The Issues

Abnormal behaviour and early deaths

Cetaceans like whales and dolphins swim miles everyday--sometimes as many as 100 miles in a straight line.1  They can swim 50 kilometres an hour and dive several hundred metres deep, and they have a home range of approximately 100 square kilometres.   In captivity, they are provided just "one-ten-thousandth of 1% of this"--even in the largest of facilities.2,3  Wild belugas, for example, can dive for 15 minutes at a time, reaching depths of 800 metres.  70% of their dives are over 40 metres deep, and they spend 40% to 60% of their time below the surface of the water.4 5  Meanwhile, the aquarium industry continues to fight against laws that would increase the minimum pool size of captive cetaceans, despite the fact that they acknowledge that larger pools mean less aggression and more breeding success.6,7, 8

Largest orca tank in the world compared to a nearby sea.

The largest orca tank in the world is at Marineland, in Antibes, France.  Beside it lies the Mediterranean Sea.

Cetaceans are carnivores and skilled hunters, and have evolved to pursue prey over long distances.  In aquariums, these animals develop pathological behaviours in response to their comparatively cramped conditions, such as swimming in circles, in one direction, for long periods.   Aquariums sometimes insist that the desire to swim, dive, and hunt is eliminated in captive cetaceans, as they have their food delivered to them, dead on arrival, but the evidence demonstrates that this is not the case.  British Columbia's Johnson Strait, for example, is a small area rich in salmon that orcas rely on during the summer months.  Despite the fact that plenty of food is readily available, these orcas leave the Strait daily, traveling 40 kilometres north or south during the night.  It is speculated that their physiology evolved so that a great deal of exercise is necessary.9,10

The physical repercussions of confinement are particularly well-known in captive orcas, who frequently develop "droopy dorsal fin syndrome" as a result; marine mammal vet Sam Ridgeway has stated that out of ten orcas he witnessed at Sea World, eight had a left-tilted fin and swam counter-clockwise, and two had a right-tilted fin and swam clockwise.11 Field studies in British Columbia and elsewhere have revealed that the droopy dorsal fin is seen in only 1% to 5% of wild orcas, all male.12  In captivity, however, virutally all males and and most females have at least partially to completely collapsed dorsal fins.13     Dolphins, meanwhile, suffer sunburns as a result of  their confinement.  In the wild, 80% of their time is spent deep below the water; in captivity, 80% of their time is spent at the surface.14  Tanks at aquariums are comparatively shallow, exposing the dolphins' sensitive skin to the sun.15

Captive orca with a droopy dorsal fin.

This orca has developed a drooping dorsal fin, a phenomenon seen almost exclusively in captive orcas.

Like us, cetaceans establish and maintain bonds with other members of their species, but in aquariums, these highly social animals are usually kept alone or in pairs, without the family members around whom their entire social lives revolve.   Wild orcas, for example, typically live in pods of ten to twenty individuals, generally made up of family members, and studies have shown that they travel for years in "enduring and cohesive" groups, forming lifelong relationships are only severed by death or capture.16    At times they create what scientists refer to as "social clubs", where several pods gather together in groups of up to 100 for anywhere from three hours to half a day: "...when meeting killer whales from other family pods, they made contact with each other, swam in synchrony and rubbed flippers much more often." 17  Dolphins live in long-lasting, established families as well; researchers believe that their hunting, mating, and defensive behaviours are all reliant on social interaction.18  Like orcas, they are found in groups of two to forty individuals, and sometimes as many as 1000.19  They also occasionally gather in large groups, engaging "in a sort of greeting ceremony that suggests they are renewing old relationships."20

Belugas are also social animals, who live in pairs or groups of three up to several dozen.  These groups are segregated by gender or age; females and their calves tend to travel in large pods during the summer, while males gather in smaller pods.21 As with other captive cetaceans, these animals are placed in pairs or trios with other animals that they very likely have no bond with.  And any bonds that are created are frequently broken, since aquariums routinely trade whales and dolphins with other facilities, generally for breeding purposes.  For example, a male beluga named Imaq had lived at the Vancouver Aquarium with Aurora, a female, since 1990, when they were both caught in Churchill, Manitoba.  Imaq was mated with Aurora once (the calf, Tuvaq, died after two years) and another female, Qila (daughter of Aurora).  Qila gave birth to Tiqa in 2008, who died in September 2011.22,23  Earlier in 2011, after two decades of living with these other belugas, Imaq was "secretly relocated" to an aquarium in Texas.24

Belugas in a small, cramped tank at the Vancouver Aquarium

Two belugas in a cramped, barren tank at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2009. (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals)

Like Imaq's calves Tuvaq and Tiqa, most captive whales and dolphins die at a young age, further evidence of the unnatural stresses of captivity .  Most captive orcas die before they reach their early 20's, though in the wild, females live an average of 50 years--or as old as 80, and males live an average of 29 years--or even into their 60s.25  (In 2014, a 103 year old female orca was spotted off the coast of British Columbia!)26  Annual mortality rates are three times higher for captive orcas than they are for wild ones, and in fact, of the 136 orcas have been captured for display since 1961, 123 of these (90.4%) are dead.27,28   Research has indicated that stress is a major factor in as many as 50% of captive orca deaths.  In his 1992 report, The Performing Orca, author Erich Hoyt examined the known causes of death for captive orcas and found that stress was a possible predisposing factor in 38 of 74 deaths.29

Kiska the orca alone in tank at Marineland.

