cardiac arrest, lesions, eye problems, ulcers, abscesses, and more.” [2]

How do these animals end up in marine parks? Captive breeding hasn’t produced the level of results required to sustain dolphinariums without the need to catch animals in the wild. Only the captive breeding of bottle nosed dolphins has had any reasonable level of success, but is still not self-sustaining.  So every time people see orcas, Pacific white sided dolphins, beluga whales and other common exhibited animals, it is most likely that these animals were once freely living in the wild and had to be captured and brought to the park. Capturing wild dolphins and other marine mammals is a violent process. These animals are pursued relentlessly, causing them a lot of stress, as they are rounded up and trapped in nets. The dolphins are then pulled out of the water and into the boat. Those between the ages of two and four are kept and the rest are thrown back. Some of them drop dead on the deck from shock and many are injured. [3]

Dolphins and other whales also die sooner in captivity than they would in the wild. Since these animals have only been studied in the wild for the past couple of decades and studied in captivity since the ‘30s for dolphins and since the ‘60s for other whales, it is difficult to accurately compare the change in lifespan of captive marine mammals. Comparing the annual mortality rate of members of the species studied in the wild to those studied in captivity gives a more decipherable result. The percentage of death in captivity for dolphins was 1.5 times that in the wild, and for orcas, it was three times more in captivity than wild. [2] Considering that marine parks provide constant veterinary care, food, and complete isolation from any predators, the fact that more animals die in captivity than in the open ocean becomes even more sinister. These deaths can be attributed to the artificial surroundings that lead to a myriad of health problems, psychological stress and boredom from intensive confinement that lead to aggression, self-mutilation, and death of unborn calves. They also die from zinc poisoning when they happen to ingest coins and other foreign objects thrown into the pool by people.

India’s decision to ban marine mammal parks is commendable, and it provides hope that someday marine mammals around the world will remain free to roam their natural environments. Films like Blackfish are raising awareness of these issues in the eye of the mainstream. However, the ban needs to reach farther afield to include land animals who are kept captive in zoos. Next week, in part II of this article, we will look at why.


[1] Kemmerer, Lisa, Acampora, Ralph R. (2010), “Nooz: ending zoo exploitation”, Metamorphoses of the   zoo: animal encounter after Noah, pg: 37-56

[2] Animals and society – Margo Demello pg. 108

[3] Kemmerer, Lisa, Acampora, Ralph R. (2010), “Nooz: ending zoo exploitation”, Metamorphoses of the   zoo: animal encounter after Noah, pg: 37-56

About the Author:

Siddharth Iyer is a student from India, who is currently studying in Finland. He is a life long vegetarian who turned vegan in 2010.