Dolphin Captivity Paper

by Kenneth W. LeVasseur


[Continued from Part 1]

The Captive Cetacean's Condition

Today, oceanariums treat their dolphins as an entertaining and educational commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit and research. The profit aspect of this is also true throughout the entertainment industry, even with human actors. The point here, though, is that actors have agents and they can engage in negotiations for conditions acceptable to the actor. No such arrangement exists for the captive dolphin, except for the actions of dolphin and animal protection groups. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act do provide regulations for the care and maintenance of dolphins in captivity. In the development of those regulations, there are negotiations, but the conditions that have come about due to the negotiations, and the resulting regulations concerning captive cetaceans, have not solved survivorship, mortality, fertility and quality of life problems for captive dolphins as represented by dolphin and animal protection groups. If the classified mentality (expressed by Sam H. Ridgway and Kurt Benirschke earlier in this paper) that keeps information about the captive condition of cetaceans away from dolphin and animal protection groups, had not been allowed by agencies entrusted with their welfare, the terrible conditions experienced by captive dolphins would not exist today.

Dolphin and animal protection groups want to move agressively to solve these problem in the interests of captive dolphins, whales and porpoise. As such, are acting as de facto agents for these cetaceans. The leverage available to dolphin and animal protection groups, that enables them to act in the interests of captive cetaceans, entails mobilizing public opinion against those who would negligently cause harm to captive cetaceans. The current, expanding revolution in the science and philosophy of anima mind is consistently reinforcing the strategies of those protection groups that would close down dolphin holding institutions because of the high mortality rates and low survivorship statistics mentioned above. Profound changes will have to occur in the way institutions of close human/dolphin interaction manage and provide for the dolphins in their care in order to continue operating with those dolphins without being challenged publicly by dolphin and animal protection groups.

A Change in Training Techniques

Training, as it is currently practiced with dolphins in captivity, is an imposed command system that is inherently frustrating to the subject. The technique is also intimidating. Training and commands are imposed in two ways;

  • 1. because of the way that entertaining shows are traditionally produced - from the top down. Management, that is usually one step removed from direct association with the dolphins in most cases, determines what will be in the shows. It is then up to the trainers to work with the dolphins to achieve that goal.
  • 2. the tools used in the process of training require the dolphin to figure out what is wanted by the trainer in terms of behavior and then the behavior is brought under stimulus control so that the trainer can command the behavior at will.

The main tool for this process is operant conditioning. In operant conditioning with dolphins, food is used to reward behaviors desired by the trainer. Usually, a whistle (the secondary reinforcer) is used to capture a behavior immediately after its occurrence, with a food reward (the primary reinforcer) to follow later. Dolphin managers and trainers take pride in the use of this "positive" system of reinforcement to train dolphins in captivity (Pryor, 1986). The argument, supporting this trainin strategy as positive, is based upon its not involving negative reinforcement such as electric shock or physical abuse.

The other side of this coin is that in order to be able to use food as a reward, the trainer must make sure the dolphin is hungry. To do this, most often a policy of food deprivation or modified food deprivation is used to keep the dolphin's weight within a specific range for its length. This is done so that food motivation is assured during this "positive" form of training. When a dolphin holding facility is dependent upon this strategy for income, the policy usually results in the dolphin's rations for the day being fifty percent of what the dolphin would eat if it was allowed to "feed at will". If such a policy was introduced to innocent humans, that are under the control of other humans, it would not be considered "positive", even though obesity would no longer be a problem for the subject population.

The use of food rewards as part of the operant conditioning training paradigm was first developed in the thirties. The system has generally worked over the last sixty years in spite of its drawbacks. But, there are serious problems with the technique - all related to using food deprivation to maintain communication and learning motivation. The first problem is the subject's confusion about what it is expected to learn with the subject's desire to get fed. The learning of tasks in human culture, such as language, is loaded with intrinsic reinforcement - reinforcement related to the task at hand. Operant conditioning is based on extrinsic rewards - reward unrelated to the task at hand (see Greenfield, 1978; Pepperberg, 1978, 1986, 1990 and Miles, 1983). These papers also explain how tasks such as object labeling are subverted by food reward when labeling includes non-food objects. This procedure may actually delay the labeling process by confusing the object desired to be labeled by the experiment with the food reward which is also an object.

Each moment of reward is a guessing game for the dolphin. "What did I just do that was what the trainer wanted?" This guessing game is sometimes subverted by the subjects desire to get fed. The resulting frustration from inaccurate guessing consistently makes for a poor learning and communicating environment (e.g. Pryor et al. 1969, Pryor, 1986; Maltzman, 1960). These papers describe creative situations that are pushed to the limit, close enough to threaten to or actually distort the results of the process, by trainers or experimenters.

Behavioral similarities among highly socialized animals makes this interpretation possible in the newly accepted scientific research arena of cognitive ethology (Griffin, 1976, 1979, 1984, 1985, 1991; Jerison, 1973, 1976, 1978, 1986; Ristau, 1991; Hudos, 1986; Beer, 1986). Cognitive ethology assesses the mental abilities of individual species in direct relation to the natural environments of those species. Cognitive ethologists find it difficult to explain animal behavior without using thought and mind as mechanisms of behavior.

This area of research has influenced the philosophy of mind, in particular animal mind (Griffin, 1977; Rollin, 1990; Bekoff and Jamieson, 1990). New developments in the philosophy of animal mind have shown that much of the contemporary resistance to attributing though and mind to animals has its origin not in scientific fact but in political pragmatism. Many of the originators of these types of investigation into animal thought and mind (Darwin, Morgan, etc.) had their original works inaccurately quoted by early Behaviorists to support political positions on the non-existence of animal thought and mind (Rollin, 1990). The works of Griffin, Rollin and many others have reopened the investigation of the philosophy and science of animal minds.