Wild orcas build lifelong relationships, travelling for years in pods consisting of ten to twenty family members. At Marineland in Ontario, Kiska lives in solitary confinement. (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals, 2011) 

Until recently, it was believed that wild and captive belugas enjoyed fairly similar lifespans.  However, it was discovered that belugas add only one "growth level" to their teeth every year, not two, as previously believed.  As a result, the scientific community's estimated lifespan of the average wild beluga went from 25 to 30 years to 50 to 60 years.  Most captive belugas die in their teens or early 20s; only rarely do they even make it past 30.30  At the Vancouver Aquarium, 14 belugas have been exhibited since 1967, and 7 died within a decade of being born or wild-caught.31  (Three of these belugas were sold "on breeding loan" to SeaWorld, so their fates are uncertain.)  A 15th beluga, Nala, died a few months after birth.32 In 2006, there were only 6 living captive-born belugas listed in the Marine Mammal Inventory Report. 33

53% of dolphins die within 3 months of capture, suffering a sixfold increase in risk of mortality during capture and for five days afterwards. They also suffer these same increased rates during and after transport between different aquariums.  Captive-born dolphins fare no better.  Dolphins who survive capture and transport appear to have lifespans comparable to those of wild animals, though studies vary and some indicate that year-to-year mortality is much higher for captive dolphins.  Aquariums claim to have the best in veterinary care, as well as protecting their animals from their main killers in the wild: parasites, predators, and pollution, so this mortality rate suggests that something has gone wrong.34


Wild-caught animals

Dolphins being killed in Taiji, Japan.

Many of the world's aquarium dolphins are caught during Taiji's bloody dolphin drive hunts  The captive dolphin trade is one of the main reasons that the hunt continues.

Every year in Taiji, Japan, a small group of fishers gather to trap and kill up to 2,300 dolphins in a small cove.  During this "dolphin drive hunt," confused dolphins scream and panic as the water around them turns red with blood.  These killings are typically  well-hidden from the public, even in Japan, but as a result of award-winning movies such as The Cove (2009), many people are now aware of the slaughter.35  Fewer, however, are aware that many of the world's captive dolphins are caught during the infamous Taiji hunt.  For example, during the 2003-2004 hunting season alone, 78 dolphins were caught and sold to aquariums.

At the Vancouver Aquarium, all three Pacific White-sided Dolphins--Helen, Hana, and Spinnaker--were caught in Japan and imported to Canada in 2001 and 2005.36  The aquarium states that the three dolphins were caught in fishing nets and unreleasable, a claim which seems dubious considering the circumstances. A former dolphin trainer in Japan described how she would go down to the cove, where the fishers had trapped dolphins, to see which ones were "suitable for captivity in an aquarium."  Those not chosen were killed for their meat.37 A dead dolphin is not valuable, and only garners $600 per animal, but a live dolphin is worth as much as $300,000.  The captive dolphin trade is a major factor in the continuation of the slaughters in Taiji.38,39

"Foreigners would often come to Taiji to buy dolphins and I remember them saying that Taiji was the only place in the world where they were able to buy dolphins so easily...I'm sure that if the dolphin hunting at Taiji were to stop, the captivity of dolphins in aquariums around the world would go down."--Sayuri, former dolphin trainer and aquarium employee in Japan40

The capture of aquarium dolphins from the Taiji slaughter is not a secret to officials and authorities in the animal entertainment industry.  The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is parent to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA), and JAZA has certified the Taiji Whale Museum.  The museum features, among other things, a dolphin show whose performers were acquired during the hunt.  (The gift shop also sells whale meat.)  In addition to JAZA, WAZA is also parent to both the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums.41  Learn more about this issue at What does accreditation really mean?

There are other popular locations for dolphin capture.  For example, Futo, Japan reinstated its annual dolphin hunt in 2006, 7 years after the hunt was initially cancelled, to procure live dolphins for aquariums.  14 dolphins were caught and sold to aquariums, five were killed for "scientific study," and at least four drowned during the panic of the capture.42  In the Caribbean, Cuban authorities issue permits which allow the capture of 15 bottlenose dolphins per year, or as many as 28, despite the fact that no studies have been done to determine the population of local dolphins, or whether their capture is sustainable.43  No bottlenose dolphins have been captured in U.S. waters since 1989, though the aquarium industry still contests this law;44 and live captures in Canadian waters have been banned since 1992.  In fact, only two Canadian aquariums still exhibit live cetaceans--Marineland of Ontario, and the Vancouver Aquarium. Marineland imports wild-caught animals in large numbers.45 The Vancouver Aquarium officially stopped importing wild-caught animals in 1996 but makes exceptions for "injured" dolphins such as those captured in Japan.  They also continue to trade captive-born animals with other aquariums.

Moby Doll being lifted by tail.

The first orca in captivity was caught for the Vancouver Aquarium; the original plan was to kill him for a life-sized model.

The first orca in captivity was caught for the Vancouver Aquarium.  Captivity was not the original plan; in 1964, the aquarium had commissioned artist Samuel Burich to kill an orca and to fashion a life-sized model of it for their new British Columbia Hall.  The orca he chose from a pod of 13 was shot with a harpoon, but not killed.

"Immediately, two pod members came to the aid of the stunned whale, pushing it to the surface to breathe. Then the whale seemed to come to life and struggled to free itself--jumping and smashing its tail and, according to observers, uttering 'shrill whistles so intense that they could easily be heard above the surface of the water 300 feet away.'"46

Burich attempted to shoot the whale several times with a rifle, but again he did not die. 

The whale, who would later be named "Moby Doll", was dragged via a line attached to the harpoon in his back for 16 hours "through choppy seas and blinding squalls" to Vancouver.  (According to the Vancouver Aquarium, he "passively followed the boat.")47  When the captive animal became an international celebrity, the aquarium decided to keep him. They originally believed that he was female.

"The whale seemed to be suffering from shock...For a long time, Moby Doll...would not eat. She was offered everything from salmon to horse hearts, but the whale only circled the pool night and day in a counterclockwise pattern." 48

After 55 days, Moby Doll began to eat, but he developed a skin disease as a result of the low salinity of the water in which he was kept.  After 87 days, he died.  In the next three years, the aquarium caught three more wild orcas, all of whom died decades before their expected lifespan.49

As a result of Moby's capture and subsequent celebrity, orcas were soon fetching "top dollar" on the market.  When two orcas were caught near Namu, BC, the fishermen decided to sell them.  The younger whale escaped, but the larger one, a male, was confined in a pen until a representative of the Seattle Aquarium came to purchase him.

