Animals do not belong in captivity

A marine park called Miami Seaquarium made headlines earlier this month when a dolphin attacked a trainer during a live show. A video captured by an onlooker shows the animal behaving aggressively toward the worker before dragging her underwater for the public.

The park later released a statement claiming that the incident happened because the trainer accidentally scratched the animal. Fortunately, it has since been confirmed that both the dolphin and the trainer are recovering well.

The attack was hard to see, and no doubt horrifying for the trainer who fell victim. While we must of course sympathize with the staff and the public – for whom it will probably have been a very shocking experience – we must not forget that the incident happened because of the park itself.

The dolphin should never have attacked the trainer as they should never have been in captivity in the first place. No animal should be forced to spend its life in an unnatural environment made to perform tricks in front of a screaming audience. Like all captive animals, the dolphin would have experienced years of physical and mental distress before the incident occurred.

The problem with nightlife for animals

David Pearson / Alamy Stock Photo Is there really an ethical way to run a business that profits from the exploitation of animals?

Marine parks and aquariums are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that exists to entertain the public by catching fish and marine mammals, including dolphins and killer whales, and using them as living exhibits. In the natural world, such animals would form close bonds with their pods and spend their days foraging and hunting prey.

But those who are held captive do not receive such enrichments. The animals, many of whom have evolved to travel up to 100 miles a day at high speeds in the wild, are instead forced to spend their lives swimming endlessly and aimlessly in small bare tanks, or being harassed by humans.

Due to the conditions in which they are kept, a 2019 World Animal Protection report found that animals in captivity showed abnormal levels of aggression. This indicates that the attack on Miami Seaquarium was probably a direct result of captivity.

While the park would have you believe this was an isolated incident, attacks on people in similar attractions are not uncommon. This is just the latest in a long line of reminders that these sensitive animals urgently need to be removed from captivity.

Animal attacks

An orca doing tricks in a small pool in a marine park
Peter Phipp/ / Alamy Stock Photo Sea creatures are forced to perform unnatural tricks in front of screaming crowds.

In 2019, a 10-year-old girl was attacked during a “swim with dolphins” experience in Mexico. The dolphins – which were held captive in a small enclosed section of the sea – bit and dragged the girl underwater in front of trainers and her horrified mother.

Fortunately, the child survived, but was left with several cuts, bruises and bites.

Injuries such as broken arms, cracked sternum and lacerations, as well as shocks, have all been documented at similar attractions. In 2004, for example, a man had to undergo surgery after being attacked by a dolphin, also at Miami Seaquarium.

Attacks on captive animals can also have far more tragic consequences. Writing in the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal MedicineVeterinarian Jay C. Sweeney describes orcas’ aggression toward their trainers as “a matter of great concern.”

Sweeney added: “Aggressive expressions towards trainers include hitting, biting, grabbing, dipping and holding trainers at the bottom of pools and preventing them from escaping.”

In 2009, a killer whale named Keto, who was born at SeaWorld and forced to perform in parks around the world, carried out a brutal and persistent attack on a trainer named Alexis Martínez, resulting in his death.

Furthermore, in February 2010, a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau died tragically of “drowning and traumatic injuries” after being attacked by a 22-foot killer whale named Tilikum during a live show.

Inherently cruel attractions and facilities

An orca doing a trick with trainers at Miami Seaquarium
agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo An orca doing a trick with trainers at Miami Seaquarium.

The last death was documented in the 2013 film blackfish, which caused an unprecedented shift in public opinion against the once-loved and respected attractions. Since its release, parks such as SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium have fallen out of favor with the general public, who have staged marches and protests against them.

But it’s a shame that the same energy isn’t focused on the industry as a whole. It’s not just about the much-discussed controversial parks, but every single company that keeps animals in captivity.

Even the so-called “good” aquariums are still inherently cruel and deserve just as much condemnation as their more infamous counterparts.

Studies have shown that about 90 percent of public aquariums house animals that show signs of extreme mental distress, including swimming in circles, bobbing their heads and walking back and forth.

In addition to mental effects, aquariums can also lead to physical illnesses. The copper sulfate and chlorine used to clean tanks can cause blindness and skin damage in dolphins and seals, and many animals have been shown to show signs of stress-induced self-harm, such as chewing concrete to destroy their teeth.

London Aquarium, a hugely popular tourist attraction usually regarded as one of the best in the world, recently sparked concern about the conditions in which the gentoo penguins are kept. A visitor stated to have been in “tears” from their small underground living quarters, noting that one animal engaged in repetitive behavior.

Taking animals from the wild

A sad looking dolphin in captivity
Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 19+ / Alamy Stock Photo Many animals that end up as tourist attractions have been taken from the wild.

Many of the animals in parks and aquariums are wild caught. Every year, during Japan’s infamous Taiji dolphin hunt, hundreds of animals are resold to aquariums around the world.

Boats often chase dolphins or whales in shallow waters to catch them, before dragging them aboard with a net. Those deemed unfit for captivity will be thrown back into the water and many will die of shock or pneumonia.

Obviously, the problem with marine parks and aquariums is not about a few “bad” parks, but the industry as a whole. Animals are not ours to use or abuse in any way; it would be impossible to create an ethical, profitable business based on the exploitation of any animal.

Marine parks and aquariums need to take urgent steps to end the purchase and breeding of animals and move their existing animals to suitable reserves.

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