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Dolphins Are Not “Too Smart for Captivity”

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Common dolphins fare poorly in captivity and are rarely kept

Common dolphins fare poorly in captivity and are rarely kept

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) compared to other animal species overall do not appear to thrive in aquariums. The captivity of cetaceans is one of the few cases of wild animal captivity that has justified criticism, however I feel that all too often, many of the claims are overblown to the extent that they attack all forms of zoos, pet keeping, and any case of animals being cared for by humans in an 'unnatural' setting.

A common claim made by animal rights groups and their supporters is that "dolphins are too smart for captivity", which casts an illusion that the poor cetacean survival rates in captivity are due to mental agony inflicted on the animals, in part due to the 'undignified' existence offered by captivity or its lack of similarities to a dolphin's natural home (the ocean).

Can dolphins thrive in captivity?

I don't rule out the possibility of successfully caring for these animals (or that it hasn't occurred), which includes promoting psychological well-being and adequate longevity rates. It is true that not every species will be suitable to ethically maintain in captivity, but animal rights groups will suggest that keeping dolphins is akin to human slavery due to their mental capacities.

I believe that meeting the needs of cetaceans is not so vastly different from that of other animals. In fact, there are many ‘less complex’ animals that have specific social requirements that if not met can result in shortened lifespan. Schooling fish for example do not fare well in aquariums without being housed in groups so they can carry out their natural behaviors. Some fish thrive in the right settings in captivity and others do not, while others require more complex accommodations to meet their needs despite no advanced ‘intelligence’.

Bottle-nose dolphins are not 'less complex' than other dolphin species (for example orca whales, porpoises, and many other dolphin species) that have higher mortality rates in captivity. Size may be a factor with orca whales, but other smaller cetacean species like porpoises and pilot whales do even worse than orcas in captivity for different reasons.

I often emphasize that giving animals the 5 freedoms justifies keeping animals as pets and in zoos. The simple issue with all cetaceans is that we are currently limited in meeting these requirements because these animals live in an aquatic environment.

A group bottlenose dolphins

A group bottlenose dolphins


In the psychological condition of all cetaceans, their social relations are of extreme importance. Their brains have evolved a certain type of complexity to process the activities of their acquaintances in the constantly changing oceanic environment.

I do believe that social issues are the main reasons why orca whales often have poor health in captivity. Not many orcas reach their normal lifespan as of current, and infection is often the culprit. Orca whales have a bad habit of 'jaw popping' their teeth on the metal gates of their pools, which is a dominant display toward other orcas that they aren't getting along with. Such behavior leads to severe dental health problems such as holes in their teeth (their teeth are also drilled by the keepers to deal with the resulting wearing down of the enamel). This can become a source for bacteria to cause infections, aiding by stress-induced compromised immune systems, that can quickly become life-threatening.

Unfortunately, the orca whale groupings in captivity are artificial, and this is likely leading to the animals being incompatible. It is generally believed that keeping orcas alone would be a welfare violation, but I hypothesize that bad groupings are worse and are responsible for the majority of premature death. If by chance of luck a grouping of animals is successful, I speculate that their health will be more robust.

Bottle-nose dolphin societies in the wild are complex and of great importance to how they function. Appropriate groupings are a must. Bottle-nose dolphins (and some other species) do not have social relations that are as exclusive as the stable matriarchal groups that orcas form (sometimes they are even observed playing with other dolphin species and whales), and bottle-nose dolphins fare better in captivity with their expected lifespan being closer to that which exists in some wild populations. I think that human interaction is also a suitable form of social enrichment for cetaceans. Specific dolphin species are known as the only animals that seek out human companionship in the wild. Perhaps bottle-nose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) do best in captivity because they enjoy human presence.


I don't think that orcas and other dolphins need to migrate thousands of miles as they do in the wild in order to maintain good health, but their current pools are somewhat small in terms of allowing enough room for a sufficient exercise session. This is especially apparent with the situation of Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. She is amazingly also one of the longest lived captive orcas (47 years old), and as I suspected, she has better dentition given lack of social strife with tank mates (although recently she has succumbed to a tooth abscess).

Lack of space is also an unfortunate problem because animals cannot resolve conflict when they are too close together, unable to separate as necessary to reduce tension.

Problem animals (such as Tillikum, who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) that need to be isolated are also confined to small areas. Recently it has been discovered that captive elephants that are being kept in traditional zoo enclosures should have more space (at least a few acres) to offer enough travel room to prevent debilitating foot diseases that are responsible for a majority of their premature deaths.