...up to 40 whales remained near the whale’s pen until he was taken away. In particular, a large cow and two calves stayed within several feet of the bull. At this time, no one imagined that whales were capable of developing such strong bonds. 50

Despite these strong bonds, captive cetaceans have remained big business.  A live orca costs $600,000, even more than a dolphin.51

The Vancouver Aquarium's orca exhibit was cancelled in 2000 after public protests and an admitted failure to find Bjossa, the sole orca, a mate.52  Bjossa was sold to Sea World in California, and died alone in a "reserve tank," hidden from public view, within the year.53 These intelligent, social, and emotionally complicated animals draw the largest crowds to the aquarium, and thus contribute in a major way to the facility's bottom line.54 And Seaworld, which owns about 44%  of the world's total captive orcas, estimates that 70% of the park's income is a result of their performing orca shows.55

Performing dolphins and whales

Dolphins performing the dangerous and unnatural beaching trick.

These dolphins are performing the common "beaching" trick, a position which forces their weight onto their internal organs. Wild cetaceans only beach themselves when sick or dying. (Photo: WSPA)

Sea World is not the only one: many other similar water parks continue to rely on dolphin, orca, and beluga performances as their primary source of income.  The animals are trained with what the aquarium industry calls "positive reinforcement," which in reality is the routine deprivation of food in order to motivate these intelligent animals to perform tricks which are wholly unnatural and even dangerous and painful.  For example, the common "beaching" trick requires the dolphin to leap out of the water onto the edge of the pool, forcing their considerable weight onto their internal organs.  If the animal stays in this position, her organs will be crushed.   In the wild, only sick or dying cetaceans will voluntarily beach themselves.56  Other tricks require the dolphin to leap into the air and spin; this is known as a total body spin and like beaching, can damage the animal internally or even kill her.57 In 2011, a dolphin at a Japanese aquarium died while being trained for an upcoming show; she leapt six to eight metres into the air and landed on concrete, killing herself.  (She had been caught during the Taiji dolphin hunts of 2008.)58  These accidents are not unusual; in 2008, two dolphins at Discovery Cove in Orlando collided during a leaping stunt, resulting in the death of one.59 

Orca with trainer during performance.

Half of the people who work with marine mammals have been injured by them. (Photo: WSPA)

Dolphin and orca shows are no less dangerous for human performers: injuries are frequent and often deadly.  The 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was performing with orca Tilikum at Sea World, is only one of many similar incidents that have occurred over the past several decades.  Tilikum was also involved in two other deaths.  One was a trainer named Keltie Byrne, who fell into the orca tank at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991. The three orcas in the pool, Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka IV, responded by dragging Byrne around the pool until she drowned.  The second incident occurred in 1999, when the naked body of a member of the public was discovered draped over Tilikum's back.  Daniel Dukes, 27, had apparently entered the orca enclosure during the night.  He was drowned and bitten on his groin.  In 2009, trainer Alexis Martinez was killed while rehearsing for a Christmas show with Keto, another orca.  Martinez was hit by Keto and pulled into the water, where he drowned. In 2006, a SeaWorld orca named Kasaka attacked trainer Kenneth Peters, dragging him underwater and shaking him violently for nearly a minute.  Peters managed to resurface, but was pulled under again, where Kasaka held him against the bottom of the tank until he went limp.  He survived with only puncture wounds and a broken foot.  Seven years earlier, Kasaka had bitten Peters' leg during a show, attempting to throw him from her tank. 60

A survey commissioned by US Marine Mammal Commission and conducted by UCLA found that half of the people who work with marine mammals have been injured by them, and that of these injuries, one-third are severe: fractures, deep wounds, or wounds requiring stitches.61 

Aquarium employees are not the only ones vulnerable to injury: in 2012, an eight-year-old girl was feeding a dolphin at SeaWorld Orlando's Dolphin Cove when the dolphin suddenly bit her arm, nearly pulling her into the water. The girl suffered three dime-sized puncture wounds and a swollen hand.62  In the summer of 2006, two boys, six and seven-years-old, were also bitten at Dolphin Cove. Both sustained minor injuries.63

Are aquariums educational?

There is no compelling evidence to date that zoos and aquariums promote attitude changes, education, or interest in conservation in their visitors, despite claims to the contrary. --Lori Marino, neuroscientist at Emory University and specialist in dolphin and whale intelligence64

Education is sometimes cited as an important reason to keep cetaceans in captivity, but as Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean neuroanatomy at Emory University in Atlanta, says, "The very traits that make dolphins interesting to study make confining them in captivity unethical."65

Captivity for educational purposes is actually a relatively new concept in the world of zoos and aquariums, which until the mid-1980s were devoted almost entirely to entertainment.  By then the public's growing interest in environmentalism and animal welfare had become a threat to the industry, as had increasingly persuasive arguments against captivity.  High mortality rates at aquariums, coupled with numerous accidents and injuries--to both humans and animals--did not help.  When parks responded, they did so quickly, presenting themselves as leaders in conservation and education with entertainment on the side.  Not everybody in the industry agreed with these tactics, however:

Sea World was created strictly as entertainment.  We didn't try to wear this false facade of educational significance. --George Millay, founder of Sea World, 198966

