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How Captivity Affects Marine Animals

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Marine mammal parks and aquarium collections have their detractors as well as their supporters. Some say they do good work, others say they exploit the animals for financial gain. What do the animals think? Scientists weigh in.

Communication Issues

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Since whales and dolphins use sonar to communicate with one another, they are essentially rendered deaf and dumb when placed in a concrete water tank. The sonar bounces off the cement tanks, confusing and irritating the animals. Sonar is dolphins' most effective tool for learning about the world around them. Thwarting their ability to use this sonar is tantamount to blinding the animal. In the wild, dolphins use their echolocation to chase live prey. In captivity, they are fed dead fish because they cannot use their powers of echolocation to chase live fish.

Changing Behaviors

The captivity of orcas and dolphins causes desperation because their basic instincts are obstructed, obviating millions of years of ingrained behavior. For example, in the wild, mother dolphins and their calves are extremely close. Dolphin mothers are among the most maternal in the animal kingdom. In the wild, calves are raised by humans who don't use the calves' natural instincts to help them survive. They teach them unnatural tricks. Chemically treated water substitutes for seawater, and they are severely limited by the confines of the tank. In the wild, dolphins forage, play and explore a boundless ocean. In captivity, they can swim languidly around a tiny, artificial habitat. For such highly intelligent and social creatures this goes against their nature.

Other Marine Animals

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Some aquariums don't display marine mammals, only fish. These fish are also highly stressed out when taken from their natural environment and placed in an aquarium, regardless of the size of the tank. When compared to an entire ocean, tank size becomes irrelevant. Dr. Culum Brown of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology reported in a 2004 study that fish are capable of multitasking. The results of an earlier study revealed fish are smarter than assumed. They have social orders and relationships in the wild that can never be replicated in an aquarium. Fish have been observed using tools, building homes and living in a symbiotic relationship with other species, a diversity not found in aquariums. Their behaviors in aquariums differ from that of the wild since the aquarium is not actually "home."

Education, Rescue and Recovery

David Hitzig, Director of Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in South Florida, knows about marine animals in captivity. During an interview, he stated that the larger, well-funded marine mammal parks do engage in rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine mammals in trouble. They regularly dispatch marine veterinarians and biologists to scenes of whale, manatee and dolphin strandings to lend their expertise. They are frequently able to save the lives of these animals in trouble. "They do, however, keep some for their own collections, and whether that is because the animal is not a candidate for release due to a medical issue or not is subjective," Hitzig said.