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Dolphin Slams into Wall at Ocean Park Hong Kong: Is this Normal?

Video of a dolphin slamming into a concrete wall circulated around the Internet today.  Although a statement by Ocean Park Hong Kong on its Facebook page indicated that this was ‘normal’ and frequent behavior for the 14-year old female dolphin named Pinky, we have cause for concern for such incidents and understand why the public was so concerned when the footage spread.

Although it is difficult to discern exactly what is being portrayed in the video, what we can gather from the translation and photo is that a dolphin rammed herself into a wall at the facility.  Although I would like to say this is a rare occurrence, it is not– unfortunately these types of incidents are all too common.  Confinement in captivity is an extremely unnatural and stressful condition for dolphins, and the consequences of this confinement manifests itself in behavior that can be detrimental to the health and welfare of these animals.  Although Pinky did not die, or reportedly injure herself this time, this behavior is far from normal.  The only conclusion that we can come to, as acknowledged by the article, is that we have learned enough about these sentient and self-aware individuals to know they should no longer be held in captivity. It is unethical and abhorrent to do so in light of the alternatives available to learn about and enjoy these animals in their natural environment, and considering the inhumane methods required to capture, transport and maintain them in captivity. Captivity is not educational, it is cruel.

If you look at the causes of death and illness in captive dolphins, you will see the majority of deaths are caused by stress-related ailments:  pneumonia, septicemia, aneurysms, ingestion of foreign objects, cardiac arrest and shock, and a host of other ailments.  Beyond these chronic conditions and causes of death in captive dolphins, other causes of injury and death, similar to this incident at Ocean Park Hong Kong include dolphins colliding in mid-air during performances and swim-with-dolphin programs (Sea World Orlando Dolphin Discovery); dolphins jumping out of their tanks onto concrete; and dolphins (and killer whales) ramming themselves against their tank resulting in injury or death. Just a few specific examples of these unacceptable consequences of captivity are provided below:

* At Miami Seaquarium, USA, August 2000, “Pearl”, a female bottlenose dolphin, reportedly died after swallowing a plastic cup. The federally-maintained Marine Mammal Inventory Reports (MMIR) reveal ‘ingestion of foreign objects’ as a common cause of death;

*Harley, a 7-month old calf at the Minnesota zoo jumped out of his tank in 2006 and died shortly thereafter; 

* A recent case of a false killer whale jumping out of a tank in Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in July 2010 and a bottlenose dolphin that did the same thing in July 2010 at Marineland, Florida (in fact, the MMIR lists this as the cause of death for more than several dolphins).  

* Nami (wild-captured orca from Taiji) recently died with her stomach full of stones (and something similar happened with a dolphin in South Africa several years ago);

* A dolphin gave birth while performing (in Vietnam). And the list goes on and on and on.

The mental, emotional and physical stress that a captive whale or dolphin suffers can weaken their immune system and make them prone to disease. Even though captive whales and dolphins are kept in an environment free of predators, pollution and other threats, they die young. The death rate for infant whales and dolphins is also much higher in captivity. Captive whales and dolphins have been trained to perform tricks, day after day, for food as a reward instead of behaving naturally. When not performing, they are often kept in holding tanks smaller than show pools. Confining animals together that can result in stress and aggression with no possible escape.

Furthermore, the wild capture of whales and dolphins is brutal. Entire pods are targeted and most are killed or injured. Only the young and fit are taken. These are the future generations for these already vulnerable wild populations and their loss has a hugely negative impact on group dynamics. We have no right to put these amazing creatures in captivity. Captive whale and dolphin shows are neither education, nor conservation; such disturbing behaviour is a byproduct of stress and confinement and is common among dolphins displayed in captive facilities. Understanding the individuality and social, biological and psychological requirements of these animals supports their right to freedom from capture, confinement and harm.  We cannot read the minds of these animals, but we know enough to validate their emotions, ability to suffer (sentience), their needs and their right to a life free from pain, stress and manipulation for our entertainment.