Even when educational information is provided to guests, it omits certain facts in order to present captivity in the best light possible.  The Indianapolis Zoo's website stated that the average lifespan of wild bottlenose dolphins was 37 years of age until a newspaper reporter pointed out that none of the aquarium's dolphins had lived past 21. The information on the website changed to follow suit: suddenly, the life expectancy of wild bottlenose dolphins was listed as only 17 years.67  Meanwhile, field researchers maintain that male wild orcas live an average of 29 years and sometimes into their 60s, while females live an average of 50 years and sometimes into their 80s--but aquariums don't agree.68  In one of their educational booklets in 1991, Marineland of Ontario stated that wild orcas live about 50 years, but by 1995, the booklets claimed that they only lived 35 years.  A Sea World book for children insisted that orcas lived an average of 25 to 35 years, describing the conclusions of field researchers as "pure speculation". 69 (Meanwhile, a 103 year old female orca was spotted off the coast of British Columbia in 2014.)70The famous "droopy dorsal fin" seen almost exclusively in captive orcas was described in a 1995 pre-performance "Killer Whale Quiz" at one of Sea World's orca shows as a genetic trait,  like the colour of one's eyes or hair.71  When the Vancouver Aquarium's 46-year-old beluga, Kavna, died in 2012, the aquarium boasted that wild belugas have an average lifespan of only 25 to 30 years, ignoring the fact that scientists now believe that wild belugas can live 50 or 60 years.(more)

Despite outwardly confident claims of educational value, even the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums admits that while there " some evidence of zoo experiences resulting in changes in visitors’ intention to act, there are few studies demonstrating actual changes in behavior.”  Existing studies, however, indicate that  zoos and aquariums do little to increase the public's knowledge of animals and of conservation-related issues.  

Over a period of 5 summers, curator of the National Zoo Dale Marcellini followed 7000 guests and found that “it didn’t matter what was on display … people [were] treating the exhibits like wallpaper” and recommended that “officials should stop kidding themselves about the tremendous educational value of showing an animal behind a glass wall.”72  Another study, conducted by Zoocheck Canada at the Toronto Zoo, watched visitors at seven different exhibits, including the elephants.  Researchers found that the visitors spent an average of 117 seconds per exhibit, with a mean time of just 79.5 seconds, and of those who looked at the elephant exhibit, less than 1% read the signage.  A study conducted at the Chester Zoo in the UK revealed similar results; on average, people were spending less than two minutes per exhibit.73

Elephant study chart.

Zoocheck's study found that visitors spent less than 2 minutes looking at elephants at the Toronto Zoo

In 2007, the AZA attempted to prove otherwise with a survey, asking park visitors to agree or disagree with statements such as “Animals are amazing”,  “I am part of the solution to nature’s problems" and “Being at the zoo/aquarium is fun.”  The resulting study was not peer-reviewed and claimed that about 10% of park visitors had increased their knowledge in regards to conservation-based matters, and that 5% were spurred to increase their "conservation-related behaviour".  Over time, only 20% to 40% of visitors could even remember specific exhibits or animals that they had seen. The study did not delve into whether they had changed their behaviour as a result of their visit.74 However, a critical evaluation of the AZA study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Society and Animals in 2010.  Authored by neuroscientist Lori Marino, the evaluation declared it to be "so methodologically flawed as to be un-interpretable at best"75, noting that it assessed only what survey respondents said they believed or understood, but did not administer any direct measures of knowledge about animals or conservation. Marino and her co-authors found "at least" six major weaknesses that compromised the validity of the study. For example, the non-random sampling of survey respondents were informed “fully and accurately of the purpose of the study" and assured that by participating, they would be providing "positive and tangible benefits to future zoo or aquarium visitors"; they were also given small gifts.76

Beluga in tank while child ignores her.

Vancouver Aquarium, 2009. Studies have shown that on average, people spend less than 2 minutes looking at live animal exhibits. (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals)

Another study in Europe compared two groups of students after they took a lesson on marine mammals, evaluating their levels of knowledge after the lesson at intervals of one day, two weeks, and three months.  One group went to an aquarium, and the other learned about them in the classroom, and though the aquarium-taught students scored higher after one day and after two weeks, by the three month interval both groups of students were scoring similarly.77  Since aquariums are not set up as educational centres, it should not be surprising that people do not retain much of the information garnered from aquarium visits. 

Studies have shown that interactive exhibits are superior not only when it comes to learning but to retaining information.  Rather than passively viewing a captive animal, interactive exhibits allow people to learn by building on their own experiences.  Aquariums are well aware that their captive cetaceans do not accurately represent their wild counterparts.  The Vancouver Aquarium, for example, worked with Steve diPaola, an associate professor of interactive arts and technology professor at Simon Fraser University, to create a virtual beluga pod to supplement the aquarium's current beluga exhibit.  The virtual cetaceans "would be used to show visitors how the whales behave in the wild, something not possible with the captive belugas."  Visitors would have the option of interacting with the pod of virtual whales, introducing variables such as new, aggressive belugas.  And though the technology is not available yet, diPaola hopes that with cameras and sensors, the realtime activity of wild whales could be duplicated by virtual ones: "even though you come to know and love your favourite animal, it's left in the wild so you can see it in real situations, but you have added options like...seeing the situation from different angles, feeling more empathy with the animal because you can observe their heart rate and other data to understand how it feels in particular situations."  He suggests that in time and with appropriate technology, these virtual animals could eliminate the demand for captive ones.  The project is currently on hold.78

The educational benefit of watching a dolphin in captivity would be like learning about humanity only by watching prisoners in solitary confinement.--Jacques Cousteau, explorer, scientist, and pioneer in marine conservation


Conservation and research claims

Fewer than 5% to 10% of zoos, dolphinarium, and aquariums are actually involved in what would qualify as substantial conservation programs either in the wild or in captive settings, and even then, the amount spent on these programs is a "mere fraction" of their overall income.79 A study conducted in 1999 showed that parks belonging to the Association of Zoo and Aquariums donated about one-tenth of 1% of their annual operating budgets on conservation efforts. 80  Sea World, for example, allocated $1.3 million to conservation efforts in 2007--the most generous amount to date--but this is less than 1% of the annual income generated by Sea World Orlando, just one of their three parks.81  And the Los Angeles Zoo spends just 5% of its $17 million annual budget on conservation efforts, while 12% goes to advertising and promotion.82  (It is worth noting that the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums has actually praised the Los Angeles Zoo as being one of the facilities which "spends the most as a percentage of their budget" on conservation initiatives that directly impact animals living in the wild.)83  Meanwhile, it has been recommended that if zoos and aquariums want to make "a serious contribution" towards conservation efforts, they should allocate at least 10% of their operating income to them.84Because zoos and aquariums operate chiefly for entertainment purposes, however, it is difficult for them to devote much money to anything else.  

