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Ten Fast Facts about Captive Orcas and Dolphins

By Linda Wolfe, Program Associate

  1. Both orcas (commonly known as killer whales) and dolphins are members of the dolphin family Delphinidae, of which orcas are the largest members. There are more than 500 orcas, dolphins and other members of the dolphin family held in captivity in the United States.
  2. Before the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, roughly 1,133 dolphins had been captured in the U.S. waters. From 1964 to 1989, 138 orcas were captured worldwide for aquariums. While the MMPA makes it more difficult to capture marine mammals from the wild, aquariums still can apply for permits or import animals caught in other countries.
  3. Despite their claim, marine parks do not help to conserve marine mammals through their breeding programs. The marine mammals most commonly bred in captivity are not considered threatened or endangered.
  4. Aquariums have no intention of returning captive breed animals to the wild. In fact, they frequently argue that the success of such endeavors would be unlikely and vehemently oppose release efforts.
  5. The results of studies conducted in captivity may not be adequately extrapolated to wild animals for several reasons. Captive marine mammals live in small, sterile enclosures and are deprived of their natural activity level, social groups and interactions with their natural environment, and many captive marine mammals develop stereotypic behavior and/or aggression not known to occur in the wild. What we have learned from captive research is that orcas and dolphins are more intelligent than previously imagined, providing more evidence that a life in captivity is inhumane.
  6. Current research shows that there is no significant difference between the longevity of captive and wild orcas/dolphins. Despite the controlled environment, routine veterinary care and medications including anti-depressants, captive dolphins and orcas do not outlive their wild counterparts.
  7. Forcing orcas and dolphins to live in groups dictated by humans disrupts the dynamics of the natural hierarchy, which in turn upsets their natural behavior.
  8. Surveys show that most people prefer to see marine mammals displaying natural behaviors rather than performing “tricks and stunts.”
  9. A public display of wild animals is not necessary to engage people. Many wild animals, including several whale species, enjoy a high degree of public interest and concern despite never being maintained in captivity for public display.
  10. Keeping wild animals in captivity for human amusement is inherently cruel, as it deprives them of the ability to freely engage in instinctual behaviors in their natural environment.

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