The Ethics of Keeping Whales and Dolphins Captive
From Chapter 13 of The Performing Orca-Why the Show Must Stop  by Eric Hoyt Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Bath U.K. 1992 [Reprinted with Permission of Publisher]


In February 1984, there was a workshop on "Animals on Display: Educational and Scientific Impact" held at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. In it, the AAZPA's Ethics and Law Working Group considered the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. The group, which included representatives from marine parks and Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, acknowledged a "special responsibility to preserve and respect animals as part of the natural environment" and a "moral obligation" to show "compassion and humane treatment to animals in captivity."

Its report said: "Those who work with captive animals in aquariums and zoos have a special obligation to convey knowledge of the natural world to the public, to interpret the lives of animals accurately .. to portray animals as they are, to display animals under conditions that, so far as possible, allow them to behave naturally, and to offer them adequate social contact, ideally with others of their species. In addition, a workable ethic for the treatment of animals in captivity must include a requirement to provide appropriate space, nutrition, and health care."

The group felt that if "bringing animals into captivity .. causes adverse effects, these effects, on balance, are outweighed by such benefits as enhancement of human appreciation for all animals, conservation of species, and advancement of knowledge." But then, they took their views a step further, trying to pre-empt any possible argument: "Some people contend that it is morallv wrong to remove animals from the wild and hold them in captivity, either because they believe that some animals have evolved sufficiently to acquire rights equivalent to those recognized for human beings, or because they believe animals are severely harmed by life in captivity ... These beliefs are not currently supported by sufficient scientific evidence. Consequently, they do not provide a factual basis for an overriding moral objection to displaying animals in captivity."

The AAZPA statement, however, misses the whole point of a moral or ethical view, which is that is a matter of belief. There is no need for facts, only a true conviction. The AAZPA panel and other marine park proponents have a right to their beliefs, too, but they cannot disprove those who disagree with them.

The AAZPA workshop was partly a response to the "Whales Alive" conference (Global Conference on the Non-Consumptive Utilisation of Cetacean Resources) held at the New England Aquarium in Boston in June 1983. Whales Alive was attended by a wide group of whale researchers and environmentalists, as well as those affiliated with marine parks and aquariums. Consensus could not be reached on the moral issue, but participants came up with a number of recommendations, suggesting better standards for captive cetacea and further research into the possible effects of capture. A report of the conference noted that captivity for cetaceans would need "to be continually reviewed in the light of ... future research findings, aquarium experience and changing public sentiments." Yet in the end, the conference resolutions suggested: "Efforts should be made to bring to an end, in due course, the keeping of cetaceans in captivity."

Since then, at an April 1990 "Earth Week" symposium held in Ottawa, Canada, entitled "Whales In Captivity: Right or Wrong?", participants drawn from marine parks, as well as whale scientists and environmentalists, sought greater understanding and dialogue on the issues. But, after a day with some fierce arguing, they came up with no consensus.

In July 1990, as the issue became more polarized, the Bellerive Symposium on Whales and Dolphins in Captivity, met in Geneva. There were no marine park owners or curators in attendance, no one arguing in favour of keeping whales and dolphins captive. The Chairman's conclusions: "Whales and dolphins are self-aware beings that routinely make decisions and choices about the details of their lives. They are entitled to freedom of choice. Thus, they are entitled to freedom. Imprisoning them in captivity is, quite simply, wrong."

The greatest impact of this view - in changing the rules and regulations about keeping cetaceans captive - came in the state of Victoria, Australia where, in 1985, all further capture of cetaceans was banned. At the national level in Australia, the Report of the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, entitled Dolphins and Whales in Captivity, stated: "Many people concerned with animal welfare now question whether humans are entitled to exploit animals and to act in a manner which will cause animals to suffer. Critics argue that oceanaria exploit cetacea primarily for profit and that this is morally indefensible because it causes suffering to cetacea who, as intelligent and complex beings, are entitled to greater consideration by humans. They believe that arguments advanced by oceanaria, for keeping cetacea captive, such as enrichment, awareness and improved knowledge, are inconsistent with, and subordinate to, their commercial motives .... Critics consider that, even if oceanaria could show that profit and recreation were not the primary motives of oceanaria, the use of captive cetacea for education and research is not only of dubious benefit but is also morally questionable."

Some people are opposed to making money from exhibiting orcas. However, they do not object - or object much less - if bonafide science, education and conservation form part of the programme. But philosphers Dale Jamieson and Tom Regan argue that, although scientific study may have many benefits which will accrue to cetacea themselves, the morality of these benefits depends "on the means used to secure them. And no benefits are morally to be allowed if they are obtained at the price of violating individual rights."