For example, the St. Louis Zoo spent $18 million on a new pool for its sea lions in 2012. Sea lions are not endangered, but they are one of the zoo's most popular attractions.  Meanwhile, plans to provide more space for the breeding of endangered animals and a frozen pond for walruses were shelved in favour of more parking spaces for guests and new restrooms. And while Dr. Jeffrey P. Bonner, president and chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo, insists that the zoo usually uses conservation funds for animals who have a chance of rebounding in the wild, he admitted in 2012 that they spent $20 million dollars, or 40% of the zoo's annual operating budget, to build a new polar bear exhibit.  The zoo's last polar bear died in 2009 and it is illegal to capture (or rescue) the few remaining wild ones, but Dr. Bonner hopes that in the five years it will take for the exhibit to be completed, he will be able to argue for an exemption or buy cubs from another facility.85 

As with the education argument mentioned above, conservation is a very new concept in the captive animal business, one that developed as a result of the public's growing concerns about animal welfare and the environment.  Most zoos and aquariums do not focus on protecting wild populations, nor do they take active steps to ensure the successful reintroduction of captive animals, both of primary importance; instead, they focus on captive breeding, under the pretense that captive-born animals will eventually be released into the wild.   Experts in conservation describe captive breeding as "a last resort," not a long-term solution, stating that we must focus first on preventing habitat and ecosystem destruction.86  (This is not happening, however: in British Columbia, for example, the government approved a captive breeding program for the province's critically endangered Spotted Owl, while allowing logging in the owl's natural habitat to continue.)87  Despite this, very little work has been done to establish the effect that frequent live capture has on populations of small cetaceans, and few international laws exist to protect them. The International Whaling Commission regulates the hunting of larger cetaceans, however, leading many scientists, politicians, and activists to push for additional IWC regulations for the collection of small cetaceans for the aquarium industry.  The industry, however, has actively lobbied against these proposals.88

Sea World is one of many aquariums which cite their captive-breeding programs as an example of conservation work.  None of these animals are ever released into the wild, however, which conventional conservation-based captive breeding considers a crucial step in assisting endangered populations.89,90 These breeding programs exist mostly to replace the captive animals that so frequently die in aquariums; none of these animals are released into the wild. 91  Additionally, the majority of the animals bred in aquariums, like bottlenose dolphins, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and orcas, are not endangered.  On its website, the Vancouver Aquarium states that  "breeding in captive or semi-captive settings has been identified by international conservation perhaps the only hope for a number of critically endangered dolphins and porpoises",92 but none of its resident cetaceans are "critically endangered," and after 50 years, the aquarium's breeding programs have been a failure.  The only two dolphin pregnancies resulted in stillborns.  Three orcas were born, but two died immediately and the third died after six months.  Five belugas were born, but four died--and only two of those lived longer than a year.  The only surviving captive-born cetacean at the aquarium is Qila, a beluga who was born in 1995.93  Like Sea World, the Vancouver Aquarium has never released any of its captive-bred cetaceans into the wild.

It would be difficult indeed for an aquarium to do so.  Birth rates in aquariums are typically low, and infant survival rate is poor--like orcas, bottlenose dolphins calves have a survival rate similar to that of wild calves.  (Dolphins, however, breed more readily in captivity than do orcas.)94  The birth successes of captive orcas are also surprisingly rare: of the 84 known pregnancies in captivity, 27 (32% of total pregnancies) ended in stillbirth or miscarriage, and a further 17 (20%) calves died less than 12 months after birth; only 40 (48%) calves lived more than a year, and among these whales, the median age is only 8 years.95 Considering that aquariums claim to protect their animals from the stresses and trials of life in the wild, however, this low survival rate should be as a warning sign: after all, the main cause of infant mortality in the wild is predation, a threat that does not exist in captivity.  Instead, most captive-born calves die as a result of a lack of maternal care, improper fetal development, and "abnormal aggression" from other animals.96  Like humans, young whales and dolphins learn everything from their mothers and family members, including how to hunt, avoid predators and communicate, as well as how to raise and care for offspring.  Because the industry routinely separates young animals from their mothers at a young age, either when taking them from the wild or a result of the frequent practice of trading whales and dolphins between aquariums, many captive cetaceans are ill-equipped.  Nothing that a human trainer does can prepare them for life in the wild; in fact, interaction with humans can easily be counterproductive: for example, captive dolphins have even been known to adopt and copy the sounds of their trainers' whistles.97 

Historically, attempts at reintroducing threatened species have been less than successful; Benjamin Beck, former associate director of biological programs at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C, noted that of 145 reintroduction programs carried out over the last century, only 11% achieved any degree of success in restoring animals to the wild.  Of those, most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos or aquariums.  Failed attempts were attributed to "improper behaviour" on the part of animals, who were unable to forage, avoid predators, or even interact appropriately with members of their species. 98  

Indeed, any existing captive-bred populations cannot be considered self-sustaining, and no scientific plans to conserve genetic diversity exist.   One study on the scientific benefit of cetaceans in captivity suggests that a plan preserving 90% of the genetic diversity of wild populations over 200 years would require "several thousands of animals".99   The captive orca industry has relied almost entirely on one male orca, Tilikum--infamous for being involved with the deaths of three people over the past two decades--to father 10 of the approximately 42 orcas in captivity worldwide.  He also fathered 7 additional pups, all of whom have since died. It appears that Tilikum's unusual breeding success can be attributed to the same issues that have caused him to be violent; he has high testosterone "surges".100  This limited gene pool is a recipe for an inbred population, not a plan for conservation.  