Developments in the study of dolphin brains have turned up no indications that interpretations of anecdotes and experiments leading to conclusions of dolphin thoughts and dolphin minds are unwarranted (Jacobs, 1974, 1978; Morgane, 1974; Ridgway,, 1986a,, 1986b; Morgane and Jacobs, 1972; Morgane and Glezer, 1990; Morgane, Jacobs and Galaburda, 1986a, 1986b). Morgane and Glezer, (1990); Morgane, Jacobs and Galaburda, (1986a, 1986b); have made some fascinating discoveries comparing cetacean brains with the brains of modern insectivores and are developing a theory of evolution to explain these correlations. Some of this research (Morgane and Glezer, 1990; Morgane, Jacobs and Galaburda, 1986a, 1986b) has been cited opportunistically to show that there should be low levels of expectation for dolphin mental abilities because of their "close" resemblance to insectivore brains (Ridgway, 1986a, 1986b). Cognitive research on language acquisition with dolphin subjects has demonstrated clearly the fallacy of this reasoning (Batteau and Markey 1967; Herman 1980, 1986, 1987, 1990; Herman et, al. 1984, 1985; Richards, 1986; Richards et. al., 1984).

Fertility and Reproduction

Another problem that dolphin holding facilities have experienced is dismal fertility and reproductive problems with the dolphins in their tanks, including an inordinately high number of stillbirths. Recent research on fertility problems with human female athletes (Cumming et. al., 1985; Dale et. al., 1979; Frisch, 1984, 1988, 1990; Frisch et. al., 1980, 1981, 1984; Malina et. al., 1978; Prior, 1985; Schwartz et. al., 1981; Snow et. al., 1989), male marathon runners (MacConnie et. al., 1986; Wheeler et. al., 1984) wrestlers (Strauss et. al., 1985) and male athletes generally (Wall and Cumming, 1985) show that these fertility problems may be associated with a form of food control or food "deprivation". This association of captive dolphin fertility problems with the fertility problems of human athletes comes from early physiological research on dolphins. This research implied that even out of shape captive dolphins appear to have physiologies and athletic conditioning comparable to human athletes (Horvath et al., 1968; Ridgway, 1972). This phenomenon appears to be due to the requirement of dolphins to hold their breath to survive in their environment and the compensating physiology.

Animal studies, that have shown reproductive effect associated with fat percentages of body weight, include, Coop, 1966; Frisch et. al., 1975, 1977; Halipre, 1973; Kennedy, 1969; Kennedy and Mitra, 1963; and dolphins, Hui, 1975 and Kirby and Ridgway, 1984. Although this theory looks promising, not all captive dolphins, and not even dolphins kept under similar conditions, have the same physiologies and fat percentages. These differences have made observation of any indicators for this correlation difficult.

The research cited above creates a body of information to support an area of study into fertility problems with captive dolphins. As a mechanism, fat/fertility may also help explain the high percentage of stillbirths and infant mortality seen in captivity. The close relationship of fat percentages to lean body mass seen in the fertility research listed above is manifested through hormone levels. Since a female dolphin may go in and out of fertility due to her fat percentages, she may conceive while fertile and then loose or damage the fetus because of a loss of body fat and the resulting hormonal changes. By the time trainers realize that the dolphin is pregnant, it may be too late for a healthy fetus to develop undamaged and/or to term.

The fat/fertility question is most likely not the only mechanism operating to negatively influence the reproductive statistics of captivity.

Dolphins have their physical conditioning grossly changed once they are captured. Many captive dolphins that are not managed so that their weight is within a specific range for their length become "obese" and many captive dolphins loose muscle tone. This happens most often when operant conditioning and the resulting intimidation and control over the actions of the subject is not required to produce income for the dolphin holding facility (ie. breeding colonies). In the wild, this condition would not exist except in a compromised individual. These compromised dolphins would be in such poor health that they would be poor candidates for reproduction under feral circumstances. This unique body chemistry may cause hormonal fluctuations that influence repreduction.

Much of the fertility research cited above explains the evolutionary requirement for these fertility and neonatal hormonal changes (resulting in no net increase in population) as due to ecological causes. Any animal, male or female, that has its fat reserves challenged by changes in the environment is benefited by not having to expend resources trying to raise offspring under austere conditions. Objectively, the trauma of stillbirth is less demanding over time for the mother, and the complex social system to which she belongs, than trying to raise nutritionally compromised offspring when food is scarce (usuall an abnormal condition).

Any dolphin that is "obese and out of shape" already has a compromised immune system, if current animal/human models are correct. These individuals would be poor candidates for survival in the open ocean as males; and an extremely poor candidate, as a females, for survival during childbirth and post natal care. With tens of millions of years of evolutionary advantage over humans it is possible that the described conditions could create hormonally based infertility. Yet these conditions permeate the captivity of dolphins. Study is needed.


Without food deprivation, operant conditioning is not cost effective for dolphin holding facilities. When the dolphin is not hungry, it simply refuses to do what the trainer wants unless the dolphin has another reason to behave in that manner. The effect would be to transfer the frustration of operant conditioning from the dolphin to the trainer and by extension to the management of the dolphin holding facility. Deadlines and shows could not be met or produced. A Congressional ban on the use of operant conditioning at dolphin holding institutions would severely limit the motivations of those institutions to hold dolphins captive.

Presented by "Whales in Danger" - Whales on the Net -

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