Thursday, 26 April 2012

Consequences of Captivity

For a long time the entertainment value of keeping dolphins in marine parks has been accepted. However as more and more evidence of dolphin 'intelligence' and their complex social dynamics is coming about, the ethics and welfare of dolphins in captivity are being increasingly questioned. Although the majority of marine parks promote the benefits of conservation and education by having marine mammals - enabling the public to observe them up close and interacting with them - studies show that the lives of dolphins are not improved in captivity compared to that of wild dolphins, despite the claim they give these animals the chance to live a better life away from the hardships of their natural environment. As for the public being educated by visiting one of these marine parks, they are observing nothing more than desperate animals performing artificial, conditioned behaviours in order to gain a food reward. While the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured animals within these parks deserves commendation, bringing a free ranging wild dolphin into or raising a dolphin in a false environment, that is so much different and smaller in size than their natural environment and lacking the highly complex social dynamics dolphins thrive on, inevitably has a variety of harmful impacts...

Captivity puts a huge amount of stress on dolphins – from the capturing, to the handling, transportation, and confinements of the tanks where they are forced to live with unknown fellow dolphins, who they would not usually come across in the wild. Stress leads to many different harmful effects, in particular health problems, behavioural changes and death. Dolphins experience appetite loss, weight loss, reduction in reproduction, stomach ulcers, a higher susceptibility to disease due to the impact of stress on their immune system, inevitably (and often) resulting in death. The massive difference between a dolphins natural environment and the captive environment contribute greatly to the stress imposed on these animals. Whether they are taken away from their tight knit family group in the wild or bred in captivity, studies highlighting the high mortality rates soon after capture and as a result of captive breeding show us that dolphins do not become used to the constraints of captivity (even when they are bred into that environment in the first place!)

Many behavioural changes are seen in captive dolphins. They can become very antisocial, showing aggression towards fellow dolphins, fighting over dominance within the social group they are forced into, no interest in performing, and a loss of maternal care towards offspring. Furthermore, not only do these animals become aggressive towards other dolphins, but there has also been cases of unexpected behaviours leading to injuries or deaths of trainers – not too long ago an orca trainer was killed in a marine park, and she is not the only one to tragically die this way. Whilst aggression and conflict over dominance does occur in the wild, it is not bought about by forced, artificial social groupings that occur in captivity, and there is always the option to escape in the wild. Many natural behaviours, including foraging, mating and maternal interactions with calves, are restricted in captivity and controlled by the parks – the dolphins needs are put behind the running of the park and the space that is available. As a result, these potential highly intelligent animals become bored of the confinements of their tanks and the monotonous routine of performing many times a day in return for some food. The constant stimulation dolphins find in the wild, from travelling vast areas of ocean, to chasing down prey and the playful, social interactions within the family groups, is taken away from them in captivity. Although they may seem to be 'enjoying' the leaps, jumps and interactions when performing, you have to remember these are not natural, stimulating behaviours, these dolphins are performing for they have sometimes been deprived of in order to ensure a good show, it has been revealed by ex-trainers!

So as for marine parks being a place of conservation and education, I couldn't disagree more. Not only do they reduce the quality of life, as well as the longevity of these dolphins, the public are not learning anything about the real life of a dolphin. A proper education requires people to go and see them in their natural environment, experiencing them playing and interacting with their wild surrounding and real family groups. Not only does it make you realise the confinements of captivity, but just how false an environment it is for these free-ranging, highly sociable animals.

As part of the evaluation of my Final Year Project I would appreciate if you could take a few minutes to answer the following short questionnaire regarding my blog. Thank you!!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Dolphins: look like fish, think like primates?

Although they live in water and they may look more like a big fish, dolphins are actually more similar to primates (which includes us humans) than you might think. In particular the size and complexity of the dolphin brain, which relates to their cognitive capacity, has been found to compare on a primate level, especially with the human brain. The dolphin brain is bigger in size than the human brain, and when measured as a proportion of body size many cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) species follow closely behind humans, and in fact ahead of our closest relatives, great apes. This suggests that although still falling behind humans, dolphins may have a higher capacity for cognition, or intelligence, than other non-human primates and our closest land mammal relatives.

There are many similarities and differences between human and dolphin brains, primarily to do with the brain structure and in relation to function. For example, the dolphin brain has a completely different organisation compared to the primate brain, but they have been observed to exhibit and execute the same level of behavioural and cognitive abilities. Research shows that dolphins are capable of solving problems, communicating and processing in ways that are as complex as primates. Through MRI scans it has been found that the dolphin brain is is composed of structures seen in the human brain, but organised differently, and therefore it is possible that dolphins may be capable of higher cognitive capacities similar to humans. Through evolution the human brain grew frontally, whereas the dolphin brain has grown in width. The high volume of convolution, or brain folding, present on the dolphin brain and also seen to a very similar degree on the human brain, increases the surface area of the brain and results in higher neural density and complexity, which increases the potential of enhanced cognition.

When it comes to determining cognition, or 'intelligence', although brain size and structure is taken into consideration, many scientists believe that certain behaviours and abilities exhibited also play a major role in the level of intelligence of an animal – these behaviours and abilities are known as 'intelligence indicators'. These 'indicators' include self awareness, tool use and communication, and show that the animal is able to learn and develop beyond their innate behaviours. As well as their complex brain structure, there is evidence of dolphins demonstrating these 'indicators' both in captivity and wild. This has lead us to question just how intelligent these animals are, and whether such animals should be treated as non human 'persons', having the right to freedom of living in their natural environment and not being kept in captivity for public entertainment!  

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Recent news...