 Furthermore, research has demonstrated that when generations of animals live in captivity, natural selection takes over: heritable genetic characteristics that are favourable to captivity arise, while characteristics favourable to life in the wild are bred out.  According to Dr. Richard Frankham, of Australia's Macquarie University, "Characteristics selected for under-captive conditions are overwhelmingly disadvantageous in the natural environment."  The longer a species stays in captivity, the less chance it has of surviving in the wild.101

Aquariums suggest that the information garnered from captive populations of non-endangered animals, like bottlenose dolphins, might eventually be used to plan captive-breeding methods for endangered ones.  This does not take into account, however, the fact that different species react to captivity in very different ways.102  The Vancouver Aquarium attempted to create an exhibit of narwhals, a species that is "near-threatened" and, among marine mammals, particularly sensitive to climate change103, in 1970.  Though their close cousins, the belugas, can survive in captivity, all six narwhals died within three months of having been caught and attempts by other aquariums have been similarly unsuccessful.104,105  (A baby narwhal was also caught two years prior, in 1968, but was shot as a result of "severe rope cuts" sustained during capture.)106  And Baiji dolphins, now thought to be extinct, are cousins of bottlenose dolphins, but out of six captured for conservation purposes, only one lived for more than two-and-a-half years in captivity.107

Aquariums also maintain that observations of captive whales have allowed researchers to see behaviour they would otherwise be unable to see, but this is somewhat misleading.   In fact, study results are known to influenced by the effects of captivity.  For this reason, cetacean researchers have improved upon methods of observing wild marine mammals, minimizing the use of captive animals for behavioural studies.108 Most research done on captive cetaceans has focused on their sensory systems--their hearing, vision, and cognitive abilities, as well as the nature of echolocation signals--and researchers rely heavily upon studies of wild cetaceans in order to interpret the laboratory results of experiments involving captive ones.109 

For example, sound is the most important sense for dolphins and many cetaceans, and their complex communication skills are a frequent subject of study.110  But in captivity, many of these skills are rendered almost entirely unnecessary: sounds related to hunting are not needed, since food is provided and dead upon arrival.  The sounds that allow dolphins to keep in contact with family and other group members over long distances become unnecessary, too, as does the synchronized behaviour shared by groups in response to threats or natural stressors.   Wild dolphins also make frequent echolocation clicks to determine the topography and features of their underwater world, but because tanks are comparably small and barren, echolocation is rendered unnecessary.  Research done on the communications of cetaceans in captivity reflect these limits.  The sounds of wild cetaceans, on the other hand, vary dramatically in type, quantity, and quality.111, 112 With improving technology and an increased ability to study wild cetaceans, there seems little justification for continuing to study captive ones, who live in an entirely unnatural world. 

Mimicking the whistles of their trainers is another example of this.  Studies of one dolphin noted that her repertoire of whistles was very different after the other animal in the tank died and she was alone for two years.  Another dolphin, isolated for seven years, lost his so-called "signature whistle" and began to produce a range of whistles that appeared to be imitations of the sounds played to him during experiments.  (It has since been discovered that our concept of the signature whistle itself has been skewed by captivity and possibly manufactured by captivity--wild dolphins have a far more fluid and diverse whistle "vocabulary," which they use to communicate with other individuals in the large pods in which they live.113,114)  The authors of the experiment concluded that "this observation alerts us to the potential differences between the whistle of long-term captive animals subjected to many sounds versus those in a relatively normal acoustic environment."115


What does accreditation really mean?

Primates in small, metal enclosure.

Primates living at the CAZA-certified Assiniboine Park Zoo in Quebec. (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals)

Some facilities in Canada are certified by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  CAZA boasts that "by standardizing professional conduct and practices through a comprehensive accreditation program with a respected Code of Ethics, CAZA-AZAC member zoos and aquariums are internationally recognized for their high standards of animal care." 116  The Vancouver Aquarium is a member, as is the Greater Vancouver Zoo, in Abbotsford.  Only about 25 zoos and aquariums actually qualify for accreditation, which might sound impressive and trustworthy at first.

Closer examination reveals a conflict of interest, however. CAZA states that it is "a publicly recognized symbol signifying excellence in, and commitment to, collection management, veterinary care, ethics, physical facilities, staffing, conservation, education, safety and security, finance, and supportive bodies" a claim which suggests third-party certification and a lack of bias.117   This is misleading, however; CAZA's president, vice-president, and board of directors consists entirely of representatives from zoos and aquariums--the same zoos and aquariums that CAZA has accredited.  The Vancouver Aquarium's President, John Nightingale, was on the board of directors at least as early as 2005 and as recently as 2009.  He was also Vice-President of CAZA during 2006 and 2007 and President in 2008.118 119 Current CAZA officials include Robin Hale, chief executive director of the Toronto Zoo, Denise Prefontaine, director of the Edmonton Valley Zoo, Rachel Léger, director of the Biodome de Montreal, and Serge Lussier, game superintendent of African Lion Safari.  The board of directors also includes representatives of the Vancouver Aquarium, the Calgary Zoo, the Saskatoon Zoo, Zoo de Granby, Riverview Park and Zoo, and Zoo Sauvage de St-Félicien.120 In past years, the board has also been staffed by representatives of Marineland of Niagara Falls, Parc Aquarium du Quebec, and the Magnet Hill Zoo, among others.