I suspect that orca whales require this change too, although obviously, this would be hard or impossible for current parks to carry out with concrete tanks. Smaller dolphins may also benefit from more enriching tank designs (tunnels, non-circular pools with unpredictable shape and rock features) just as land mammals are provided for in zoos. The ever increasing critical public might perceive this as better if anything.


Dolphins are a species that stress easily, sometimes to the extent that they die before they make it to their captive destination during transport. This is an issue with many animals, and improvements with capture techniques have led to more success with keeping sensitive species of fish, birds and mammals alike.

Dolphins for some reason also have privacy overlooked in the captive environment while it is acknowledged for land animals. Their pools are not designed to allow the animals to exit the view of humans when they prefer. It's possible that this leads to stress, and stress hampers the immune system. I feel this can be easily resolved. Loosely related to this issue is that the pools are too turquoise. The paint jobs that exist in most captive situations may bother the skin of cetaceans and contribute to lack of feeling secure.

Free-Ranging Captive Dolphins

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Self-awareness and suffering

The video above is about dolphins in a facility that actually allows them to go for swims in the ocean once a week. These animals are exposed to the complexities of the ocean, including meeting wild dolphins, that animal rights activists often complain is essential for their well-being and fundamentally cruel to deny. Yet, the dolphins in this facility are actually reluctant to go out on these swims, and prefer to stay within the territories that are their aquatic enclosures.

Activists like Lori Marino often state that dolphins are especially prone to suffering the stresses of captivity because of their self-awareness. I don't think there's enough evidence to suggest that these animals are more prone to lack of well-being any more than more 'simplistic' animals that are being deprived of basic needs. Therefore, I hold the position that captivity should be improved, not eliminated. Efforts need to be put forth to explore options in achieving the '5 freedoms' for captive cetaceans as much as possible and then we can examine if such animals are not suited for any form of captivity.



Becki Rizzuti from Indiana, USA on February 26, 2014:

I'd appreciate your stance on it. Your hubs are always respectful of the opposite viewpoint and I think this is an issue which could have tremendous impact, particularly for private ownership, which obviously affects people like me and you.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 26, 2014:

Wow the people on that article are truly dense. I do have an article on non-human rights but I could consider doing an India-specific one.

Becki Rizzuti from Indiana, USA on February 26, 2014:

Can you /please/ do a hub about this?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 16, 2014:

In time certain facilities may change, it is happening with elephants.

coco on February 16, 2014:

Hmmmm. This is interesting. I, personally, am against captivity of whales and elephants for two reasons: their high intelligence and socialization needs and their size. I, like you, often see these animals in small, captive environments and notice that their enclosures are much too small for their size. They are also, as you noted, forced into certain social situations, which does not go over well.

Though, as I stated above, I don't think such animals should be kept in captivity, I also realize that their captivity will not end soon. In order to make the lives of these creatures better now, I would advocate for fewer of them in zoos and for larger tanks and enclosures (so that exercise and alone-time is possible). And the idea of tunnels or caves to hide from humans is also a good one. It always breaks my heart to go to a nature park and see these huge, majestic creatures with so little room to roam. It would be like me being confined to my room with another person. Punitive measures should also be ended.

And your suggestions are all good ones to help make life in captivity better. However, it saddens me to say that many (most) zoos and water parks will not follow your advice. It would simply take too much money to make tanks and enclosures large enough for orcas and elephants. And attempting to create natural pods and groups would take too much effort on their part. In the end, why would owners pour all that money into bettering their captive animals' lives when their bottom line will be the same regardless? (I'm not saying that trainers and caregivers don't care about the animals but that they are limited by their bosses' decisions.) It's because of those organizations' greed that I think it's just better to leave these animals in the wild; their needs will never be truly met.

Phuck you on January 14, 2014:

You're too dumb to be writing anything about intelligence. These dolphins and orcas that you speak of are clearly smarter than you.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on October 27, 2013:

stopthegreed2, it's not about what is 'ideal' but what is reasonable. That being said, most animals do not understand concepts of 'freedom' and live in the moment. Sure, they will take the opportunity to explore if they see a way out, but they cannot take in the decision to leave an environment that provides essential needs vs. a hostile one.

stopthegreed2 on October 27, 2013:

This is a ridiculous article. Look you can get a domesticated animal and put it in a cage and before you can blink the animal wants out. Wild animals are No different. Humans are just another species that don't like being confined to a small area. We as humans use these forms of entrapment as punishment for other humans.

