RIP Liya: Polar bear mother dies during heat wave at Sea World, Australia, age 19.


captive dolphin welfare

Are Captive Dolphins Happy?

 In the 1960s, the concept of animal welfare first appeared on the public agenda once intensive factory farming conditions began to emerge and intercept water-cooler conversations. Revelations and exposés of the poor conditions these short-lived animals endured – including those animals in laboratories – inspired animal liberation literature, prompted formal investigations into the cruelty allegations, and encouraged formal research into attempting to clarify and define what “animal welfare” meant to both the humans and animals alike. Over the years various categories of definitions of welfare have been proposed, all involving (more or less) health, living conditions, and ‘feelings’ – depending on the motive and influence of the research being conducted. 

However, not all animals were included on the animal cruelty radar of the 1960s animal liberation front. Whilst the public were becoming outraged over the treatment of factory-farmed animals, the 1960s also saw a surge in popularity of ‘dolphinariums’ (marine parks basing their business model on performing dolphins) popularised by the 1990s television series “Flipper”. As such, it was not for a further three decades until the concept of “welfare” surfaced in dolphin research, coinciding with a sharp rise in swim-and-kiss the dolphin programs. 

 Undeniably, assessing welfare would be an inherently subjective task and essentially, in whatever living conditions these animals are subject to, humans need to be able to fundamentally strive for good and avoid bad. Striving for living conditions where purposed animals can exercise all their natural behaviours and display genuine positive emotional states should be a part of any good practice protocols... But if a factory-farm animal, a lab-rat, a monkey in a cage or a dolphin in a tank is objectively measured as being “happy”, does mean it is morally good? 




adjective: right; comparative adjective: righter; superlative adjective: rightest

- morally good, justified, or acceptable.

The history of animal welfare tells us that achieving good welfare was a result of the mere absence of animal suffering. Highlighting this archaic thinking, is the Five Domains Model – a contemporary framework widely used as a benchmark to assess animal welfare standards; focusing on measuring nutrition, environment, health, behaviour, and mental health state. This framework has been used almost exclusively for animals used for food, work and testing, and occasionally the model is voluntarily adopted by zoos e.g. Zoos South Australia has adopted the model into their Animal Welfare Charter. 

But what about dolphin welfare? The catalyst for the worldwide dolphin welfare movement involved the releases of acclaimed documentaries The Cove and Blackfish, triggering global public outcry and shining the spotlight on Taiji, Japan and SeaWorld in the USA. The media and public viciously demanded a ban on wild-dolphin hunting and stricter welfare standards for captive dolphins. Scientists also responded by diving deep into dolphin-focused studies, building upon existing marine welfare research from the 1990’s. 

In 2015 the C-Well© Assessment for bottlenose dolphins was developed – the one of the first comprehensive and cognitive bias studies focusing on dolphins in captivity – designed to set the industry standard benchmark for dolphin welfare. Then, with the aim of establishing effective conservation protocols for cetaceans, in 2016 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) proposed that they adopted the Five Domains Model also, with special tailoring to adapt to (wild) cetacean needs. It appears that finally, dolphins are beginning to have a clearer voice in the scientific community. 


So, now we see dolphin welfare also considered. Not unlike considering the welfare of other animals used by humans, in farms, in labs, in circuses, on racetracks, in backyards, in cages, and in tanks  what has this actually achieved if their use is to continue? Their suffering goes on,  in all corners of the world… Sure, the Five Domains Animal Welfare Model is a step in the right direction, but it is certainly not the solution. If by measuring happiness is to simply measure the reduction of suffering, we can simply show compassion by trying to eliminate the suffering altogether. 

Captive Dolphins as Commodities in Australia

Meanwhile in Australia, back in 1985 the Australian Government enlisted a Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare to write a comprehensive report on dolphins and whales in captivity. The intent of the report was to target the marine park facilities who were housing dolphins and using them for entertainment purposes. Several dolphin welfare recommendations were proposed by the committee, essentially postulating that it is profoundly unacceptable to capture and house dolphins and use them as commodities for human entertainment. Following these recommendations, all but two dolphinariums in Australia ceased operation. Those remaining are the well-known Sea World Australia on the Gold Coast, QLD and Dolphin Marine Magic in Coffs Harbour, NSW.

Through offering dolphin-human interaction ‘experiences’ and elaborate performances to large crowds, Sea World and Dolphin Marine Magic are in direct violation of the Australian Governments 1985 Senate Committee on Animal Welfare’s recommendations. Furthermore, under the guise of “rescuing” wild dolphins these parks can jump through legal hoops and continue with their breeding programs to ensure the next generation of performers are lined up for the same fate (known as the rescue-breed-release tactic). It’s interesting to note here, that Sea World heavily promotes its rescue programs to gain public support, although only about 0.07% of their profits go towards these initiatives and helping wild animals. 

It is also important to understand that there is an enormous difference between the life of a dolphin in the wild, and the life of a dolphin in captivity. For example, in the wild, a dolphin can swim up to 65kms a day, playing and hunting amongst their complex social networks. Whilst in captivity, a dolphin is confined to a small, sterile and artificial space with few other dolphins and fed only at the will of their trainers during training or performances. Put plainly, the life of a dolphin in a pool is wholly unnatural compared to the infinite freedom of the ocean.

Dolphins are not commodities, they are individuals. As a species commonly sighted on coastal shorelines, dolphins are adored and extremely popular in Australia and it is not necessary to pay to see them up close in unnatural environments. It is understandable that having the opportunity to closely interact with these animals can be intriguing and exciting – but what might the dolphin be thinking? Attending a dolphin show or engaging in a meet-the-dolphin experience at the expense of compromised ‘welfare’ isn’t giving these intelligent, sentient animals the respect they deserve. 

It is time Australia respects our beloved dolphins. In practice, this takes two simple steps:

  1. Say no to the show - Stop financially supporting Sea World or Dolphin Marine Magic 
  2. Be heard- Campaign for the rehabilitation of the wild-born dolphins back to the ocean and the release of captive-born dolphins into an ocean-pen 

We can achieve true dolphin welfare by simply giving them their freedom.

“A dolphin's smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they're always happy.”

- Ric O’Barry