Examining the individual facilities that have qualified for membership further indicates that CAZA's accreditation standards are not as trustworthy as we'd like to think.  For example, CAZA has certified the aforementioned Marineland, the only accredited aquarium in Canada other than the Vancouver Aquarium.  Marineland has been the target of widely-publicized protests for decades.  Their whales and dolphins, which are mainly wild-caught, frequently die young and sometimes disappear without explanation.121   At Marineland, seven orcas have died over the last decade; with the exception of one female who lived about 32 years, their average age at death was six.  Two more are missing and presumed dead, as the aquarium refuses to make any comment on their disappearance.  Another orca died shortly after birth.122

Marineland's record with bottlenose dolphins is even less impressive, and was once described as "certainly among the worst of other North American facilities that keep dolphins captive."123  In the four decades since the aquarium opened, 28 dolphins have disappeared just as the orcas have, and are presumed dead.   Another six were seized and released by U.S. authorities when the plane shipping them was forced to the ground during bad weather.  (Marineland imported six more dolphins from Mexico to replace them; all are missing.)124   Dr. Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist and coordinator of all marine mammal programs for the Humane Society of the United States described the Marineland dolphin show as "almost devoid of biological information" and noted that the performance itself "would not meet the minimum professional educational standards required under the (American) Marine Mammal Protection Act."  In her report, she commented that enclosures did not meet the minimum standards for size, and that rust and peeling paint were affecting water quality. Other issues were the "ragged and tattered" appearance of Duke, a bottlenose dolphin who was swimming in circles in a small tank, his eyes half shut, and a strong smell of chlorine in the air.  She also voiced her concerns about Marineland's tendency to separate mother orcas from their calves shortly after birth, despite the fact that in the wild, orca females stay with their offspring for life.  Perhaps most troubling of all was the story of Junior, a young male orca who was apparently held in virtual isolation in a warehouse for four years while Marineland searched for a buyer for him.  With no outside air or access to sunlight, lethargic and "reportedly psychotic," he died in 1994 at the age of 13. 125, 126 Learn more about Marineland's history at the Marineland Animal Defense homepage.

Flamingos living in mall.

Flamingos living in a glass case at the West Edmonton Mall, a CAZA-accredited facility. (Photo: Jo-Anne Arthur, We Animals)

Another CAZA-accredited facility is actually run by the West Edmonton Mall.  A number of animals, including sea lions, flamingos, and penguins, live inside the mall, surrounded by stores and shoppers.  Like Marineland, it has been a source of controversy for years, beginning in 1985 when two pairs of young dolphins were captured off the coast of Florida and sold to the mall for a newly-installed marine exhibit.  Before the dolphins even arrived, protests began, citing concerns about mall noise and a lack of space.  Despite this, the four dolphins lived in a chlorinated concrete tank and performed for shoppers four times daily.   By 2003, three of them were dead: Maria, as a result of ingesting coins and other foreign objects that shoppers threw into their tank; Mavis, who simply stopped eating after the death of her third calf; and Gary, from blood poisoning.  All were about 20 years old, decades shy of the expected lifespan of wild dolphins.  Also deceased were all five calves born to the females during this period.127,128 

Sea lion performing at the West Edmonton Mall.

The West Edmonton Mall's three sea lions live next to a cinnamon bun kiosk, a Lenscrafters, and the food court. (Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals, 2009)

The continued confinement of Howard, the last living dolphin, was an additional source of protest and controversy; at one point, the mall was receiving 500 e-mails a day calling for him to be freed.  Mall officials eventually announced plans to transfer him to a different facility, then put the plans on hold as a result of his "frail health."  Despite this, Howard continued to be used in performances until May 2004, when he was "secretly transferred" to another facility in Florida.129,130  He died of a brain hemorrhage one year later.131,132   That year, the mall decided to replace Howard with a sea lion exhibit.  Four sea lions were transferred from a safari park in Scotland, but one, a young female named Roxy, died en route.  Her cause of death was never determined.133

In 2008, the West Edmonton Mall announced a new interactive exhibit which allows shoppers to put on wetsuits and swim with the three living sea lions for $150.  The program, which mall officials have described as a "rebranding" strategy to bring different entertainment into the mall, has been a source of concern due to a lack of appropriate provincial laws that protect both sea lions and swimmers.134  Zoos in Alberta are required to get approval for interactive exhibits from the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, but only native or protected species are included under this mandate, which means that the sea lions are entirely exempt.135  

41 stingrays died as a result of too little oxygen

At the CAZA-certified Calgary Zoo, 41 stingrays died over a matter of days due to a lack of dissolved oxygen in their tank.

The Calgary Zoo, another CAZA-accredited facility, is the second largest zoo in Canada and has an infamously dismal track record when it comes to caring for its animals.  In a 2009 article in the Globe and Mail, prominent U.S. biologist Marc Bekoff voiced his concerns about the zoo, saying, "There are animals dying left and right."136  In 2009 alone, an exotic goat accidentally hanged himself when he became tangled in a rope and fell off a log 137, a capybara was crushed and killed by a hydraulic door when an employee "did not follow protocols" 138, and Barika, a western lowland gorilla, was seen pointing a knife at a fellow cagemate after a zookeeper left it in her enclosure.139  In 2008, a baby elephant died from a virus 140 and 41 stingrays died due to a lack of dissolved oxygen in the "touch tank" they were confined to.  Zoo president Clement Lanthier responded to the resulting controversy by saying, "I think we need to be very frank here. Our main expertise is not in fish here at the Calgary Zoo."141,142 In 2007, four western lowland gorillas died 143, as well as a hippo.144

In 2009, increasing pressure caused CAZA and AZA to conduct a new review of the controversial zoo.145   After an investigation, however, CAZA director Bill Peters said, “Yes, there has been a series of unfortunate incidents and they've been looked at and reports have been done in the various occurrences, but is there a pattern? No, I don't think there's a pattern there."146 The zoo did not lose its accreditation, even after their audit revealed that deaths were even more widespread than the public had originally believed.  Two spider monkeys had also died, one crushed by a hydraulic door, and one as a result of frostbite.  Four mule deer were killed when handlers attempted to catch them for veterinary check-ups, and four sugargliders were crushed, either underfoot or by a door.  Multiple bats died after hitting the piano wire that was strung across their exhibit, and woodland caribou and muskox were repeatedlly injured or killed, either because of "exhibit design or interspecies aggression".147  

Lucy the elephant alone in a small barn.

