The Post – Dolphins: An Ethical Problem

Has anyone ever thought about dolphins in amusement parks / aquariums and wondered if they were happy?  I have to admit I never thought about it much. I figured if they were kept humanely, fed well, kept active and busy, that was good. But maybe that’s not the case.

I came across this article in the Times from January 2010 that said:

“Dolphins have been declared the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as “non-human persons”……The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.”

This gave me pause, especially since for 10 years I worked on an ethics board protecting human beings in clinical research studies. I am supposed to think outside the box to make sure all are treated ethically. So I dug further into the topic of dolphin ethics and found a bit more.

An article by Kris Stewart on the Ethos website, states:

“The ways that dolphins are captured, transported, and kept for research, display and/or entertainment raises many ethical concerns. Family groups are broken up when one or more dolphins are taken from their home waters in traumatic takings, and the effects of changing the social structure of the wild population once those individuals are removed from the community are unknown. Many captive dolphins display physiological and behavioral indicators of stress such as elevated adrenocortical hormones, stereotyped behavior, self-destruction, self-mutilation, and excessive aggressiveness towards humans and other dolphins. To be sure, captive dolphin facilities vary around the world, but even if Panama provided the very best in captive dolphin care and management, the decision to keep healthy dolphins in human care at all disregards their moral value. Captivity denies dolphins their psychological, physical, and social integrity, inflicts untold kinds and amounts of stress, and drastically alters the fundamental life experience of being a dolphin.”

I looked into the Times article further and found this on one of the researchers quoted in the article:

Emory University neuroscientist Lori Marino, states that: “Dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life. They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma,” …The growing industry of capturing and confining dolphins to perform in marine parks or to swim with tourists at resorts needs to be reconsidered, she says.”

Marino presented these findings along with another researcher, Dr. Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference (AAAS) in San Diego, on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010. Click the following two links to read an article about Dr. Marino’s presentation, and to hear her speak on video about this topic: her article and a video of an interview with her

Dr. Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and a fellow at the Oxford Centre For Animal Ethics, apparently also spoke at this conference. An excerpt of his speech: click here

Giving a response to these topics was Dr. Jerry Schubel, Director of the Aquarium of the Pacific. At the website, Physics Buzz, there was an entry by the blogger, Alaina G. Levine, Much Ado about Dolphins, even if they don’t wear physics t-shirts, that contained some of his comments. She also gave a somewhat critical discussion on whether this effort is going too far. Her summation of Dr. Schubel’s comments though, shows a man who is not the anti-Christ in this, isn’t trying to harm dolphins and actually has some good criteria for when dolphins might be ethically served by being in captivity:

“However, Jerry Schubel, President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, who served as the “Discussant” for the session on dolphins, had some fascinating comments on the matter.

He agreed wholeheartedly that ethics should prevent us from having dolphin hunts (called drives, these are brutally shown in the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Cove). But he posited that there might be ethical scenarios that would support captivity. If a dolphin was born in captivity, or had been rescued and needed rehabilitation, Schubel argued, then detention would be an acceptable situation. Furthermore, if a dolphin was chronically ill and release would surely lead to death, then again captivity would be ok.

But Schubel was quick to point out that any dolphin captivity must come with “the right conditions, and…have the right conditions to enable it to connect with humans,” such as at aquariums, he said.

“Aquariums have a powerful role to play if we view our collections of these animals as ambassadors to the wild…,” he declared. Aquariums that have dolphins have a wonderful opportunity to affect policies to prevent slaughters, and …to raise the bar to try to get [people] to agree on how to keep these animals in captivity.” He joked that the fish in his aquarium have much better health insurance than he does.

Schubel went on to say “when families watch these animals perform, they are emotionally connected [with the dolphins].”

The blogger noted, and I agree, that emotional connections can go either way. Dr. Schubel’s  comments appeared a week before a staffer was killed by an orca, in a Florida aquarium. I suspect that shifted public emotions too, but possibly not in a good way. So depending on public emotions to prove a point can be a variable thing.

A report on that conference (click here) revealed that although the various researchers disagree on what is the best thing for dolphins, there was a lack of polarized or extremist attitudes in their discussion:

“There was a distinct lack of any animal-rightist stridency or blanket extremism among these experts. They disagreed as to whether holding dolphins and their relatives in any type of captivity was morally defensible. Dr. Marino argued that even the best captive conditions offer an environment one ten-thousandth of a percent (that’s 0.000001) the size of their native habitat.

Dr. Riess and other discussants – in particular, Dr. Jerry Schubel of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA – countered that limited and extremely sensitive keeping of the animals not only allows us to learn more about their biology but also to engage people of all ages in caring about their survival.”

In fact, a number of the researchers, regardless of the side they are on, wrote jacket text for a book by Thomas I White: In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier.
At this stage it seems that this is an exploration of the topic, a learned discussion of pros and cons, with an eye toward making sure these beautiful brilliant creatures are recognized as highly intelligent sentient beings and treated properly. However even though I lean toward the side of not having them in captivity, especially just for entertainment purposes, the criteria Dr. Schubel gave for situations to have them in captivity, seem reasonable to me. As in many arguments of ethics, there is often some “black-and-white” and a LOT of gray.

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