A few years earlier, when Australia was coming to grips with a century of intensive whaling, Sir Sydney Frost, in his report on whales and whaling, decided that any interference with cetacea required strong justification on the grounds that it was either essential or unavoidable". In considering whether humans should "use" cetacea, he took into account the suffering that might occur as a result of that use and the effect of the possible high intelligence of cetacea on their propensity to suffer. He recommended that "the taking or killing of any cetacea - whether intentionally for scientific, display or other purposes, or incidentally such as in fishing or shark-netting operations - should be carefully scrutinised to ensure that it is either essential or unavoidable."

Australia's Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare also considered the suffering of the animals: "The fact that cetacea undergo some suffering in captivity is not, of itself, an overriding factor in determining whether cetacea should be held in captivity. All animals, including human beings, suffer to a varying extent in their natural environment and it would be inconceivable for animals not to suffer at times in captivity. Rather, it is the nature and extent of suffering which should be taken into account in deciding whether to keep particular species of animals in captivity."

The committee noted that empirical data has shown that cetaceans suffer varying degress of stress and trauma during capture and captivity The same may not be true of the third generation bottlenose dolphins born in captivity. But, after weighing all the evidence, the committee concluded that cetaceans should "not be subjected to the possibility of deprivation or suffering which conditions and quality of life in captivity might occasion."

Ethical arguments against keeping orcas captive sometimes cite the importance of culture in orcas and the intensity of family ties. Michael Bigg, in his address at the Third International Orca Symposium in March 1990, stated: "Cultures are simply learned behaviours that are passed on to the next generation. The killer whale's longevity, its intelligence, its long-term bonds between adults and offspring, and localized populations make it a very good candidate for possessing cultures."

The ethical considerations of keeping animals captive has been treated at length by various authors, such as Peter Singer in his 1977 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals and the papers of philosophers Dale Jamieson and Tom Regan.

Perhaps the clearest explanation of the ethical arguments is given by Victor B. Scheffer, former US federal biologist and chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission. In trying to understand both sides of the issue, he has explored the sentiments people have about animals in general and whales in particular, and has written perceptively about it in his many articles and books:

"At the core of humaneness," he wrote in the final chapter of Marine Mammals of Eastern North Pacific and Arctic Waters, "is the idea of kind-ness, or the idea that we and the other animals are basically of one kind." To Scheffer, the key is that we are all "part of the living animal world ... caught up together in a sort of spiritual biomass" and therefore "we have the right to insist not only that animals be spared distress (pain and fear) but that they be used in ways acceptable to large numbers of thoughtful men and women."

Scheffer confessed an "inability to deal adequately with the problem of how one learns what the general public wants from, and for, the whales, seals and other marine mammals," adding: "I myself believe that what men and women are saying today about them is, 'Let them be.' A useful marine mammal, they say, is one out there somewhere in the wild - free, alive, hidden, breathing, perpetuating its ancient bloodline.

"My real argument is emotional or, if you wish, sentimental. I believe, quite simply, that sentiment is one of the best reasons for saving not only some of these animals - but all of them."

The orca captivity debate is important for many reasons. All of us are trying to come to terms with a world which the human species has put in peril by its actions of domination over nature. The removal of these few animals probably does not represent a risk to the future of Orcinus orca as a species; in fact, as we have seen, some of what is learned in captivity may in future be helpful to wild populations. But the ethical issue should not be dismissed because only a few animals are involved. Whether or not "animals have evolved sufficiently to acquire rights equivalent to those recognized for human beings" or "animals are severely harmed by life in captivity", this is an issue involving not only a couple hundred orcas but also millions of people - the millions who see orcas every year in marine parks as well as those who choose to stay away. The feelings of all of these people, their ethical views, are crucial.

Feelings about animals differ of course from person to person. The differences are partly cultural, partly the differences between urban vs. rural backgrounds. Developmental psychologists tell us that our caring about animals - mostly acquired as children and developed as young adults - is closely tied to our feelings about nature, as we 11 as other people, including our families and ourselves. We must explore these links and develop them. Our improvement and ultimate survival as a society depends upon fostering respectful links with animals.

"In the long run," says Paul Spong in a recent article in Whalewatcher, "the whales will only be truly saved when we humans no longer regard them as resources to be exploited and 'managed', but rather as fellow creatures - self-organized social animals with clear rights that we acknowledge, grant, and protect. Paramount among these rights should be those that address issues of habitat protection and freedom."

Part of that freedom is freedom from captivity. Complicating the issue of not wanting to "manage" orcas, however, is the fact that as we move into the 21st Century, habitat for all animals, in competition with humans, is increasingly in short supply. For better or worse, humans have the job of "managing" the Earth. Rather than pressing for no management", we must work for more caring management - utilizing a technique that business calls "hands-off management". We must intensify non-invasive research programmes and, at the same time, fight against those who would distort scientific information or use it, for example, to exploit whales. We need the scientific background to know when whale populations are in trouble and what might be done to help them. Humans, despite a poor record of respecting the rights of other humans, as well as whales in general, or orcas in particular, are now in the position of helping or hurting all life on Earth. The question may well become: Can humans be good managers without assuming the traditional role of exploiter?

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