Lucy has lived at the CAZA-certified Edmonton Valley Zoo since 1977, mostly alone.  She suffers a myriad of health problems as a result of her confinement. (Photo: Zoocheck) 

Another CAZA-certified zoo is the Edmonton Valley Zoo, in Alberta.   Living at this city-run zoo is Lucy, one of the few elephants living alone in a North American zoo.  An Asian Elephant who was taken from Sri Lanka as a baby in 1977, Lucy has been deprived for decades of the social life that is so important to her species, and especially to female elephants.  In nature, elephants live in extensive social networks in immense, complex ecosystems, travelling up to 35 miles a day.148, 149  In captivity, they typically do poorly, nor do they breed well or live long. 150 The tropical climate of Lucy's original home is very different from the cold weather of Alberta, so she is confined to her barren, cement-floored elephant barn about 76% of the time.  It is a space approximately 200,000 times smaller than the smallest "home range" of wild elephants; even her outdoor enclosure is about 60,000 times smaller than it would be in nature.151  Like other captive elephants, Lucy suffers a myriad of medical issues as a result of her confinement.  Veterinarians have confirmed that she has arthritis and frequent foot infections, both of which are common causes of death for captive elephants.  According to zoo records, these problems have existed for decades, all of them created and compounded by the lack of space, the cold, damp weather, and the hard surfaces on which she stands.  (Even her outdoor enclosure consists of hard, packed dirt, with a minimum of vegetation.)  Lucy is also grossly obese, weighing thousands of pounds more than a wild elephant of her age, and suffers respiratory problems and colic.152 

Pelicans in a barren zoo enclosure.

Pelicans in their enclosure at the CAZA-certified Edmonton Valley Zoo. (Photo: Joanne McArthur, We Animals)

Activists have been pushing for years to have Lucy moved to an elephant sanctuary, but the city of Edmonton has refused to allow them to bring the case to court.  Alberta's Chief Justice Catherine Fraser, however, came out against the decision, describing the evidence put forward by animal rights groups as "[packing] a powerful punch... What it reveals is a disturbing image of the magnitude, gravity and persistence of Lucy's ongoing health problems and the severity of the suffering she continues to endure from the conditions in which she has been confined. And it also exposes who is responsible for those conditions and that suffering."153

The Greater Vancouver Zoo is also a member of CAZA, despite having been a target of concern for the BC SPCA and the Vancouver Humane Society for years.  A major black mark on the zoo came in the form of Tina, an elephant who had lived there since 1972.  As early as the late 1980s, Tina was diagnosed as being overweight and suffering from debilitating foot problems as a result of the small enclosure in which she was kept, but it wasn't until 2003, after years of campaigning on the part of animal rights activists, that she was moved to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.  At the sanctuary her foot troubles slowly began to improve, and then, after almost a year, she died.  She was 34, long before the typical elephant lifespan of 70 years.154

Giraffe at Greater Vancouver Zoo, 2008

A giraffe at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, 2008. Three died there in one year. (Photo: Zoocheck)

The Greater Vancouver Zoo's track record is even worse when it comes to hippopotamuses.  In 1983, two hippos were given access to a frozen outdoor pond incapable of supporting their immense weight; both animals fell through the ice and drowned.  Gertrude and Harvey, two more hippos, died at the zoo in 2004 and 2005 as a result of kidney failure and intestinal problems, both at only half the lifespan of the average captive hippopotamus.  Six months later, the zoo replaced the pair with a baby hippo named Hazina, and in 2006, it was revealed that for almost two years, she had been living alone in a windowless "temporary" shed with concrete flooring and a pool so shallow that she could not even float in it.  Hippos require water to buoy their immense weight and relieve pressure on their joints.  Formal charges were laid against the zoo as a result, the first time a major Canadian zoo had been charged with animal mistreatment.155  (The incident caused the zoo to lose its CAZA certification briefly; it was reinstated in 2008.)  A indoor-outdoor hippopotamus exhibit was completed six months later, and the charges were dropped when the crown counsel decided that it was "no longer in the public interest" to continue the investigation.  The BC SPCA was disappointed, stating that the charges were justified based on Hazina's long-term abuse. 156

In early 2009, four zebras at the Greater Vancouver Zoo died suddenly after two Cape Buffalo were introduced to their enclosure, probably as a result of extertional myopathy, a condition in prey animals brought on by extreme stress.  Cape Buffalo are large and dangerous animals, and though the two species coexist in the wild, putting them in an enclosed space was "a sign of incompetence on the zoo's part."  The zoo did not make the incident public, choosing instead to replace the dead animals with two new zebras.157  The zoo has also had particular trouble keeping their giraffes alive; in 2006, an infant female died eight days after being born. In 2011, two more died mysteriously: Amryn, four years old, and his mother, Eleah, who was twenty-three, were each found dead in their barn less than one week apart.158  The cause of death has not been determined, though the Vancouver Humane Society noted that as African animals, giraffes are particularly susceptible to cold weather and have been known to die as a result of exposure in the past.159 Jafari, Eleah's mate and Amryn's father, was found dead in his enclosure less than a year later.  He was twelve years old and, according to zoo staff, "completely healthy."160 The average lifespan of a captive giraffe is twenty-eight.

Last updated May 2014

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