Some good news......a declaration of the rights of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises. If made a law, these animals will no longer be able to be kept in zoos and marine parks, dolphin and whale watching trips will need to stick to rules that respect the animals privacy, whaling will be murdering, oil companies will need to consider the life of these animals with any future projects...the list goes on!! Have a read of this article, and see how the wealth of evidence proving cetaceans to be highly intelligent mammals supports the right to freedom of life for all cetaceans. As stated in the article, 'no one has the right to own the creatures or do anything that undermines their rights, freedoms or norms' - this declaration is a big step in the right direction.
An example to follow....Bangladesh have announced the plans to create wildlife sanctuaries in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, for the endangered freshwater dolphins. There are numerous wildlife sanctuaries and national park reserves helping to protect and maintain biodiversity on land, and while there are a number of aquatic wildlife sanctuaries around the world, this number needs to be increased.  There are many endangered aquatic species that would benefit hugely from more marine park reserves being formed all around the world, and this would assist the survival of the marine ecosystem. Bangladesh are making the right moves, but more countries need to follow suit!
A plea.....As a huge fan of the beautiful country New Zealand, I want to share this petition and plea for help as far as I can. New Zealand is known for its abundant and varied sea life  - I've only seen a snippet of what can be found in the waters around the country, but can tell you it's more than I've ever seen in one place before! It is home to the rarest marine dolphin species (in the world!) called the Hector's dolphins, with a sub-species called the Maui's dolphins found in very low numbers. The problem is that they are rapidly declining in number due to the major fishing activity that occurs within their habitat - they're highly vulnerable to the fishing nets, and so unfortunately end up as bycatch, or they get caught in the nets and drown. An even bigger problem is that the New Zealand government is refusing to take urgent action to protect these dolphins, and if action isn't taken now it will lead to the extinction of the Maui's dolphins - the world's first man-made extinction of a marine dolphin species. 
So please take a moment and sign this much needed petition against the extinction of these critically endangered dolphins:

Follow on Twitter for up to date news on the status of marine mammal captivity - @nicshaw08

Friday, 17 February 2012

Dolphins in the Wild

When I was younger and asked what my favourite animal was,  I would answer (like many little girls would) 'Dolphins!'. As I grew up though this changed to horses for a long time - I began horse riding, and was lucky enough to own 2 fantastic horses, Nettie and then Talula. However, ask me the favourite animal question now and without a thought I would be back to my child hood answer of 'Dolphins!'. Although, I have to point out its dolphins in the wild, in their natural environment of the ocean, that I love to see. The ocean and all that belongs to it fascinates me and its thanks to my Dad that I've been brought up to love the ocean, love being on the ocean and in it! As a keen sailor he has many great sailing stories and I always loved hearing the parts about dolphins surrounding the yacht, bow riding as they sailed and the times when he got to be in the water with them.

Up until a year ago, the only dolphins I had encountered were ones in marine parks such as SeaWorld, and like many others, I (shamefully) thought there was nothing wrong with the life of these performing dolphins and orcas (killer whales). In January 2011, I travelled to the other side of the world to work as a research assistant volunteer to a PhD student studying the common dolphins in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. I have to say it was the best thing I've ever done - I fell in love with the country, the research work, and observing these incredible animals on a daily basis. There is something truly unforgettable about seeing these common dolphins (and the other abundant sea life) play and interact in the wild, the way they interact with each other and us on the boats, and that is something you do not get from sitting and watching trained dolphins performing tricks in the pools of marine parks. I was out on a daily basis, spotting these dolphins and tracking them for hours, and the range and variety of behaviours and activities I witnessed was fascinating - and it was all on their terms, if they didn't want to be near us, they didn't have to be. No day was ever the same, and each time we came across a pod of dolphins I would be just as stunned and excited as the first day I saw them in the Bay of Plenty waters. From pods of a couple of adult dolphins to maternity pods of up to 300 dolphins, every encounter was breathtaking and an eye opener to why it is unacceptable to capture and keep these incredible, and potentially highly intelligent, mammals in captivity for public display or for them to be caught and slaughtered. 

Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis)
Orca (Orcinus orca)

Since coming back to the UK and back to university to complete my Zoology degree, I have become increasingly interested in the issue of keeping cetaceans in captivity for the purpose of public entertainment. There is a growing volume of studies and evidence promoting the fact that cetaceans have a high level of intelligence, which is causing major ethical issues to arise concerning the capture, confinement and slaughter of these animals. They are highly social mammals, with complex social structures and exhibit cultural and cognitive abilities that are similar to us humans. I believe there is a strong case against marine mammal captivity and the slaughter of these animals. Since having the fantastic opportunity of experiencing these animals in the wild, and as many of my friends hear everyday, I want to help raise awareness of major problems with keeping these animals in captivity and spread the increasing amounts of evidence proving these cetaceans to be highly intelligent animals. 

Marine parks promote an educational and conservation advantage to having whales and dolphins in captivity, but in reality what are the public learning? That it's okay to keep these large mammals in tanks that are minute in comparison to their natural habitat? That these animals are easily trained and are very acrobatic? That because they always appear to be smiling, they're enjoying having to perform these tricks in order to get some dead fish? These animals are wide-ranging mammals, who can travel huge distances in a day, who develop and master hunting strategies for chasing and capturing their live prey and who do not need to rely on performing conditioned behaviours to get some food. The smiling expression of a dolphin creates the illusion that these animals are happy being confined to a life of public performance, but this confinement has devastating effects of the health and survival of cetaceans. I appreciate the efforts marine park companies go to when, for example, helping the rescue of beached whales or dolphins, and the release of animals back into the wild, and this is what should be the main focus of their marine parks - the rescue, rehabilitation and release (wherever and whenever possible) of marine mammals back to their ocean, its where they belong and where you will get the best, and most memorable, experience of seeing them (I promise!). 

Follow on Twitter for up to date news on the status of marine mammal captivity - @nicshaw08