This has nothing to do with intelligence. This has to do with Freedom.

I wouldn't think there were too many things( if any) living on this planet that would take confinement over freedom if they were given a choice..

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on October 26, 2013:

I doubt once a week is a 'joke' Andrew, and I also doubt that an escape attempt is not being made just because of knowledge of re-capture. Might as well at least TRY to get some moments of 'freedom' before the capture. I don't see what the downside is.

Andrew Randrianasulu on October 26, 2013:

There is also human side of equation. Captivity promotes 'use' of dolphins, in most direct and unrespectful ways.


The video above is about dolphins in a particular facility that actually allows them to go for swims in the ocean once a week.


once a week? this is a joke ..... 6 days out of 7 you *directly* controlled (and this control based on limiting food = limiting *water* availability!) y humans - and then you have some possibility to try to swim out (knowing probably how all real escapes end up with recapture!). Nowhere near fair.

Also, all this 'training' based on very oversimplified model of animal mind - look out for behaviorists vs ethologists debate! Dolphins literally just 'arm behind' humans - in everything else they really comparable (if we compare individual vs individual, not dolphin vs whole human civilization!). Two-way communication with dolphins (or other cetaceans) never was done not because this is impossible - but because whole small array of researchers in USA was too afraid to cross this line (look for Eugene Linden's books on ape language experiments to see how much it was groundbreaking to discover not only humans can talk and understand language! Herman and co definitely knew confirmation of real language use by dolphins will undermine their captive research! Anyway, Herman ruined *all* dolphins he held captive at his lab) and research in USSR stopped just after USSR crashed as country. Still, you can look at and go to library for more data!

So, this is not only about 'captivity is bad for animal part of dolphins', but also about 'captivity teach us about fake love', and about 'captivity makes us blind to existence of another group of sapient beings on Earth!' (currently often killed directly or indirectly).

Future readers of this blog (and comments) might also like to read - good if yo want to jump-start themselves on troubled history of sciences devoted to animal mind research. A lot of bias, wonderfully exposed. Make sure to find and read bibliography!

A bit more on Lou Herman:


However, the captive dolphins paid the price. The last of them, Hiapo, died prematurely at age 20 in February, 2004. Her pool mates, Phoenix and Akeakamai, had both died of cancer a few months earlier, and it is thought that Hiapo, who was in good physical health, died of grief and loneliness.

An investigation into the three deaths concluded that Professor Herman was negligent in not stopping his work with Phoenix and Akeakamai and placing them in veterinary care. He was fined, and he gave up his work with captive dolphins.


Well, in sense Herman go too low as human being (lack of ethical understanding) yet not *too far* as scientist - because he never allowed dolphins to try and talk back! This is paradox - yet it only show how afraid (internally) those researchers were to find out who dolphins actually are! Financial part of real-life equation also must be considered - like who paid Herman's work via grants ....

Alessandro on September 05, 2013:

On what sacred stone is written that zoos are a human right? I am not an activits, I do not participate to meetings, and such. I just have my opinion. And it is that we should stop the circle of having animals in captivity. It is just not right. It is just primitive and unfair. If I could vote about it, I'd vote against it.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on March 15, 2013:

Thanks, in my opinion many do now, although this article is just some concerns I have with some situations where longevity rates are less than optimal, and why I believe that may be.

Splashstorm on March 15, 2013:

This article was such an eye-opener. Thank you for showing the public that dolphins can thrive in captivity.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 08, 2013:

Hello stopthegreed2, are you a dolphin? How are you typing with flippers? Wow, this changes everything.

stopthegreed2 on January 08, 2013:

Yer I guess I'm not too smart for jail for the rest of my life. But would I want to spend my days in a concrete tank? Only someone with very little intelligence would think any species would "like" this life.

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on January 03, 2013:

Well thought out answers Melissa. Thanks.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 03, 2013:

Thank you for that piece of information Rachel. I wish I could learn more about the situation that you are describing for proper comparison. The dolphins at the facility I have cited continue to swim free in the ocean year after year yet apparently never swim for freedom even upon observing free dolphins. How long did your chimpanzee take to come around? Do you believe the dolphins at this facility to be abused? It looks to me that they are in a caring environment with opportunities for exercise and socialization. I am not surprised that they don't swim away. Why would they? Dolphins, like other animals, are interested in satisfying their basic needs. The ocean is aversive because it is an unknown, stressful environment. Is it possible that they can be taught to live wild? Possibly. It's just one environment vs. the other.

