However, I maintained, and still have, a real interest in dolphins and whales (and sharks, to a lesser extent, because I think they’re so misrepresented to the general public), always keen to check out Sea World or other animal parks where people got to frolic with these seemingly friendly, puppyish animals. I even got to swim with dolphins one summer in Hawaii – complete with a photo op of me kissing a dolphin’s nose.
All of this makes the recent news about whales and dolphins in captivity so distressing. A recent tragic story of a trainer being dragged into the pool and killed by the orca appeared at the same time as news that the full extent of dolphin’s intelligence and self-awareness makes it highly unethical to keep them in captivity, not to mention forcing them to perform for food.
Thomas White, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, California, made the argument that dolphins aren’t merely like people—they may actually be people, or at least, “nonhuman persons,” as he described them. Defining exactly what it means to be a person is difficult, White said, but dolphins seem to fit the checklist many philosophers agree on: They’re alive, aware of their environment, and have emotions—those ones are easy. But they also seem to have personalities, exhibit self-controlled behavior, and treat others appropriately, even ethically. That combination of traits is harder to come by in the animal world. When it comes to what defines a person, said White, “dolphins fit the bill.”
The article makes a point of stating that the above conclusion is still pretty speculative, given that the science of where brain structure results in intelligence (in humans or animals) is based on limited research.Sea World is severely troubling when scrutinized to the slightest extent.
Emory University Neuroscientist and Behavioral Biologist Lori Marino has a piece at the Big Think about just how detrimental captivity is. She notes that because they keep a certain number for performances and not all thrive in captivity, “six or seven other dolphins have died for you to see that one [that’s performing].” That’s a pretty chilling image.
An article at coloradodaily.com written by PETA campaigner Jennifer O’Connor further notes that not only are these creatures given a vastly reduced space to live in, with no privacy or self-determination, but that the theme parks “support the slaughter of dolphins in the wild. Every year, thousands of dolphins are killed in bloody “drive fisheries” in Japan. While most end up as meat in Japanese supermarkets, each year, approximately two dozen captured dolphins are sold to marine parks and “swim-with” programs around the world.”
It’s horrible to think that my enthusiasm for marine life caused me to support such a questionable industry. Dolphins and whales are wild animals, accustomed to miles and miles and fathoms and fathoms of space, not meant to be kept in a fishbowl or surrounded by staring, screaming crowds.
I do think it’s important to maintain some kind of educational resource, because seeing animals up close is part of what keeps people engaged and interested in supporting the habitats and survival of animals in the wild. Perhaps this could be done via rescue operations, where human care is shown to be beneficial, but intended to be limited.
Ultimately, our science and entertainment industries should respect the fact that they are predatory carnivores and simply wild animals, not domesticated cats.