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What is the RSPCA’s view on dolphins in captivity?

Article ID: 635
Last updated: 06 Apr, 2016
Revision: 4
Views: 5678

Dolphins are marine mammals belonging to the group known as cetaceans, which also includes whales, orcas and porpoises.

The RSPCA recognises that some animals have complex social, physical or behavioural needs which are extremely difficult to provide for in captivity. Cetaceans fall into this group and the keeping of cetaceans in captivity cannot be justified given the significant potential for adverse effects on health and welfare.

Welfare issues

The needs of cetaceans held in captivity cannot be met. Dolphins, for example, are highly intelligent animals with complex social families, as well as specialised attributes. Their natural life is to roam the oceans, so restricting them to pools or tanks severely inhibits their normal behaviour as well as their ability to swim naturally. As many captive dolphins cannot be released, an alternative to dolphin captivity is ocean enclosures or sea pens. However this alternative should only be pursued for the dedicated purpose of retirement of captive dolphins or rehabilitation of wild dolphins.

In the wild, they may travel over 100 kilometres in a day, deep dive several hundred metres and travel more than 40 kilometres per hour, all of which are impossible in captivity. In addition, they rely heavily on echolocation (sending out sound waves to detect objects at a distance by the echo created) to ‘see’ their natural, complex home (the ocean), and being confined in a barren pool with no complex seascape to explore restricts their ability to use this.

Studies have shown that dolphins in captivity may suffer stress resulting in appetite loss, ulcers, and increased susceptibility to disease due to changes in their social grouping, competition over resources and unstable social structures[1]. Social grouping has been recognised as one of the most important issues affecting health and welfare of captive cetaceans. Also, the pools that are used for display and/or for ‘petting’ interactions are usually designed to maximise visibility to humans and to facilitate cleaning rather than to provide a complex environment for exploration or deep dives, or to allow the dolphins to adequately escape and/or rest when they choose to. Most enrichment offered to dolphins is simplistic and involves floating objects which insufficiently challenge their intellectual abilities. In addition, being fed dead fish is not conducive to their natural hunting behaviour of a variety of marine species including octopus, crustaceans and fish.

Captive cetaceans are often trained to perform tricks for entertainment which some people view as akin to animal circuses. However, there is evidence that if cetaceans are kept in captivity, training and performing natural behaviours (even for entertainment) can improve their welfare to some extent. While in no way making up for the negative outcomes of captivity overall, interactive performance activities can be seen as providing environmental enrichment and therefore some benefit to captive cetaceans[2]. But, the routine of performances and training are generally predictable which is a significant contrast to life in the ocean.

Justification to keep cetaceans in captivity is flawed

Most oceanaria claim that they help these animal species through research, conservation, public education and rehabilitation of stranded and/or injured individuals. The research is usually limited to further support cetaceans in captivity rather than contributing to the conservation of those in the wild. Also, most ‘stranded’ dolphins/whales do not survive transport and being held in a captive environment. In terms of education, the main message that is portrayed is that it is acceptable for humans to capture and use wild animals for entertainment, and that wild animals are dependent on humans rather than being independent. This does not foster a compassionate and considerate view to allow wild animals to live freely and that our main role should be to help preserve their environment.

Source of animals

Of major concern is the source of the cetaceans held for display. RSPCA is opposed to the taking of animals from the wild for public exhibition. The death rate of wild caught cetaceans is very high. Also, the control of the global trade in live cetaceans is poorly managed in terms of animal welfare and conservation due to inadequate monitoring and reporting. The only other source is captive breeding that can result in a surplus of animals with some facing greater welfare risks if they are to be transported to other destinations. Given that bottlenose dolphins are not endangered, there is no justification for breeding these animals in a captive environment.

Status in Australia

Currently, there are no orcas held in captivity in Australia but there are two operators who retain dolphins – Sea World on the Gold Coast, Queensland, and Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. Each state has legislation designed to protect the species from abuse and neglect, but it can be argued that these are inadequate in terms of safeguarding the special needs of cetaceans and the level of enforcement. Following a federal select committee review in 1985[3], Victoria banned the keeping of dolphins and whales in captivity in line with the review report. The committee report also recommended that no wild cetacean be captured in Australian waters or imported into Australia, and that existing oceanaria comply with welfare standards until they are phased out. Disappointingly, not all these recommendations have been implemented in other States.

RSPCA Australia is opposed to the use of animals for any entertainment performance, or training associated with such use, where injury, pain, suffering or distress is likely to be caused.

How you can help

The general public can help safeguard the future welfare of dolphins by refusing to attend marine parks and calling upon politicians to end the keeping and breeding of cetaceans in captivity.

Further reading

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity. (2009) The Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals


[1] Waples KA & Gales, NJ (2002) Evaluating and Minimising Social Stress in the Care of Captive Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) Zoo Biology 21:5-26

[2] Miller LJ, Mellen J, Greer T & Kuczaj II SA (2011) The effects of education programmes on Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) behaviour Animal Welfare 20: 159-172


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Also read
document RSPCA Policy C02 Performing Animals

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