To answer your question 'are the deaths worth it', well, I'm going to have to say yes, but only if the animal is living in a caring environment with people who are willing to modify their care standards if something is deemed inadequate. No one intentionally kills any captive animal, but mistakes can happen. I'm going to say that originally the needs of these animals was dramatically misunderstood and these animals were being housed like goldfish, but hopefully now they this new knowledge will lead captivity into the right direction (but not into non-existence).

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 03, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Lori. Actually my statement about a few more acres was mainly referring to orca whales; I'm satisfied with what many locations have provided for the smaller dolphins. You're correct in that I could use a good education. There is minimal research dedicated to the subject of animal well-being in both cetaceans, and even canine companions to a certain extent. I am still in the process of reviewing the information that is available to the general public, and I have read some of your papers. I did not state definitively that bottlenose dolphins fare better because they like humans, but one thing remains clear, they do fare better in captivity.

Yes, I consider activism negative. This is because many of such people take it upon themselves to infringe on the personal freedoms of others (humans) with their personal ideological opinions. These people may be your average joe, and sometimes they might be scientists. It is unfortunate that at times I have to forgo my interest in animal welfare just to maintain my rights to keep pets and for responsible zoos to continue. I believe we have a right to care for and experience animals. This will not be my last article on this subject.

Rachel on January 03, 2013:

Selves-whether human or animal- are not so simple. You suggest that dolphins not swimming away into the ocean suggests they do not need or want the opportunity. I worked with chimpanzees and we often had chimpanzees that had been caged and abused their whole lives. One female in particular was very reluctant to leave a small confined "known" space; in your view, this means she was what? happy content or none of that because she was just an object. After many different forms of gentle coaxing, it was ultimately a family member that literally guided her out, with his young arm draped around her rump the WHOLE time. After that, she went out each day and SEEMED more relaxed and content. Also, is the goal of keeping them in captivity "perfectly" someday really worth the deaths along the way?

Lori Marino on January 03, 2013:

The author has a poor understanding of the complex needs of dolphins and whales. This is demonstrated by her claim that meeting fundamental needs in captivity "is not impossible". She has single-handedly decided which needs are vital and which are not. She makes unsubstantiated claims about how dolphins and whales do not need to travel far and could be satisfied with "a few more acres" and seems to think that putting a few more rocks in a tank will satisfy a dolphin's boredom. And to suggest that bottlenose dolphins fare better in captivity than orcas because they "like interacting" with humans more is a claimj in search of evidence. In fact, I don't think that the author realizes that she has made the best argument against herself - that there is no way to meet the fundamental needs of cetaceans in captivity. To do so would be unrealistically challenging. Furthermore the author seems to be using the term "activist" as a derogatory. Yes, I am an activist but I am also a scientist who has published tens of peer-reviewed papers on dolphin behavior, intelligence and self-awareness. It is precisely because of my scientific knowledge of these animals that I became an activist. The author fails to mention this and only proves that she needs a good education.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 02, 2013:

Thanks Peter!

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 02, 2013:

Exactly, thank you Shaddie. Those dolphins are better behaved free-range than my own dog.

Shaddie from Washington state on January 02, 2013:

I wanted to add that what's happening with cetaceans seems to be happening to elephants these days, too. People are realizing that their required standards of care are too much for the current enclosures to handle. I am disappointed that the resounding solution to this problem from many is to "remove these animals from zoos entirely - they should be in the wild anyway" instead of simply working to improve standards in order to continue to impress upon newer generations the beauty of these animals.

Shaddie from Washington state on January 02, 2013:

Very interesting idea, basically "walking" the dolphins out in the wild... I am surprised the dolphins don't swim away, to be honest, as a dog might when let loose in a park. Very interesting indeed!

Peter Dickinson from South East Asia on January 02, 2013:

Thanks Melissa. You make some interesting observations.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 02, 2013:

Thanks for commenting Angela. Some of what's going on with cetaceans is certainly a skid mark on zoological care as a whole. Hopefully more enrichment options will be explored to increase the welfare of these animals, although I'm disappointed that the piles of criticism they face will likely lead to lowered attendance and in effect, less funds to invite this change.

Angela Blair from Central Texas on January 02, 2013:

Thank you for such a unique and informed opinion on a huge problem. It's comforting to know that more consideration is now being given to the actual needs of animals held in captivity by humans. In an ideal world we could all interact without endangering one another but obviously the key word there is "ideal" and non-existent. Excellent article and very interesting read. Best/Sis

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