Where When How — May/June 2017
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No Captive Dolphins
Don Stark

A proposal to build a captive dolphin facility on Grand Turk for the entertainment of tourists is being considered. The keeping of captive dolphins should be considered counter to the Turks & Caicos Islands “Beautiful by Nature” slogan.

Dolphins are complex and highly intelligent animals. Some characteristics that make dolphins more like humans than other animals are:

• They exhibit complex behavioural, cognitive and social traits.

• The brains of dolphins are highly developed and larger than humans.

• They have clearly demonstrated the ability to understand how different things function and how to understand combinations of complex instructions.

• They have highly developed communication skills.

• Dolphins experience emotions much like humans.

What happens to these highly intelligent, social animals when they are kept in captivity? Many of their natural skills and attributes begin to change.

Dolphins during the capture process suffer tremendous trauma and stress. There is a six-fold increase in the mortality rate of dolphins captured from the wild in the first five days after capture. In fact, this increase in stress mortality happens each time a dolphin is transported.

Given the confined space of all captive habitats in which dolphins are held, physical activity is greatly reduced. Sea pens (fenced off portions of open seawater or lagoons) are thought to be better, but even the largest sea pens greatly reduce the space available for the dolphins. They also generally don’t provide protection for the animals from hazards such as hurricanes, potential pollutants from the land, and potential exposure from human waste.

Wild dolphins catch their food, which consists of live fish. Captive dolphins must be taught to eat dead fish which is lower in nutritional value .

Social structures within dolphin communities are quite dynamic, but in captivity dominance determines the hierarchy resulting in a substantial increase in aggressive behavior between the dolphins.

Dolphin communication skills change, or don’t develop as they would in the wild. The vocalisations decrease in diversity and new vocalisations are learned, often imitating noises found in their new environment.

Dolphinaria operators cite the fact that lifespans in captive facilities is comparable to that found in the wild. There is no increase in lifespan for captive dolphins and there is continuing debate about whether lifespans in captivity are actually worse.

The health of dolphins in captivity is also a challenge to monitor. The lack of mobile facial expressions (the “smile” on their face is a fixed, unchanging expression) makes it difficult to identify animals in physical distress. Most often the first sign of a problem is a lack of eating with dolphins often dying within a day or two of this observation.

Captive dolphin programs require dolphins. Captive breeding programs do not generate enough dolphins to fulfill the demand from new and existing dolphinaria. This means more dolphins must be captured from the wild and the methods used to capture dolphins are traumatic and lead to many dolphin deaths.

Swim with dolphin programs provide no educational benefits, they merely exploit the animals while exposing them to additional risks, such as increased stress related to too much exposure to humans, increased exposure to health hazards and health risks from inadvertent or intentional touching of sensitive areas such as the blowhole and eyes. Humans also are at risk during these programs from aggressive behaviour from the animals.

Bottom line, captive dolphins are much like captive humans or slaves.

This is not an attraction that is compatible with the “Beautiful by Nature” Turks and Caicos Islands, and only harms the eco-friendly image of this country.